Category Archives: Portugal

The First Eurovision Song Contest

Four years earlier the Great Smog of 1952 darkened the streets of London and killed approximately four thousand people in the short time of four days and a further eight thousand died from its effects in the following weeks and months.  In 1956 the Clean Air Act introduced smokeless zones in the capital.

Consequently, reduced sulphur dioxide levels made the intense and persistent London smog a thing of the past. It was after this the great clean-up of London began and buildings recovered their original stone façades which, during two centuries, had gradually blackened.

By all accounts the summer of 1956 was truly abysmal: rain, hail, lightning, floods, gales and miserable cold. It was the wettest July in London since records began, and August was one of the coldest and wettest on record across Britain, as barrages of depressions swept the country.  But there was a silver lining to this cloud and September was such an improvement it was warmer than August, a very rare occurrence, and the rest of autumn turned into a glorious Indian summer.

In the 1950s, as Europe recovered after the Second-World-War, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) based in Switzerland set up a committee to examine ways of bringing together the countries of the EBU around a ‘light entertainment programme’.

European Union Flags

What was needed was something to cheer everyone up.  At a committee meeting held in Monaco in January 1955, director general of Swiss television and committee chairman Marcel Bezençon conceived the idea of an international song contest where countries would participate in one television programme to be transmitted simultaneously to all countries of the union. The competition was based upon the existing Sanremo Music Festival held in Italy, and was also seen as a technological experiment in live television as in those days it was a very ambitious project to join many countries together in a wide-area international network.

The concept, then known as “Eurovision Grand Prix”, was approved by the EBU General Assembly in at a meeting held in Rome on 19th October 1955 and it was decided that the first contest would take place in spring 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland.

It was held on 24th May 1956. Seven countries participated, each submitting two songs, for a total of fourteen. This was the only Contest in which more than one song per country was performed as since 1957 all Contests have allowed one entry per country. The 1956 Contest was won by the host nation with a song called ‘Refrain’ sung by Lys Assia.

The United Kingdom first participated at the Eurovision Song Contest in the following year. The BBC had wanted to take part in the first contest but, rather like trying to get into the Common Market, had submitted their entry to the after the deadline had passed. It hasn’t made the same mistake again and the UK has entered every year since apart from 1958, and has won the Contest a total of five times. Its first victory came in 1967 with “Puppet on a String” by Sandie Shaw.

Eurovision Greece and Spain

There have been sixty-two contests, with one winner each year except the tied 1969 contest, which had four.  Twenty-five different countries have won the contest.    The country with the highest number of wins is Ireland, with seven.  Portugal is the country with the longest history in the Contest without a win – it made its forty-fourth appearance at the 2010 Contest.  The only person to have won more than once as performer is Ireland’s Johnny Logan, who performed “What’s Another Year” in 1980 and “Hold Me Now” in 1987.

Norway is the country which holds the unfortunate distinction of having scored the most ‘nul points’ in Eurovision Song Contest history – four times in all, and that is what I call humiliating. They have also been placed last ten times, which is also a record!

For many years the annual Eurovision Song Contest was a big event in out house usually with a party where everyone would pick their favourite and would dress appropriately to support their chosen nation.  In later years no one ever picked the United Kingdom because the only thing that is certain about the competition is that being the unpopular man of Europe we are unlikely to ever win again and every year there is a ritual humiliation with a predictable low scoring result.

Jamon Iberico de Bellota

dehesa-de-extremadura -

One of the fascinating things about the world’s great food is the way they are a product of environment, geography and history combined into one mouthwatering gastronomic experience. The western provinces of Spain, which I visited on 17th November 2009, are a good example.

About eight hundred years ago, it was decreed that every village would be responsible for maintaining a mixture of grass, for grazing; cork trees, for firewood; and holm oaks, for shade, building materials and acorns.  This woodland prairie, in effect a man-made ecosystem, once covered 90% of the region and while it is now much smaller, the dehesa, as it is called, still provides one of the world’s greatest hams: jamon iberico de bellota.

