Situated in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal is Europe’s westernmost country; it is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the West and South and by Spain to the North and East. The Atlantic archipelagos of the Azores and Madeira are part of Portugal. The country is named after its second largest city, Porto, whose Latin name was Portus Cale.
The lands that now comprise the Portuguese Republic have been inhabited by humans since prehistoric times, first by Celtic tribes and the related Lusitanian people. Like most of Europe, it was integrated into the Roman Empire; later it was settled by Germanic tribes and then in the 8th century it was conquered by the Moors. Portugal eventually established itself as an independent kingdom during an 800-year period called the Reconquista (“Capturing”) during which the entire Andalusian region was wrested from Muslim control and established as a Christian area. Moorish architectural influences remain in Portugal to this day.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal joined the colonialist “Age of Discovery,” expanding its empire to include possessions in Africa, Asia, Oceania and South America. During this time Portugal was one of the world’s most powerful economic, political and military global powers. Because it started so early, the Portuguese Empire was the longest-lived of the European colonial empires, spanning almost six centuries from the capture of Ceuta just across the Strait of Gibraltar in 1415 to the handover of Macao to China in 1999. However, the country’s international status was greatly reduced during the 19th century, particularly after its largest colony—Brazil—became independent.
Portugal was a monarchy for many centuries but this ended in a revolution circa 1910. Much of the 20th century saw political turmoil in Portugal; democracy was restored in 1974 and most of Portugal’s remaining provinces, notably Angola and Mozambique, achieved their independence.
Today, Portugal is a well-developed country with a high quality of life and a peaceful nature that makes it especially pleasant to visit. It is a member of the European Union, the United Nations and the Eurozone among other organizations. The Portuguese language is a relative of Spanish but with Arabic and Galician influences; at one time it was considered a lingua franca in large areas of Asia and Africa. It is still spoken in Brazil and in parts of Africa and Asia today, and is considered an especially appealing language for song and poetry.
Travelers enjoy visiting Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon as well as the surrounding coastal area with its lovely towns and world-renowned beaches. The smaller city of Porto is located at the mouth of the Douro River and has a prominent rôle in the export of the port and tawny wines for which Portugal is famous. The Douro and its environs are unusually unspoiled; most of the towns along the river operate much as they have done for centuries. The hilly landscape and dry, warm climate are not only excellent for viticulture but are also home to fauna unique to the area as well as a wide variety of freshwater fish species.
Although the landscape is green and the towns historic, Portugal is quite well-developed culturally and economically. Residents enjoy a prosperous lifestyle, a multi-party democracy with both a president and a prime minister, multiple religious traditions (mostly Roman Catholic but also Mormon, Muslim, Sikh, Baha’i, Buddhist and Jewish), both traditional and high-tech career options and many cultural and artistic outlets. Its cuisine reflects its geography and history, with traditional dishes featuring fish and meats and of course the famous sweet wines like port, Madeira and Moscatel.
A few words must be said about the country’s unique musical tradition called fado. Sometimes referred to as Portuguese blues, fado features a special 12-string Portuguese guitar and vocal music filled with longing. Of course Portugal has its own folk traditions as well as classical and rock music, but fado is uniquely Portuguese like no other musical form. Visitors and locals alike enjoy live performances at the atmospheric fado clubs in Lisbon’s Alfama district, accompanied by food and wine or beer; a knowledge of the language is not required.