This past summer, I went on a study abroad trip to Portugal. Prior to my travels, I had very limited knowledge of the country. I could not recite a list of its famous people, nor could I produce the names of its top tourist attractions. I couldn’t talk about its food, its citizens or its government. And, most tragically, I knew nothing about its past. However, two months of studying Portugal’s art, literature, and culture changed everything, opening its history before my eyes like the pages of a storybook.
The humanities include many disciplines that study the preservation of history through the creation of ideas and artifacts. Words etched into paper. Paint plastered onto murals. Statues carved through stone. Each is the effort of a mortal body hoping to construct an immortal legacy, thousands of stories told through millions of perspectives. Each day during my study abroad, I discovered more of Portugal’s fascinating and complex history by exploring its cities and exposing myself to various aspects of its culture including its architecture, music and traditions.
Prosperity and Poverty in Portuguese Architecture
On my first day in Lisbon, I stepped into a tall stone cathedral called A Igreja de São Roque and paused as my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting (“São Roque Church and Museum, Lisbon”). Slowly, the exquisite ornamentation of the chapels that lined both sides of the nave came into focus. The first room housed gold vines twisting around gold angels who were holding up gold pillars. Everything was gold except for the pale-faced Virgin Mary standing on a pedestal wearing a crown and holding tight to Baby Jesus.
Slowly, as if in a trance, I walked down each side of the aisle and marveled at the beauty of the architecture. I also pondered at the expenses required to construct an entire church adorned almost completely in this precious metal. On that very first day in Portugal, I was already beginning to develop my own assumptions about its history. My visit to such a magnificent church led me to believe that the nation of Portugal was accustomed to great wealth and prosperity.
However, near the end of my study abroad, I visited a museum called Museu do Aljube-Resistência e Liberdade. The thick stone walls of its interior deprived the building of warmth or natural lighting, creating a somber ambience. As our tour guide led us through narrow doorways and up three flights of stairs, I felt like I was stepping one hundred years back in time. Black and white photos lined the walls, narrating a gloomy era of Portugal’s history. The words and images were of poverty and oppression.
Here, I learned about the 40-year regime of an unrelenting and power-hungry dictator named Salazar (Gelfert, et. al). I listened to audio recordings of how his secret police tortured members of the resistance in hopes of extracting information. I walked into the suffocating cells that housed hundreds of prisoners. I read startling statistics about high illiteracy rates and nationwide poverty. As I entered each room of the museum, I was being awakened to a deeper understanding of Portugal’s story.
Reflecting upon that day in the museum, I have realized that the only information we have from the past is that which has been carefully preserved. History is created by those who are willing to tell its stories. These historians are entrusted with tremendous power to control humankind’s perception of the past and manipulate the future. By entering one new building, I quickly learned that inky blotches of deprivation stained the white pages of Portugal’s prosperity. In forming a deeper and more accurate perception of the history of Portugal, I was able to learn valuable lessons about the consequences of totalitarianism and censorship and the importance of bravery and perseverance in times of difficulty.
City Life and Country Living in Portuguese Music
One warm evening, right as the sun was setting behind the Tagus River, I strolled across one of Lisbon’s beautiful parks on my way to attend a musical performance in an underground venue. Couples lounged on metal benches tucked underneath vine-covered canopies, oblivious that a concert was about to take place below them. At the other end of the park, I saw a lady in a black dress standing by a stone stairwell that descended into the ground. She greeted me warmly and led me down the staircase and into a dim cavern. Upon noticing its stone arches and vaulted ceilings, I realized it was a cistern once used for storing water. At that moment, there were rows of chairs facing a brightly lit stage.
After everyone was seated, a man in a black suit with embroidered flowers entered the room to a burst of applause. He was followed by two men with guitars who immediately started sliding their fingers across the strings, producing two harmonious melodies. For the next hour, the man sang fado, a style of music that is unique to Portugal (Portugal). His words told stories of love and heartbreak, of family ties and beautiful countrysides. His songs conveyed a deep sense of pride that he had for his home and his country. I saw Portugal beyond its metropolis and into its small villages. His music told me a new story that further transformed my understanding of Portuguese history.
The mere fact that people live in the same country does not mean they share the same history. In my journey to uncover Portugal’s past, it was vital that I encountered perspectives from people of different social classes and walks of life. Through the fado performance, I was able to experience the lives of Portuguese commoners that had been concealed during my visits to Portugal’s most iconic cathedrals and palaces.