Bellota means ‘acorn’, and it so happens that the native black-hoofed pigs are remarkably fond of the vast piles of nuts that fall each autumn from the branches of the holm oaks.  At this time of year, the cattle and sheep are shut away, and the pigs are turned loose to roam, snuffle and above all eat to their heart’s content. After two months of devouring up to ten kilograms of acorns a day, they roughly double their body weight.  They get so fat that they have to be neutered because the females are too overweight to be able to run away from the wild boars who would otherwise come down from the mountains to shag them and in the process compromising the purity of the breed.

In winter the pigs are slaughtered and the legs cured with sea salt. Remarkably, though, the fattest animals are not yet even halfway through their journey from sty to plate. The acorns on which they have been feeding are rich in oleic acid, the same fatty acid found in olives and iberico pigs are sometimes called “four-legged olive trees”.

This in turn means that their meat can cure for far longer than ordinary hams, from eighteen months to two years or even more and during this time, a kind of reverse fattening process happens and the leg loses up to half its original weight, but acquires a depth of flavour unmatched by any other ham.

It is sold with its black hoof still attached, as an indication of its origins, it is kept on a special stand and carved into the thinnest of slices, to be served with a couple of eggs for breakfast, as evening tapas with a glass of salty fino sherry, or as a light lunch with crusty country bread and a little manchego cheese. The colour is a deep ruby red, the texture is dense and chewy quite unlike a silky, sticky slice of, say, prosciutto di Parma and the taste is characterised by a rich, nutty sweetness that gives way to a lingering finish, like old wine.

Not all jamon is de bellota however and there are various grades and the hams are labeled according to the pigs’ diet.

Only the finest jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de bellota and this ham is from the free-range pigs that roam the oak forests along the border between Spain and Portugal, and eat only acorns during this lastfew weeks of their lives.  It is also known as Jamón Iberico de Montanera and the ham is cured for a minimum of three years.  The next grade of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de recebo, which is from pigs that are pastured and fed a combination of acorns and grain.  The third type of jamón ibérico is called jamón ibérico de cebo, or simply, jamón ibérico, which is  ham is from pigs that are fed only grain and is cured for twenty-four months.

Arribes del Douro y Águeda National Park

In the morning there was a huge improvement in the weather and as we sat by ourselves in the breakfast room sunlight flooded in through the large windows so we finished quickly so that we could start our drive north towards the glacial lakes of the Zamora Province.

To begin with we took a long straight road from Ciudad Rodrigo towards the town of Lumbrales and we scanned the sky nervously as it changed frequently from clear blue to patchy cloud to overcast and back again.  Once through the unremarkable little town we entered the Arribes del Douro y Águeda National Park and although the road was straight we were climbing steadily all of the time and eventually we found ourselves in an elevated position above the clouds and that is the first time I can remember doing that since I went to the top of Mount Teide in 1989 on the island of Tenerife.

Eventually we arrived in the border town of La Fregenada and then the road descended quickly and steeply through a succession of hairpin bends down towards the Douro and the border with Portugal.  The scenery was dramatic as we clung to the side of the mountain and dropped into the bottom of the narrow river valley and once at the bottom crossed the Águeda into Portugal at the same place as it flowed into the Douro.

After driving through the Portuguese town of Barca de Alva and turned north to follow the river on the edge of the National Park.  The sun was shining now and the river looked splendid as it reflected the golden yellow of the last of the leaves clinging to the trees and we followed a twisting road for a few kilometres stopping every so often to admire the views.  For one hundred and twelve kilometres the river forms part of the national border between Spain and Portugal and is a region of steeply sloping mountains and narrow canyons making it an historical barrier for invasions and a linguistic dividing line between two nations.

This was a scenic and dramatic part of the journey, across the river in Spain the river valley was heavily wooded, green and verdant but on the Portuguese side it was carefully managed with fields of olive trees and vines for growing grapes for port wine.

The Douro is one of the most important rivers of the peninsula and has been regularly dammed to provide hydro electricity for both Spain and Portugal.  After about fifteen kilometres we arrived at one of these the Barragem de Saucelle and crossed over it back into Spain stopping at a tourist information centre that was glad to see someone and asking for directions along the way.  The dam forms part of the hydroelectric system known as the Duoro Drops, along with the Castro, Ricobayo, Suacelle and Villalcampo dams of Spain, and the Bemposta, Miranda and Picote dams of neighbouring Portugal.

