Our Lady of the Pillar, by Eça de Queirós

José Maria de Eça de Queiros is considered one of Portugal’s greatest writers.  He’s most famous for his novel The Sin of Father Amaro, first published in 1875.

National Library of Portugal [Public domain]

Our Lady of the Pillar, originally published in the Gazeta de Notícias in 1895, is a fantasy story set in Seville Spain in the fifteenth century.  Don Rui de Cardenas, a devotee of Our Lady of the Pillar (the Blessed Virgin Mary), falls in love with the beautiful Dona Leonor, the young wife of wealthy nobleman Don Alonso de Lara.

Although Don Rui is smitten with Dona Leonor, he can’t so much as catch her eye as they enter the church.  He gives up on his love and devotes himself to honoring Our Lady of the Pillar.

Don Alonso, meanwhile, hears that a young man has been pursuing Dona Leonor and, being quite jealous, has her removed to their estate at Cabril, some ways outside Seville.  Don Alonso, enraged at a misperceived infidelity by his young wife, holds her at knife point and forces her to write a letter to Don Rui, professing a love for the young man who, in reality, she has never really noticed.

Don Alonso has the letter delivered to Don Rui, in an effort to lure the young man to the estate, where Don Alonso’s plan is to murder him as he enters Dona Leonor’s bedroom.  I don’t want to give away the story, so I’ll just say that the story takes a fantastic twist at this point.  This short story is well worth reading and is one of Eça de Queiros’ best works.

Our Lady of the Pillar is a free download at Project Gutenberg.   Enjoy.

Small Memories, by José Saramago

José Saramago was one of Portugal’s greatest and most revered authors.  The winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998, Saramago passed away in 1010, leaving behind a rich legacy of fantastical novels like Blindness and the Stone Raft.  Small Memories was one of his last books, and is a memoir of his early life growing up between his grandparents’ farm in the small rural village of Azinhaga, and Lisbon, where his parents moved when his father got a job as a policeman.

Jose Saramago
1998 postal issue honoring Saramago’s Nobel Prize award.

Told from a distance of eight decades, the small snippets of Saramago’s early life are simple but touching.  The stories deal with the death of his brother, who died at four years old, visiting his grandparents, farmers who, though illiterate, had a tremendous impact on Saramago’s life, and life as a young child in the tenements of Lisbon.

One memory tells of his grandparents bringing the weakest piglets into their bed on especially cold nights.  While it’s obvious from the stories in this little book that Saramago’s grandparents were, in fact, kind and loving, the story of the piglets emphasizes just how valuable the piglets were to a poor farm family.  From a practical viewpoint, the loss of the animals would mean a loss of income and could make the coming year harder.

If you’re interested in reading José Saramago’s books, Small Memories would be a good starting point.  Saramago’s novels can be difficult reads; punctuation is rare and paragraphs can go on for page after page.  Small Memories, is unusual in that it conforms to normal expectations regarding punctuation and layout, so it would be an easier read for those new to Saramago’s writing.  It’s also a sweetly told and enjoyable memoir.  As an added bonus, the family photos included at the end of the memoir, accompanied by Saramago’s sometimes tongue in cheek descriptions, will leave you smiling.

If you’re interested in reading Small Memories, you can purchase it Small Memories you can purchase it here.

The Piano Cemetery, by José Luís Peixoto

For many non-Portuguese readers, Portuguese literature IS José Saramago, Fernando Pessoa and Luís de Camões.  It’s not easy to find information on Portuguese authors or English translations of their books.  I was quite happy when I found The Piano Cemetery, by José Luís Peixoto.

At the heart of the novel is the true story of athlete Francisco Lázaro, who carried the the Portuguese flag in the country’s first-ever appearance in the Olympic Games, the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.  Unfortunately, Lázaro, an amateur athlete and carpenter, became the first person to die during a modern Olympic event, when he collapsed at the 30 kilometer mark.

Portuguese marathoner Francisco Lázaro

The Piano Cemetery tells the fictionalized story of the Lázaro family, carpenters who would rather be piano makers.  The piano cemetery is a back room at their workshop that is full of broken and discarded pianos that the family occasionally uses to make repairs.  The room is also where many important events in the history of the family take place.

