The 10th June marked Portugal Day, or Dia de Portugal, a national holiday where Portuguese communities around the world and in Portugal celebrate the history and culture of their country. The day itself coincides with the death of famous writer Luis de Camoes, who authored the epic poem ‘Os Lusíadas’ in 1572. In effect, Portugal Day condenses Portuguese culture into one day and provides the perfect insight into the Portuguese way of life. As a first-time visitor to Portugal, who was previously unfamiliar with Portuguese culture and the Portuguese language, I have only begun to understand the appeal of this country. However, after spending just under two weeks hopping across Airbnbs, I have been prompted to build from Portugal Day and share a snapshot of contemporary Portuguese life with you.
I have been prompted to build from Portugal Day and share a snapshot of contemporary Portuguese life with you.
President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, a symbolic figure for Portugal, addressed the country on Portugal Day and praised the Portuguese people for their continuing perseverance. Having gained independence from the Spanish in 1640 and facing various economic, political and social difficulties over the years, de Sousa stressed the national habit of getting on with things and looking to the future. Accordingly, I have noticed the ingenuity of the Portuguese way of life through its tourism industry, which was recently awarded the Best European Destination for the third time in-a-row by the World Travel Awards. In particular, I have experienced one of the most innovative examples of Portuguese tourism through Airbnb. Staying in quirky shared apartments and meeting intriguing hosts, Airbnb was a great environment for me to experience a more authentic, more contemporary Portugal. In fact, I went from staying in a beautiful balconied apartment in a winding street in the middle of lesser-known Évora to living in a cramped, constantly bustling backstreet in the capital, Lisbon. Avoiding the schlep that is hotel prices and luxuries, Airbnb was also practical in economic terms, making tourism possible for me as a student but also helping ordinary residents set up a business in their backyard. Especially in towns like Évora and Coimbra, Airbnb not only provided me with a cheaper option but allows the hosts who share their homes to bring greater revenue into these areas, upkeeping them for future generations. When visiting Porto, my Airbnb accommodation there represented a great means for me to explore the city. Situated in a central location, I was able to walk to the beautifully decorated Saõ Bento train station, visit local tapas bars and see the architecture of the Dom Luís I bridge and the nearby markets.
This embracing of an originally American company again reflected the adaptability and open nature of Portugal’s culture. Just as Portugal Day was celebrated in America and Canada to name a few countries, Portugal embraces foreign companies alongside its long heritage. Walking round the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon, I had the option of visiting Starbucks or MacDonald’s or even taking an Uber taxi back to my apartment; perhaps the popularity of Portugal lies in its ability to utilise international companies without losing its own distinct culture. In fact, be it tourist revenue or governmental action, the majority of landmarks in Portugal seem remarkably well-kept like the Roman temple of Évora or the originally thirteenth-century University of Coimbra. Less tangibly, there is also a constant theme of preserving Portuguese culture despite these encounters with outside influences; be it the constant flow of fado performances or the seemingly never-ending supply of pastel de nata in every café. Even the tradition of remembering the poet de Camoes on Portugal Day is enshrined in Porto’s nineteenth-century bookshop Livraria Lello where countless copies of the author’s works are available. Fittingly, Livraria Lello has actually inspired British culture, influencing J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.
Meanwhile, beneath my somewhat romanticised trip to the country’s hotspots, I have also seen a glimpse of some of the under-reported difficulties that the Portuguese people face. As journalist João Miguel Tavares warned listeners during the Portugal Day celebrations, there is still a threat of disillusionment. As recently as 2014, Portugal was still emerging from a financial crisis during which it had borrowed € 78 billion from Europe and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Investing in tourism has been one way in which the economy has started recovering, however I have noticed there is still a lack of consistent development projects across poorer, suburban and rural areas. Spaces like old car parks and shops have been left vacant, buildings are degrading and vandalised areas especially hampered the atmosphere is some districts I visited. It seems to me that while these problems could harshen the Portuguese way of life, it is not lost. The tourist sector for one, despite the money it brings, still poses a threat through its in-rush of international tastes and sheer numbers. But even in the “roughest” areas of the towns I visited, people still seemed to enjoys their habitual pleasures, ranging from Portuguese seafood delicacies and street food to small street parties in the evenings.
Portugal has experienced change in the past few years, with a spike in tourist numbers and a gradual resurgence from economic crises, but its way of life seems to have emerged undamaged. Using Airbnb as an affordable stepping-stone, I have begun to understand the energetic, deep-rooted and wide-ranging nature of Portuguese culture. The experience of seeing prized national monuments, artistic performances and even people enjoying cheap street food has proved to me that the Portuguese way of life is here to stay and is sure to attract tourists for years to come.