From the river there was a long climb to the top of the ravine using long raking hairpin bends with magnificent views at every twist and then once at the top the road levelled out and we took a direct route through the National Park towards the town of Saucelle.  This was different again, with lush green fields, wild animals and dry stonewalls that made it reminiscent of the Peak District or Bodmin Moor.  After Saucelle we continued to Barruecopardo where we thankfully came across a tiny garage and bought some fuel and then struck north again through the park heading for the river and the lakes.

We drove a long time without finding either through a succession of dusty little towns that weren’t expecting visitors at this time of the year and the men on street corners watched with interest as we threaded our way along the route towards our objective.

A First Visit to Portugal

On 5th October 1793 Portugal became an independent nation and I mention this because although I have visited country several times until recently I was ashamed of my previous ignorance about the place.  I had always assumed that because of its geography that it must be a lot like Spain with a few minor differences but I had come to understand that Portugal, its people and its culture and heritage is very, very different indeed.

In the 1980’s my brother Richard worked in a car sales garage in Rugby for a man who owned a villa on the Algarve in Portugal that he used to rent out for holiday lets and, as the property was in rather a remote location, included in the deal was the use of a car for getting about.   Gordon was a businessman who didn’t like unnecessary expenditure so as the car was UK registered he had to remove it from Portugal by a certain time each year so that he didn’t have to pay local vehicle tax and insurance.

Late in 1986 he asked Richard if he would do the job for him in return for a few days rent free holiday at the villa and Richard agreed so long as he could take his pals along to help with the long drive back.  So in October we made the arrangements and one Monday in November Richard, me and our two friends Anthony and Tony flew from East Midlands Airport on a cold wet morning and arrived two hours later in the sunshine at Faro.  It was about thirty kilometres to the villa, which was in a village called Alcantarilha so we found a taxi and set off.  Unfortunately the taxi driver wasn’t fully familiar with this particular part of the Algarve and he didn’t find Richard’s hand drawn location map especially helpful either so there was some confusion about locating the destination, which he only found at about the third attempt.

This was understandable because Villa Estrella was set back off the road with an entrance that was hard to spot and after that there was a short dusty track that led up past the swimming pool and around the back of the property to the car park and the entrance.  And that was when we first saw the car that it was our responsibility to get back to the UK.  An electrifying mixture of shock and panic set in when we realised that this was a ten year old automatic Ford Escort, which, it has to be said was not altogether in the best shape and with its best performance motoring years a long way in the past.  Under the streaks of grime and dust it was a curious lime green sort of colour that was badly faded by the hot Iberian sun and with various minor dents and scratches and missing wheel trims that made the poor thing look rather sad and forlorn and quite frankly a more suitable candidate for a trip to the scrap yard than a demanding two thousand kilometre journey all the way back to the United Kingdom!

Thankfully the villa was in much better shape than the car and inside there were comfortable furnishings, a well-equipped kitchen and a sunny balcony overlooking the garden and the pool and an orange grove next door.  It was a neat whitewashed house with a red tiled roof and brown shuttered windows and set in a slightly neglected garden with wild geraniums.  We selected our rooms, changed into holiday mood, settled in and then all agreed that we needed alcohol supplies so we locked up and walked down the track and down the road a short way to the village shop that we had passed three times on the way in.

This was one of those fabulous old-fashioned shops that you used to find all over Southern Europe but sadly rarely exist anymore due to the relentless march of the supermarkets that has swept them all away.  In fact we wouldn’t have known that this was a shop at all except for a tatty blue canopy advertising Portuguese Sumol soft drinks and a reference to Mercado Braz A Taverna that was flapping over a single door that gave access to the mini-market.  Inside it was dark and gloomy and we all needed a moment or two to let the eyes adjust to the light.  The place was chaotic and everything was piled on the shelves in a completely mad way that made shopping a very random experience indeed.  Vegetables, washing powders, dairy products, died meats all thrown together in a most confusing manner that made it difficult to find the things we were looking for.

