Random facts about Portugal

Map of Europe, with Portugal and Spain highlighted in red. Source: CIA World Fact Book maps


The last leg of our European trip was to Portugal.  We had a promise from our Portuguese friend Paulo that if we visited he would show us around, so we took him up on it.  First we visited Portugal’s second largest city, Porto, and after spending a few days there, Paulo picked us up and took us to Viano do Castelo, the town where he had been born and raised and still lived.

We’ll share some these great experiences in upcoming posts, but since we didn’t know much about Portugal, and you may not either, here’s a little bit of background about this tiny but wonderful country.

Portugal’s storied history and gradual decline

Portugal occupies the western portion of the Iberian Peninsula, while Spain occupies the east.  Humans have lived in this area since prehistoric times, and it was later occupied by the Celts and then a succession of conquerers, including the Romans, Germanic tribes such as the Visigoths, and the Moors.  In the twelfth century, Portugal became an independent country and gradually developed into a European powerhouse.  During the 15th and 16th centuries, it was one of the wealthiest and most influential countries in Europe, right up there with England, France, and Spain.  It developed its expansive Portuguese Empire in the 15th century with the help of great Portuguese explorers such as Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Bartholomeu Dias, and brothers Gaspar and Miguel Corte Real.  These men discovered routes vital for trade, and they explored areas of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and North and South America that no European had seen before.

At its height, Portugal had a vast empire and controlled half of the New World.  In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the New World into two, with the west belonging to Spain and the east belonging to Portugal.

Despite their power and success, the Portuguese gradually lost much of their wealth and trade status to the French, English, and Dutch over the 17th and 18th centuries.  Other events further weakened the country over time, including its involvement in Spain’s disastrous attempt to invade England in 1588, a devastating earthquake in 1755 that destroyed Lisbon, French occupation during the Napoleonic Wars, and the loss of its biggest colony, Brazil, to France in 1822.  By the 20th century, it was merely a minor player in European politics.


Despite its tiny size, Portugal has a varied landscape, with mountain ranges, forests, and vast plains.  Its only land border is with Spain, on the east and north; the western and southern borders of the country are coastline, with the Atlantic Ocean on the west and Mediterranean Sea to the south.  Our visit was limited to the coastal northwest, and the weather was gorgeous, with mild temperatures and several sunny days.  We’ll talk more about this area in the next few posts.

Portugal versus Spain: similarities and differences

Portugal often gets lumped in with Spain because they’re neighbors and sole occupants of the Iberian Peninsula.  While Spain and Portugal have a stable, positive relationship, there are some significant differences between the two.


Spain is about 5.5 times bigger than Portugal, and it occupies 85% of the Iberian Peninsula versus Portugal’s 15%.  This is undoubtedly one reason why Portugal sometimes gets overshadowed by its much bigger neighbor.


Spain has a population of around 47,000,000 whereas Portugal has approximately 10.8 million residents. (As per July 2014 estimates)


The official language of Portugal is, of course, Portuguese.  It is its own unique language and not a dialect of Spanish.  While there is some overlap in vocabulary and grammar between Portuguese and Spanish, when spoken, the two languages sound nothing alike, at least not to our admittedly untrained ears.  When we listened to Portuguese speakers, the intonation, prosody, and pronunciation of phonemes sounded more like something out of Eastern Europe than anything related to Spanish.  Paulo said that the Portuguese can speak and understand Spanish but that the Spanish typically have a difficult time learning and comprehending Portuguese, and I saw this mentioned by other sources as well.

Portuguese is closely related to Galician, the traditional language of the Spanish region of Galicia (where Dale and I hiked through last).  This makes sense—the Galicians and Portuguese share a border and have a close relationship historically and culturally.  Portugal was once a part of the Kingdom of Galicia, before Galicia became a part of Spain. (European history is so convoluted…)  Paulo said that some Galicians feel a stronger kinship with Portugal than they do with Spain because of this shared history.

Modern history: a lot in common

Politically, Spain and Portugal have several things in common.

  • Both are members of NATO and the European Union.
  • Both have experienced recent financial crises and currently have high unemployment rates.  Paulo talked about how difficult it is to find work in Portugal, and he currently has a job that requires him to spend long periods of time in Africa, taking him away from his wife and son.
  • One of the most striking things Portugal and Spain have in common is that they were both ruled for many years by fascist dictators.  In 1926, a military coup installed the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar as Portugal’s leader.  Salazar’s dictatorship was not nearly as oppressive as Francisco Franco’s was in Spain; there was some freedom of the press and minor political dissent was tolerated.  In contrast, Franco crushed any dissent, and he made it illegal to identify with minority cultures.  The Basques, Galicians, and Catalans were not allowed to speak their native languages or practice cultural rituals, and violators were severely punished.  Fortunately, both dictatorships ended in the 1970s.  Franco’s reign ended with his death in 1975, and and a 1974 coup removed Salazar from power.  His dictatorship was replaced by a democratic government that established sweeping reforms and granted independence to Portugal’s remaining colonies.

Our observations:

We spent about seven weeks in Spain but less than a week in Portugal, so we couldn’t even begin to compare the two countries adequately.  All we can confidently say is that we had a wonderful experience exploring both countries.  Paulo did a great job of helping us to get to know his beloved country better, and in our next posts we’ll show you a little bit of his Portugal.