Fernando Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2012.

It is not easy to write about the great poet Fernando Pessoa. Even if we weight every syllable, our words are still too heavy to describe his graceful prose and sublime rhyme. So, perhaps we should stick to the facts.

Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888. His father, a journalist, died when he was young. His mother remarried and moved to Durban, South Africa, where Pessoa received a British education.

After returning to Lisbon in 1905, Pessoa earned a modest living making translations and writing business letters. He published poems, essays and literary criticism, but remained unknown during his lifetime.

Many of his poems were written in coffee shops, at Brasileira in Chiado or in Terreiro do Passo’s Martinho da Arcada. He wrote under different identities, each with its own personality and distinctive style. Some say that Pessoa and his four major pen names, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, and Bernardo Soares are the five finest Portuguese poets.

Pessoa died in 1935, at age 47, one year after publishing his first major book, The Message. He left a literary treasure trove: a trunk full of poetry and prose, including The Book of Disquiet, which, published in 1982, created a new wave of interest in the poet.

Reading Pessoa can change your life, at least that’s what happened to the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi. A chance encounter with Pessoa’s poem “A Tabacaria” (The Tobacco Shop) made him fall in love with the poet’s work and with the language and culture of Portugal.

Here are the first lines of “A Tabacaria” translated by Richard Zenith. Read them at your own peril.

“I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.”


Pêra Manca

Pêra Manca is a cult wine produced near Évora, in Alentejo. It has a long pedigree that is intertwined with the history of Portugal. Pedro Álvares Cabral took bottles of Pêra Manca in the voyage that resulted in the discovery of Brazil, in 1500. The wine continued to gather fame, wining gold medals in Bordeaux in 1879 and 1898, but its production ended with the death of the vineyard’s owner in 1920.

In 1990 the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation resumed the production of Pêra Manca, aging the wine in the cellar of a 1580 Jesuit monastery.

The white Pêra Manca is made with Antão Vaz and Arinto grapes. The red Pêra Manca is made with Trincadeira and Aragonês grapes and it is produced only in exceptional years.

It is a wonderful wine for a special occasion. After all, it was good enough to celebrate the discovery of Brazil.

Click here for the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation Cartuxa winery website.

Learning how to surf

Neptune rode the seas on a copper chariot. Surfers make do with much less, gliding the waves on their slender boards. Portugal is a great place to learn the art of surfing. There are many beaches with dependable, tubular waves, and schools like Ripar that provide instruction, equipment, and lodging. Every year, hundreds of visitors arrive in Portugal as ordinary humans and leave transformed into gods of the waves, ready to challenge Neptune to a race.

Click here for Ripar’s website.

A letter to Woody Allen

Lisboa, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2011.

Dear Mr. Allen:

Why don’t you shoot a movie in Lisbon? Lisbon is an ancient city that easily holds its own when compared to Barcelona, Rome, London or Paris.

We wonder whether the Roman name for Lisbon, “Felicitas Julia,” would make a good movie title. Naturally, the title would be up to you, we’re just throwing out ideas.

Lisbon is a city of serious Woody Allen fans. Those who try to live here without studying your movies are ostracized. Eventually, they choose nocturnal jobs or migrate to countries with languages that have no vowels. Just because of you, the clarinet is much more popular than the banjo among Lisbon youths.

The themes of your work are all here. First, beauty. Lisbon has the looks: the Tagus river, the cobblestone streets, the ancient palaces with draperies that could be turned into clothes that would look great on Scarlett Johansson. Second, romance. If this was not a romantic city, why would Ingrid Bergman fly to Lisbon in the last scene of Casablanca? Third, angst. The Portuguese have angst about everything: about the future, about the past, about being invaded by Spain, or worse, losing in soccer to Spain. Fourth, fate. Fado, the word that describes the traditional music of Lisbon, means fate. Which other city sings about fate? Fifth, obsession with fame. We call our periods of occupation by the French the Napoleonic invasions, even though Napoleon was never here. Sixth, mortality. The Portuguese do not recognize the concept of death. We’re still waiting for the return of D. Sebastian, a king who disappeared in the 16th century. We think he is on an extended diplomatic mission.

Lisbon is a movie set that has taken centuries to build and that is ready for you.

The poetry of flying

TAP, Portugal’s national airline, is not immune to the cost cutting pressures common to the industry.  But it has a new fleet of large, confortable Airbus airplanes and it is promoting a warm attitude that you can feel in this music video that gathers the Portuguese Mariza, the Angolan Paulo Flores, and the Brazilian Roberta Sá.

When you set foot on a TP flight, you are already in Portugal and magical moments can happen. On a recent flight, a passenger was about to fill a glass with water from a bottle sitting on the counter in the kitchen area. A stewardess quickly intervened saying, “that is my bottle, let me open one for you.” Then, to ease the awkwardness of the moment, she pointed to her bottle and said: “I kissed that water; if you drank it you would learn all my secrets.” Any airline can get you from here to there, handle baggage, count frequent-flyer miles. But which other airline provides such spontaneous moments of poetry?