Actually we didn’t need a great deal, the two main items on our shopping list were beer and bread, in that order!  We found the beer and quickly calculated how much we would need for three days and set about assembling the purchase at the counter.  The shop keeper seemed a bit agitated by this but all she was trying to make us understand was that she would rather like the bottles back when we had finished with them because there was a deposit on them.  And then we turned to bread and spotted it on a shelf behind the old lady and by pointing and shouting, in the way that we do when we can’t understand each other, we drew her attention to it and asked for twenty mini loaves.  Now she was alarmed because this was only a small community and this would have cleaned out the entire days supply for the village and we had to seriously negotiate with her to get her to release only about half of our requested quantity.

Back at the villa it was really quite warm in the early afternoon sun and this meant that we could sample the Portuguese beer while sitting around the pool and on the sun terrace on the top of the building.  Three of us were content to sit and do very little but Richard, who is by nature a hopeless fidget, quickly got bored and soon disappeared to carry out a more thorough inspection of the car.  He was gone for quite some time and first of all he gave it a good bonnet to boot clean, which seemed to cheer it up considerably and it began to look a great deal happier.  It wasn’t all good news however because Richard advised that a quick mechanical check had revealed that one of the headlights didn’t work and there was no heater because the pipes had been disconnected and sealed off with a bit of wood, which wasn’t a repair process that you would find in a Haynes do-it-yourself workshop manual but nevertheless appeared to be relatively effective.

At this point things, it has to be said, didn’t look good for the journey home and we wondered how difficult it would be to get a flight back instead.

The Year of the Cat

In the morning there was some disappointing cloud over the hills in the distance but I was much happier when I was able to confirm that these were away to the north and today we were planning to drive south into neighbouring Portugal.

Because it was about a hundred kilometres to the border we took the direct route south down the E1 motorway, the Autopista del Atlantico.  I usually try to steer clear of the motorways because of the tolls and although this was costing a couple of euros at worryingly regular intervals it was a good decision because it was a nice easy road to drive without a great deal of traffic, probably because everyone else was doing what I usually do and avoiding the tolls and using the congested coast road instead.  And it was an attractive route as well that took us through green pine forests and spectacular rural scenery with occasional glimpses of the azure blue sea.

The coast of this green corner of the Iberian Peninsula is known as the “Costa do Marisco” which translates as the seafood coast and the ninety-thousand fishermen from the Galician coastal ports provide all of Spain with fifty per cent of its fish and that is quite a lot because, after the Portuguese, the Spanish eat more fish per head than anyone else in Europe.

The motorway took us first past Pontevedra and over a suspension bridge and past the city of Vigo, which is the largest fishing port in Spain and finally to Tui, the last city in Galicia, before crossing the River Minho into Portugal.  We had our passports ready but they weren’t required and we drove effortlessly into another European country, left the motorway and drove down the south bank of the river and on towards the coast.  After the motorway the quality of the road surface deteriorated but it was enjoyable motoring and there weren’t too many cars about.

After a short while we came to Caminha, which is an ancient fortress town overlooking the river Minho and is rich in historical and architectural importance. It didn’t look too promising down on the river but a short walk to the centre revealed a most appealing town with manorial houses and medieval defensive walls, a Gothic church, and a very attractive main square with cafés and a 15th century clock tower, which was sadly covered in tarpaulin while they carried out repairs.

Especially interesting were the houses with colourful tiled walls in bright blues, greens and yellows.  There was one of those old fashioned hardware stores that you rarely see in Europe anymore and all of the houses had metal balconies that reminded me of pictures of Latin South America and Cuba.  Portugal is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and behind the tiled walls we could see that the houses were made of tin, but it is the seventh safest country in the world and the fourth biggest consumer of wine, after France, Italy and Germany, and so we choose a table at a café to help them maintain this statistic.

The place had an easy ambiance and a lazy appeal that made us reluctant to leave but there were other places to see so we returned to the car and moved on.  But not very far because just a few kilometres away at the fishing village of Vila Praia de Ancora we stopped again and scrambled over the rocks and down to the Atlantic Ocean, which was fresh and clean and the waves rolled in and crashed over the defensive line of rocks and threw salty spray up into the air.  There were deep rock pools alive with creatures that reminded me of family holidays in Cornwall and seagulls flew overhead and kept scanning the shoreline in search of lunch.

