Editorial Feature

8 Fun Facts You Never Knew About Portugal

Discover what makes this country so unique

As one of the oldest nations in Europe, Portugal came into existence in 1139. Its borders have barely changed since 1297 when the Portuguese and Spanish signed a treaty handing over the Algarve to Portugal. The first king, Alfonso I Henriques, came to power in 1143 and the country remained a kingdom for the next 800 years up until 1910, when it became a republic.

Portugal is a special country full of character, quirks, and traditions that shape it into a place that welcomed 12.7 million tourists in 2017 alone. So whether you’ve already visited and explored its rich history, or you’re yet to venture to its sunny climes, here are ten fun facts about Portugal that show there’s still so much to learn about this fascinating country.

Portuguese is the official language of 9 countries

Having once been a global empire it’s no surprise that Portuguese as a language has travelled beyond the shores of Portugal. In fact, it’s said that over 236 million people worldwide are native Portuguese speakers.

Portuguese is the official language of not just Portugal but also Brazil, Cape Verde, Angola, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Principe, Sao Tome, and Equatorial Guinea. The language is also spoken in Goa in India, Macao on the south coast of China, and East Timor in southeast Asia.

Lisbon was almost destroyed by an earthquake, followed by a tsunami 40 minutes later

On November 1st 1755, the holy celebration of All Saints’ Day, at 9:40am Lisbon was struck by a monumental earthquake that nearly destroyed the city. Contemporary reports state the earthquake lasted between three and six minutes, causing fissures 5 meters (16 feet) wide to open in the city centre. Approximately 40 minutes after the earthquake, a tsunami engulfed the harbour and downtown area, rushing up the Tagus river. The speed this happened was so rapid people riding on horseback were forced to gallop as fast as possible to avoid being carried away. It was followed by two more waves.

To add insult to injury, candles that had been lit all around the city in homes and churches for All Saints’ Day were knocked over in the earthquake’s path. As the tsunami receded, the city began to burn furiously for hours, asphyxiating people up to 100 feet from the blaze. It’s unclear how many people died from the disaster but it’s thought to be in the tens of thousands. Around 85% of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed, including famous palaces and libraries, as well as most examples of Portugal's distinctive 16th-century Manueline architecture. The earthquake also had economic and political impacts. Having spent years building Lisbon up as a buzzing capital city, it was completely undone in a day and it took decades to rebuild into what it is today.

Monsignor Giorgio Conaro's entrance procession in Lisbon in 1963 (From the collection of National Coach Museum)
Lisbon Earthquake illustrations (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

The oldest bookstore in the world is in Lisbon

If you take a trip to Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, you’ll see an abundance of independent bookstores crammed into its tiled streets. As a nation of book lovers, it comes as no surprise that the oldest bookstore in the world can be found in the city. Dating back to 1732, Bertrand Chiado on Rua Garrett is the oldest bookstore still in operation, a record that was made official by the Guiness Book of Records in 2011.

The original bookstore was opened by Pedro Faure on Rua Diereito do Loreto. He had hoped his bookstore would become a center of intellectual and artistic events. Faure was successful but in 1775, The Great Lisbon Earthquake practically destroyed the shop. Put off, Faure sold his bookstore to the Bertrand Brothers who relocated the shop temporarily, but returned to the Baixa de Lisboa area 18 years later and rebuilt it. Over the years, the Bertrand brand has become a national name and is now the largest bookstore chain in Portugal with more than 50 shops.

Bertrand Chiado on Rua Garrett, Lisbon, Portugal

Over half the world’s cork comes from Portugal

The cork tree is one of the few native trees still found in Portugal and the country uses it to their advantage by producing 70% of the world’s cork exports. The main importers of Portuguese cork are Germany, UK, and the USA.

Portugal has the worlds’ largest cork forest and it is actually illegal to cut down a cork oak tree without the government’s consent. The cork tree flourishes in Portugal because of the even rainfall, short dry periods, mild winters, and days of sunshine the country is blessed with, which provide ideal conditions for these trees.

Nova Cortica Factory, São Brás de Alportel, Portugal

Japanese tempura is credited to Portuguese traders

Tempura, the morsels of battered, deep-fried veggies and seafood is one of many gastronomic delights associated with Japanese cuisine. However, it was actually brought over by Portuguese traders and missionaries in the 16th century. Deep frying had been a standard way of cooking fish in Portugal and Spain for hundreds of years with recipes of fried fish in egg batter appearing in Spanish Arabic cookbooks as far back as the 13th-century.

The story goes that in 1543, a Chinese ship with three Portuguese sailors on board was headed to Macau, but was swept off course and ended up on the Japanese island of Tanegashima. Antonio da Mota, Francisco Zeimoto, and Antonio Peixoto – the first Europeans to ever step foot on Japanese soil – were deemed ‘southern barbarians’ by the locals. However, the Japanese were in the middle of a civil war and eventually began trading with the Portuguese, mainly for guns. This resulted in a Portuguese trading post in Japan, starting with firearms and then other items such as soap, tobacco, wool, and even recipes, including of course tempura, which became an instant staple.

The first Portuguese tarts were supposedly made in the 13th century by monks

Pastéis de nata are Portugal’s favourite dessert, and it’s been that way since the 13th century when rumour has it they were supposedly first made by monks in the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon. Supposedly, the monks had been based in France where they were inspired by the delectable pastries on offer. Needing a way to use up the yolks separated from the egg whites they used to starch clothing, what better way than to rustle up some custard tarts?

After the Liberal Revolution in 1820, the monastery was threatened with closure so the monks began selling pastéis de nata to a nearby sugar refinery. In 1834, their monastery did end up closing and the recipe was sold to the aforementioned sugar refinery. Three years later the refinery owners opened Pastéis de Belém, which is still open today and run by descendants of the original owners. So if you’re in the area, make sure you grab one of their famous cinnamon-topped tarts (or five) before you leave!

Jerónimos Monastery, Lisbon, Portugal
Pastéis de Belém, Lisbon, Portugal

Portugal became the sixth country in Europe to allow same-sex marriage in 2010

Thankfully, Portugal has come a long way since homosexuality was outlawed and punishable by imprisonment under the facist Estado Novo regime, though it’s important to note that many other countries had also outlawed same-sex activity around the same time. When Portugal allowed same-sex marriage in 2010 it was a major step for LGBT rights.

One year after the law came into force, around 380 same-sex marriages had taken place in Portugal and this number has continued to rise swiftly since. Portugal was the sixth country to allow same-sex marriage and it currently ranks tenth out of 49 countries worldwide for its record on LGBT human rights in the Ilga-Europe Rainbow Country Rankings.

Portugal has its own genre of music

Fado music is a form of Portuguese singing that dates back to the 1820s and can often be heard in pubs, cafes, and restaurants. It is generally known for how expressive in it, as well as having a strong melody. Generally in fado music, the singer will sing about the hard realities of daily life, balancing both resignation and hopefulness. It can be described by using the Portuguese word “saudade”, which means “longing” and stands for a feeling of loss and melancholy.

Fado music often has one or two 12 string guitars, one or two violas, and sometimes a small 8 string bass. There are different styles depending on what area of Portugal you’re in and in 2011, fado was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists. Famous singers of fado include Dulce Pontes, Carlos do Carmo, Mariza, Mafalda Arnauth, and Amália Rodrigues (below), the so-called "Queen of Fado".

Amália Rodrigues (From the collection of Museu Nacional do Teatro e da Dança)
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