Bullfighting and Soccer Traditions
One night, we had tickets to watch a bullfight, which took place at the famous bullfighting arena right across from my student residence. While getting ready in my apartment, I could already hear rhythmic chanting coming from the direction of the arena and assumed that it was a result of the fans lining up for the event. As we left our apartment, however, I saw protestors crowded into an enclosed area on the other side of the square. Their signs and chants conveyed their adamant disapproval of the bull’s maltreatment and a desire for the termination of bullfighting.
Inside the arena, I was welcomed by new sounds of brass and percussion from the city band and enthusiastic cheers from the crowd. The stark contrast between the two scenes impressed me deeply. After that night, I began to notice billboards that called for the end of animal abuse and others that advertised the famous bullfights. I researched political parties and discovered that their stance on this controversial issue was prominent in many of their agendas (Diéguez). These findings led me to understand that Portugal’s citizens are struggling to find the equilibrium between the nostalgia of ancient tradition and the philosophies of a modern world.
Bullfighting was not the only controversial sporting event that I encountered during my time in Lisbon. One Saturday afternoon, I boarded a train after spending the morning at one of Portugal’s beautiful white sand beaches. The inside of the train was filled with so many people wearing green that I felt as if I had entered a thick forest. The reason for the unusual quantity of green was soon made known to me by a middle-aged lady who sat next to me on the train. She introduced herself as Elisabeth, the biggest Sporting fan on the planet–Sporting being the name of a soccer team in Lisbon that had a game scheduled for that night. She quickly proved her point by showing me her green hat, mask, shirt and sweatshirt, each emblazoned with the Sporting team logo.
Elisabeth then informed me that in Lisbon, there are two main soccer teams: Sporting and Benfica (Rhoden). Elisabeth explained that the rivalry between them runs so deep that it isn’t safe to travel alone while wearing their uniforms on game days for fear of being attacked by fans from the other team. A man sitting near us on the train confirmed her statement by adding his own experiences of persecution at the hands of their opponents. I was astounded to realize that a generally cordial population could become so polarized by a sporting event that they would initiate acts of violence. It became even more clear to me that the Portuguese take great pride in their traditions and are willing to defend their allegiances at all costs.
Through these and countless other experiences, I had discovered Portugal through several different lenses. I had seen its ornately displayed sculptures that were placed in town centers like ornaments on a bright tree to be admired by all. I had also seen the dilapidated war-torn structures that were hidden in corners like tattered teddy bears stuffed into boxes to be slowly forgotten. The contrasting perspectives wove together in my mind, forming my own personal version, interpretation, and understanding of Portugal’s history.
I’ve often pondered on the definition of history. Is it a composition of indisputable facts or a compilation of malleable memories? My experiences in Portugal helped me realize that history is part fact and part memory, and is, in itself, unmeasurable. No living being has or ever will discover its depths. It is impossible to hear every story or infiltrate each ancient society. There is still so much that I do not know about Portugal; I have just grazed the tip of that iceberg.
Nevertheless, due to my study of Portugal’s abundant art and elaborate culture, my understanding of its history has evolved beyond what I ever imagined possible. Architecture showed me its wealth. Literature showed me its struggles. Cultural events showed me its traditions. Music showed me its people. Through my encounters with the complexities of Portuguese society, I am aware more than ever of the importance of the humanities. Just as history must be recorded in order to exist, it must be studied in order to significantly impact our lives.
This post was written by Jessica Clark, a Humanities Center student fellow.
“São Roque Church and Museum, Lisbon – Visitor’s Guide.” Lisbon Portugal Tourism Guide, https://www.lisbonportugaltourism.com/guide/igreja-de-sao-roque-church.html.
Gelfert, Lea, Hauschulz, Julianne, and Wegener, Maximillian “The Salazar Dictatorship Still Haunting Portugal.” Peace Boat, 15 Jan. 2021, https://peaceboat.org/english/news/tuebingen-in-portugal.
Portugal, Joe. “Fado – the Soul of Portuguese Music: Portugal.com.” Portugal Online, Portugal Online, 18 Mar. 2022, https://portugalonline.com/portuguese-music/fado-soul-portuguese-music.
Diéguez , Francisco Javier. “An Evaluation of Portuguese Societal Opinion towards the Practice of Bullfighting.” Animals | 2020 – Browse Issues, MDPI, 7 Nov. 2020, https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/10.
Roden, Lee. “When Sporting Meet Benfica, Historical Rivalry Leads to New Tensions.” ESPN, ESPN Internet Ventures, 26 Mar. 2015, https://www.espn.com/soccer/blog/espn-fc-united/68/post/2353097/when-sporting-meet-benficahistorical-rivalry-leads-to-new-tensions.
Photocredit: heading photo from Pixaby, in-text photos by the author.