Next stop was the busy town of Viana do Castelo, which is spread along the north bank of the Lima estuary and is famous for its handicrafts and colourful regional costumes.  I carefully parked the car and we walked through the fishermen’s quarter where the restaurants were all serving rustic helpings of fresh fish to the men who had recently come in from the sea.  In the main square were the churches and the convents and the town hall and down a side street we selected a little restaurant and ate more fish at a pavement table and watched the people of the town going about their business.

It was early afternoon and really quite hot and the town had a soporific feel that made me think of my favourite Al Stewart song ‘Year of the Cat’:

‘She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running like a watercolour in the rain, don’t bother asking for explanation she’ll just tell you she came from the Year of the Cat… By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls there’s a hidden door she leads you to, these days she says I feel my life is like a river running through, the Year of the Cat’

And then we moved on again, in land this time towards the ancient town of Ponte de Lima with a bridge that crosses the River Lima into the town that has twenty-four arches, four of which on the south bank are the original Roman construction.  It was really hot now and we walked across the bridge and watched some men optimistically trying to catch the huge carp that we could see clearly swimming in the water below and teasing the men on the bridge above.  They were big fish and had been around a long time so I don’t think they were going to get caught this afternoon.  Before we left we had a drink at a shabby roadside bar under the welcome shade of strategically placed umbrellas and then we left and returned to the motorway for the drive back to Spain.

This was a really relaxing drive as we travelled along the elevated sections of the motorway at the same height as the tops of the pine trees we admired the views all around.  Galicia has preserved dense Atlantic forests where wildlife is commonly found and is relatively unpolluted.  The untouched countryside is composed of green hills, steep cliffs and estuaries and is very different from what is traditionally imagined as typical Spanish landscape.   An important geographical feature of Galicia is the presence of many fjord-like indentations on the coast.  These are called rías and are divided into the Rías Altas, and the Rías Baixas and they are important for fishing, and make the entire coastline an important marine area. They also make for long journeys because the roads follow the coast and seem to go on endlessly.

The reason for driving to A Toxa was simply to see its only famous tourist attraction; the small twelfth century church of San Caralampio set in beautiful gardens and which is completely covered in scallop shells.  We crossed the bridge from O Grove to the island and by a combination of a stroke of luck and by driving the wrong way down a one way street we found it almost immediately.  It had been a long way to drive but it was really worth it and the church looked magnificent in the late afternoon sun and framed against a perfect blue sky with its gleaming scallop shells bleached white by the sun.

We left A Toxa and followed the coast road, which was tortuously slow drive through all of the little coastal towns on the way and culminating in a massive traffic jam in the scruffy town of Villagarcia de Arosa.   It had been a long but rewarding day and I was really pleased to reach the hotel bar for a glass of cold beer and a plate or two of appetizers before eating once again in the hotel.  The restaurant was interesting, there was a section for the coach party and a separate part for others including a table for a team of road workers who arrived late, still in their work cloths, and quickly demolished plates of specially prepared food.  We had fish again of course, a last drink and a game of cards in the hotel lounge in the company of the Spanish coach party from Alicante.

A Francesinha in Porto

On 12th May 2009 we had spent an enjoyable day in Porto in Portugal.  The day had slipped by and time was getting on  and before we returned to the metro we needed to find somewhere to eat.  I had spotted a couple of promising places earlier this morning so we walked back briskly (very briskly actually) down the dangerous road, along the riverside, over the bridge, through the Ribiera and back to the Rua de Flores where we choose a traditional little place with basic rustic furniture and plastic red check table cloths and with no other customers quickly placed our orders.

The girls weren’t taking any chances and choose familiar dishes but Micky and I decided to sample the local speciality of Porto, the Francesinha, which is a sandwich made with toasted bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat and covered with molten cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce.

