Santarém Day Two: Sept. 21

Often when traveling, I don’t like to overplan my day. This morning, I had some coffee, hit the rather mediocre hotel gym, and then showered and had breakfast. I decided to just wander around the extensive historic district for the day.

One thing I’ve noticed while traveling here and in most of Europe over the years is that there is no visible homeless problem. Also, I’ve seen little litter. Even though Portugal has one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the EU, the people seem well dressed and able to enjoy a decent standard of living, although fairly in-depth conversations with younger Portuguese today belie that statistic. I’ll include a recap of those conversations at the end of today’s post, which I will finish on Thursday morning. Now it’s time to finish the Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago’s classic, Blindness.

Santarem is not a well-visited city, since it’s in the Ribatejo and off the beaten foreign tourist route, although the Portuguese themselves are interested in this important historical town. It is the birthplace of Pedro Cabral, the Portuguese who discovered Brazil in 1500 and claimed it for the king. He’s buried in the Convento da Graça, one of several Gothic churches in Santarém. I wandered into about 7 churches, built between the 12th and 16th centuries. The styles include Gothic, Mannerist, Manueline and Baroque. The Manueline churches were funded by the lucrative spice trade with India and the East, and this style is named after King Manuel I. The latter style churches are quite ornate, including the cathedral. The Gothic churches are pretty spare, since, according to one staffer, many of the churches and monasteries fell into disrepair and the interior statues, etc. were removed for safekeeping and restoration but were never returned.

For a small city, Santarém boasts a large and busy old town. As I mentioned, there were few tourists and in some of the museums and churches I was the only visitor. One of the jewels of the old town is the Jardim das Portas do Sol. I spent some time there looking at the superb collection of trees and viewing the vast agricultural lands watered by the Tejo from the crenelated heights of the medieval walls. The gardens featured a large outside aviary with exotic birds, including some vivid green and blue ones.

One of my favorite things to do while traveling overseas is to casually chat with locals to gain a better understanding of the area in which I’m traveling. Sometimes I wonder if, after our conversations, they imagine that I may have been an agent of an intelligence agency!

At the Convento da Santa Maria Graça, I chatted with the young staffer, Ricardo, about his thoughts on Portugal. He said that the economy was a total mess and that the current government was utterly corrupt. As I was to hear later in the day, the younger people are quite worried about their futures. He said that the economy was better in the 60’s and 70’s, when Salazar’s Novo Estado was in power. Interesting, since the Novo Estado was authoritarian. I remember hearing the same wistful thoughts about Tito in the former Yugoslavia. Now, much rich agricultural land, especially in the south near the Algarve, lies dormant. Many of the industries have left, including the fashion sector, which manufactured shoes and clothing for many famous French and Italian brands. Now, only tourism really drives the economy.

One interesting detail I uncovered is that the leader of the 25 April 1974 coup against the dictatorship, Sergeant Salgueiro Maia, was from Santarém and it was he and other junior officers who marched on Lisbon from Santarém as members of the Armed Forces Movement. In Portugal, it’s often called the Carnation Revolution since jubilant crowds placed red carnations in the barrels of the soldiers’ carbines. Ricardo showed me on my map where Sgt. Maia’s statue was and I took a photo on my way back to the hotel.

The oldest site I visited was the Convento de Saõ Francisco, built in the early 13th-century. Some of the original building has collapsed, but much of it has been restored. I noticed pigeon droppings so there must be a rookery in the ceiling.

Finally, I popped into the Convento da Santa Clara, built in the Gothic style. There were two university students associated with Santarém tourism staffing a table inside. We had a lengthy chat about several subjects, as they were eager to share their opinions. As Ricardo mentioned early, they didn’t see much future in Portugal given the rampant corruption and dismal economy. They were both in their final years of university.

They shared that the educational system was rigorous, too rigorous in their opinions. They also mentioned something that I’d heard before, that the Portuguese language was one of the most difficult idioms to learn.

Even nurses and doctors were underpaid, they said, and the nurses, in particular, often left for the UK and Germany to earn much higher wages. They weren’t sure what they were going to do, but expressed interest in crypto currencies and finance. Most Portuguese are encouraged to save in banks that pay very low interest rather that in stocks and bonds, as in the US. They stated that it’s hard to learn about these investment strategies, with instructions along these lines running about 250 EUR out of a typical monthly salary of 750 EUR.

The theme of government corruption is a widespread complaint among the younger generation. Spain, with almost four times the population, has fewer members of parliament. The Portuguese go into politics to get rich. They claimed the people are complacent and that the aging population simply expects the government to raise pensions and continues to elect the same crooked politicians. Surprisingly, many of the young support the Right, unlike the US. They mentioned a young politician named Andre Ventura, the head of the Chega party. Coincidentally, I saw a Chega billboard on my way back to the hotel. They seem desperate for some kind of change, although it’s not clear how that will happen.

Even though the day was hot, in the 80’s, by the time I walked back to the hotel, it was much cooler and breezier.

I’m looking forward to grabbing the train to Tomar later this morning to see the city famous as the headquarters of the Knights Templar. I’m glad to have spent two nights in Santarem, a really historical and attractive town.

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