A history book I keep on one of my bookshelves begins its account by saying that the first king of Portugal was born in Viseu, a city in northern-interior Portugal. Although I like to read these words about my homeland, this sentence is controversial for those who live in Guimarães, which has always claimed to be the nation’s cradle.
But for the Viseenses (people born in Viseu), this feud is only a way to attract attention to their land in a country where discrepancies within its territory continue to prevail.
Many say that Portugal’s interior is where the authentic Portuguese soul lies. And this genuineness is taken seriously in Viseu, the only district that neither borders the sea nor Spain and could be the country’s heart.
This is a place full of heroes and legends that have been used as symbols of a whole nation. We talk about them in the history books, from Viriato, who fought against the roman legions, to the many maritime explorers who, oddly, were born far from the sea.
But if this romantic idea of my land beautifies a picturesque scenery, it hides a history of cultural backwardness and social inequalities in Portugal’s interior. These were accentuated further by the fascist dictatorship of the 20th century, which placed Portugal in economic and cultural stagnation.
This was even more prevalent here, in the interior, where farming was the main activity, and school education was not privileged, making most of the population illiterate. These social inequalities have consequences still felt today.
And these inequalities are such that it is normal to think of two distinct “Portugals.” Not two countries that are divided between the North and the South, but instead in the division between inland versus coastal Portugal.
That is to say, the battle between a forgotten Portugal, whose people are abandoned to their fate and where politicians only appear either during fire season or election season, versus the Portugal where the streets look like a constant music festival, tourists circulate all year round, and the economy thrives.
But saying where the coast ends and the interior begins is not so much a problem of geography but more a question that lies in the cultural differences and the influence of the country’s history, which negatively marked certain areas more than others.
For the Portuguese of the coast, Portugal’s interior is a romantic getaway.
It is that land where their grandparents once lived and where their childhoods were spent dipping in cold running lakes, running through forests in the mountains, eating the food they saw coming out of the ground.
It is where they searched for mushrooms at the beginning of the Fall and witnessed the homemade cornbread that would rise in an old oven, all made by the old hands of their wise grandmothers.
They see us as courageous for living our lives here, and they applaud us for it.
But they applaud, smile, and then they leave. They move on to the comfort of a milder climate bathed by the sea, to the luxury of smelling and having fresh fish on their tables, to the joy of having jobs nearby that can be reached by subway or train.
Portugal’s interior knows nothing of this. Jobs opportunities and public transportation are rare. For example, Viseu is the largest city in Western Europe without any rail connection, which also explains why the flow of tourists is so much lower in these regions, where the population has constantly been decreasing.
The youth moves to the coast or abroad, leaving the old people behind to die. And so, a land once immensely populated gets more and more deserted.
However, opting for the inland is also deciding for a life with more contact with nature, where food still tastes like food.
It is to come face to face with ancient Roman roads, to see castles and medieval fortresses that almost intone in our ears the sound of ancient battles against our Spanish brother.
It is the privilege of having a free ticket all year round to lakes and water that springs up in the mountains that we say are magical.
It is to find tiny villages made of stone carved into the hill of a remote mountain and to be surprised to find foreign residents who have opted for a different lifestyle they have created.
To visit Portugal’s interior is to see all of this while wandering through streets that smell of sheep’s cheese and roast lamb, homemade cakes sprinkled with cinnamon, and where the wine, often taken from the barrels, is some of the best in the world.
It is to wander into an unknown history of legends, warriors, and battles, to enter old Castles that will make you feel like you’re going back in time.
It is to sit next to an unknown older person and hear from their voices important wisdom passed on from generation to generation.
It’s stumbling into scenarios from famous series, like “House of the Dragon” that found the village of Monsanto as the setting for its filming.
Portugal’s interior has enormous challenges ahead of it that have to do with political will or lack thereof. Challenges that have to do with history and cultural heritage that are hard to change suddenly.
Nevertheless, we, the people who stubbornly remain here, don’t want to be applauded, given pats on our backs, or bombarded by political propaganda gifts by those who try to buy our votes. We want to be remembered and seen!
Once we are finally found, I am sure anyone would be surrendered to the wonders of land with enormous wealth, whether in its landscapes, heritage, food, or people who know how to welcome others.
In a country full of tourists on the coast, the interior awaits you all for a more tranquil, rich, and history-filled vacation. Or who knows? Maybe your future home!
Visit us! You will undoubtedly be surprised!