Francesinha means Little French Girl in Portuguese and it is said to be an invention in the 1960s of a man called Daniel da Silva, a returned emigrant from France and Belgium who tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to Portuguese taste.  Francesinha sauce is a secret, with each house having its variation and the kitchen was momentarily thrown into a panic when someone had to frenziedly explain to us that they had run out of their special spicy sauce and would we be alright with an alternative.  We explained that this really didn’t matter to us because we had never had one before and really had no idea what to expect anyway.

This settled things down and we were eventually served the sandwiches and I have to say that I failed to see just what all the fuss was about.

Seafood Dining

When we arrived in Peso Da Regua it was almost mid afternoon and we needed something to eat so we set about looking for a café or a bar but something suitable was difficult to find and so with options running out we choose a simple place on the road next to the river and made selections from a restricted but satisfyingly cheap menu.

Micky selected the local sausage, I choose hake and the girls went for what they thought was the safe option of a fish salad, but if they were expecting John West tuna they were in for a shock because when it arrived it was a plate of black eyed beans and chopped egg and a couple of unappetizing grilled fish complete with heads with bulging eyes and tails carelessly arranged on the top.

Portugal is a seafaring nation with a huge fishing industry and this is reflected in the amount of seafood eaten. The country has Europe’s highest fish consumption per capita and is among the top four in the world. Fish is served grilled, boiled, fried or deep-fried, stewed or even roasted. Cod is the type of fish most consumed in Portugal and it is said that there are more than three hundred and sixty-five ways to cook it, one for every day of the year.

In recognition of this Portugal has been granted an ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’, which is a sea zone in the Atlantic Ocean over which the Portuguese have special rights in respect of exploration and use of marine resources.  For the record it is the third largest Exclusive Economic Zone of the European Union, after France and the United Kingdom and the eleventh largest in the world.

Kim will eat mostly anything and Christine reluctantly finished hers but I would not describe Sue as a seafood enthusiast at the best of times and she really prefers her fish either in breadcrumbs or batter.  I wouldn’t say that she is a fussy eater but when it comes to fish she doesn’t really care for things that slither, float, or crawl about the seabed so she pushed this ugly critter around the plate a couple of times and then tried to cover it up with her knife and fork in a way that we used to try and hide uneaten food as children.    It didn’t work then and it didn’t work now and this gastro incident was a serious setback in Sue’s journey towards more adventurous dining.  I can’t remember what my hake was like – I was too busy laughing to really notice.

Seafood Dining

The Eiffel Tower and Ponte Dom Luis I

The Eiffel Tower is an iron lattice tower located on the Champ de Mars in Paris and was inaugurated on 31st March 1889. It has become both a global icon of France and one of the most recognizable structures in the world. The tower is the tallest building in Paris and the most-visited admission fee monument in the world. Named for its designer, engineer Gustave Eiffel, the tower was built as the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair.

The tower stands three hundred and twenty-three metres tall, about the same height as an eighty story building. Upon its completion, it surpassed the Washington Monument to assume the title of tallest man-made structure in the world, a title it held for forty-one years, until the Chrysler Building in New York City was built in 1930; however, due to the addition in 1957 of the antenna (if you can count an antenna), the tower is now taller than the Chrysler Building again.  The tower has three levels for visitors and you can get to the first two via six-hundred steps but the third and highest level is accessible only by elevator.

I have visited the Eiffel Tower four times; in 1979 on a Town Twinning visit to Evreux in Normandy, in 1990 on a weekend trip with some work colleagues to celebrate a new career, in 2002 with my son Jonathan and finally in 2004, the last time that I visited Paris.  Unfortunately on every occasion the weather has been overcast and I have never enjoyed the clear views that should really be possible from the top.

But I have seen sunshine from the top of another Eiffel inspired structure, the Ponte Dom Luis I in Porto, which is an iron bridge designed by Téophile Seyrig a student of Gustav Eiffel.  From the top elevation there were unbeatable views of the river, the old town and Vila Nova de Gaia, a sister city on the other side of the river.  The Douro is the eighth longest river in Western Europe (the eighteenth in all of Europe) and flows through Spain and Portugal and meets the Atlantic Ocean  at Porto.  It was simply fabulous walking across the bridge, the sun was shining, the river was a glorious shade of deep indigo blue and the tiles on the coloured houses on either side reflected the sun and made everywhere look cheerful and happy.