A Brief History of Portugal, from the Old Man on Tram 15

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos Hieronymites Architecture in Lisbon with Gothic archways and stonework

At the back of the tram carriage heading from central Lisbon to Belém, a little old man hovers, clad in stone-coloured trousers, sensible shoes and a thick green coat, despite the stifling July heat. I offer him my seat, but he refuses, insisting he’s happy to stand.

“Where are you from?” He asks, as we follow a sweeping curve in the tram tracks. England, I say. Near London. He’s never visited but knows all the highlights.

A proud Lisboeta, he admits there isn’t a lot to see en route until we reach Belém itself. “However,” he says, pointing at a blur of buildings behind a pastel wall, “that was the colonial hospital, where they treated tropical diseases.”

Angolan art and history books on shelf in Lisbon shop
Angola was a Portuguese colony for 400 years; I spotted these books through a shop window near Bairro Alto and loved the contrast with the buildings on the other side of the street.

Otherwise starved of landmarks, he begins an impromptu history lesson about Portugal. “Did you know the Portuguese arrived in Africa 600 years ago? …They speak Portuguese in parts of India and China, too… some Japanese and Indonesian words are based on our language.”

Jotting down the facts later on, I can’t help wondering why all this wasn’t included in my history lessons at school. British children learn about Romans, Greeks and the kings and queens of England, topped off by a condensed and censored exploration of two world wars. Not a Portuguese explorer in sight.

Monochrome Torre de Belem Lisbon architecture with statues and crenellations
The Torre de Belém still stands proud.

As my day of discovery continues in Belém, I stand beside Vasco de Gama’s tomb, where teenagers take shaky iPad selfies beside their country’s famous adventurer; I hide from the unrelenting sun behind the elaborate columns of the Jerónimos Monastery; I eat the practically obligatory pasteis de Belém in the pastry shop beside the monastery and lose myself in the hypnotic patterns of the azulejos lining its walls.

From the Belém Tower I look out towards the Discoveries Monument, and the bridge beyond it clutching the Tagus in its steadfast grip. No wonder the man on the tram was so proud of his country.

Waiting at the tram stop, I glimpse him again. I wonder if I’m imagining it – pinning his face to another pensioner’s frame in the hope of hearing more stories. But there’s the green coat and the smile, and the inquisitive look as he asks my nationality for the second time today. He doesn’t remember me, as I’m from the recent past, but the historic past is crystal clear to him. I hear all the facts for a second time and they’re no less remarkable. Discoveries indeed.

Suburban Lisbon washing on line outside tiled house in street
This was one of my favourite photos of the day. I was holding an ice cream and could only point and shoot my camera with one finger, unable to see the screen. It turned out to capture the strange quiet of Belém streets perfectly.

Recommended Reading

  • The Japanese language includes a lot of Portuguese words, such as tempura/tempero for tempura and shabon/sabão for soap. However, contrary to popular belief, arigato (or ‘thank you’) doesn’t come from the Portuguese obrigado, as arigato was used in Japan long before the Portuguese arrived in 1543.
  • Go Lisbon has a really detailed summary of Portugal through the ages, including travel ideas for each time period.
  • The Jerónimos Monastery (or Mosteiro dos Jerónimos) and the Belém Tower (or Torre de Belém) are both UNESCO World Heritage sites. Find out why.