Our tour bus was stopped by traffic. In the nearby field a mound of vegetation crawled toward us like some latter-day Portuguese Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane. Beneath the earth-length fronds, however, was nothing more martial than an almost-bent-double figure of a small woman dressed in the customary black garments and headscarf of farmwife and peasant in the countryside here. She was moving fodder for the family's animals.
Often these little ladies -- they all seem to be small of stature -- are to be seen in the towns too, carrying enormous bundles on their heads, or sitting in markets selling their vegetables, those luscious, tree-ripened fruits of this country, the fish their men have caught, or their crafts -- laces, linens, embroideries, pottery. It is a picturesque sight that has persisted for centuries.
But it betokens also the depressed state of women here, which is only just beginning to change. As our tour guide Manuela remarked vehemently when we paused to allow passage of a woman leading a donkey cart while her husband rode, "It's got to change." Realistically she added, "But if a girl wants to get a good job in Portugal she must know languages. We are such a small country. People come from everywhere."
Manuala guides in English, French, Spanish, and German as well as her native tongue. Indeed she has made a career in Portugal's No. 2 industry, tourism. This beautiful small country is stuck like a band-aid on the enclosing hand of Spain, which curls around little Portugal protectively (or is it a bit menacingly in rivalry for visitors and exports?) Portugal counted some $930 million in its national coffers in 1979 from tourists and expects about $1 billion by the end of 1980.
Not a small proportion of that sum actually came from Spanish visitors and convention-goers, for portugal is cheaper to spend time in than most other European countries. While we were at the Hotel Estoril-Sol in Cascais near Lisbon, for instance, 2,000 Spanish Tupperware party-givers were in residence for a few days! They had to bussed from front to back of the hotel (up a steep hill not meant for evening shoes) for a banquet because the elevators could not accommodate so many at one time.
Portugal welcomes these big groups but the invidual visitors gets just as warm a reception. First-class hotels like the Estoril-Sol, the Ritz in Lisbon, the Grande Hotel at Figueira de Foz, the Hotel Dom Pedro at Povoa do Varzim, the Hotel da Penha in Guimaraes, the Palacio in Estoril, are, of course, pricey, but they do offer all the comforts and then some of New York hotel living, if that is your choice. (Incidentally they quite routinely quote single rates at some 70 percent of double room rates.)
However, Portugal has many inns and especially it has pousadas -- converted buildings the government has rehabilitated and runs at modest prices like $16 a night with bath and breakfast ($20 gets you a luxurious one but is not available everywhere). They are scattered across the country and it would be simple to pousada. There is a limit on the number of days one may stay in each, rather like the youth hostels systems in Europe and the United States.
A pousada, however, may once have been a fortress high on a hill with glorious views over the surrounding lands and sea. We love them for their outlook and sense of history; the orginal builders appreciated the security they gave. Or one of these stopping places may have been a castle or a palace when constructed. The Portuguese National Tourist office at 548 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10036, can help with details of where pousadas are located.
Watching eucalyptus trees slide by our bus windows (they are planted where nothing else will grow) as Antonio, our unflappable driver, negotiated the frighteningly narrow roadways up the mountains of Portugal with their expanding views at every bend, it was surprising to learn that the first income producing item in the Portuguese economy is not tourism or exports. The number of tourist busses everywhere might make you think it is. but actually the biggest money-maker for Portugal is the funds sent home by Portuguese who go abroad to better themselves and to send money back to their families. That accounted for
Since the overriding ambition of probably 99 percent of the Portuguese is to build their own houses -- with their own labor -- you see unfinished houses all over the country. They may look and abandoned but really they are just asleep waiting for the next "holiday" when dad, mama, and the kids will all show up again to lay more bricks, plaster interiors, plant future landscaping, and so on. By the time dad retires and comes home to stay, he should have a well-built , sturdy, and often very attractive designed home to live in and hand on to his offspring. Not a few have miniature double staircases out front, looking for all the world as if they were modeled on the royal one at Fontainebleau in France.
Other industries important in the country's economy are textiles, sardines, and achovies, canned and sent abroad, then cork (Portugal grows over half the world's supply). That all sounds like an economics course, but in any small town or village one can buy cork-soled shoes or coasters and other items, bringing home the fact that this is sometimes a cottage industry as well as a national plus. Similarly the linnens with bright red and blue embroideries, or self-color designs from Portugal's island possessions of Madeira or the Azores, or from the mainland, can be found everywhere. But in Guimaraes is the Casa dos Linhos, where Portuguese brides go to buy their trousseau linens. They are easy on the purse (though not as easy as they once were -- inflation has hit this small country, too) and delightful mementos.
Pottery, including the abundant and characteristic tiles of Portugal, is the other nationally available keepsake and the Portuguese with their love of colors , in everything except clothes, paint their bowls and jugs and plates with vivid gem-like glazes that can rival anything anywhere. They also made earth-toned pieces so if that is your pleasure, it is a available.
Portuguese shops can be deceiving to the eyes of sohpisticates. Those offering skirts and shawls and such look a bit like new-world discount stores. The goods hang in bird-of-paradise hues on wire hangers outside the shop windows. A few items are displayed in the windows. But made no mistake. These are the country's finest. Language is little or no problem. Gestures help. I wanted a cobalt blue linen tablecoth with white embroidery and a navy blue and yellow wool scarf in one shop. Somewhat surprisingly no one spoke English. Usually someone can made out in the visitor's language. I beckoned to the owner , pointed to what I wanted, and led him around the shop to the other item. We exchange delighted smiles, and some money. As long as you remember that one escudo equals about 2 cents (48 to $1) at least this year, you are in charge of the situation.