Narrated by three generations of Lázaro men, the Piano Cemetery is a beautifully-written dreamlike journey through the history of the family.  Full of the contradictions that make up life- birth and death, new love and love lost, joy and pain- the book is a wonderful, melancholic read.  The novel also captures the uniquely Portuguese concept of saudade, a feeling of loss or incompleteness or longing for something that is being missed.  While loss is a major theme of the novel, it leaves you with a feeling of hope for the future of the family.

José Luís Peixoto is one of Portugal’s most acclaimed writers and a winner of the José Saramago Literary Prize.  I wasn’t surprised to learn that he also writes poetry; the cadence and use of repetition in the Piano Cemetery is quite poetic in places.  Peixoto is also a fan of the Portuguese goth metal band Moonspell and has collaborated with them in a book based on their album, the Antidote.

Jose Luis Peixoto
José Luís Peixoto from http://www.joseluispeixoto.net

Peixoto’s books have been translated into 26 languages, but for me, he is a new discovery.  I enjoyed the Piano Cemetery and will be picking up more of his books.  If you’d like to read the Piano Cemetery, you can purchase the book from Amazon here.

Distant Music, by Lee Langley

Distant Music is a novel by Lee Langley, and is quite unique.  It begins in 15th century Madeira, when a young Catholic woman named Esperança meets a young Jewish man , Emmanuel, and they fall in love.  The story then follows them through the next six centuries, touching on the Age of Discoveries, the Inquisition, a serial murder and a failed love.

I found Distant Music to be quite beautiful love story that does a great job of capturing the uniquely Portuguese feeling of melancholy called saudade, most often translated into English as longing.  The novel also captures the Jewish concept of gilgul, where unfulfilled lives are cycled, or reincarnated through multiple human bodies until their love is fulfilled.

If you’re interested in this book you can purchase it from Amazon at this link.










Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945

Most of the Portuguese history books I’ve read dealt with older events and times in the country’s history- the 1755 earthquake, Henry the Navigator, the Templars, etc.  This is the first modern history book I’ve found about Portugal.  While many younger people may regard World War II as ancient history, let me assure you, in a history that goes back thousands of years, World War II is modern.

Neill Lochery’s book gives a fascinating look at António de Oliveira Salazar’s efforts to maintain neutrality during World War II while playing both the Allies and the Axis powers to the benefit of Portugal.  Initially, Salazar’s insistence that Portugal remain neutral during the conflict was built around his fears that either Germany or Spain would invade his country, and that Great Britain, Portugal’s oldest ally, would not be able to help the country if an invasion did happen.  His fears were valid; Spain actually had plans in place to invade Portugal, but never followed through with them.

Lisbon, as Portugal’s largest and most important city, was awash with Allied and German spies during the war, each side monitoring the other’s activities.  Among the agents was a young British Intelligence agent named Ian Fleming, whose Casino Royale, the first James Bond novel, drew heavily on his time in Portugal.

Additionally, Lisbon was crowded with refugees, many of them Jewish, who were fleeing Nazi persecution in their home countries.  Several chapters describe the events of various organizations to help Jews escape the war through Lisbon.

While remaining militarily neutral, Salazar had no qualms about selling wolfram, also known as tungsten, to Nazi Germany.  Because counterfeit currency was common, and the value of the currency fluctuated wildly, Salazar insisted that the wolfram be paid for with gold.  By the end of the war, Portugal’s gold reserves increased from 63.4 tons at the beginning of the war to 356.5 tons near the end of 1945, much of it Nazi gold.

The story of wolfram and Nazi gold is the most fascinating part of the book for me.  Much of the gold was taken by the Nazis from the occupied countries’ banks.  Some also was obtained during the Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews.  While the Allies insisted that the neutral countries return the gold to the countries of origin after the war, Salazar negotiated an agreement where only 3 tons of an estimated 122 tons of Nazi gold was returned.  It’s a fascinating story.

While the book focuses on Salazar, wolfram and Nazi gold, there are plenty of other side stories to keep you interested.  One chapter covers the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s attempt to return to Great Britain from France, Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst’s similar escape from Burgundy, and the death of Hollywood star Leslie Howard, when the plane he was returning to Great Britain in was shot down by Nazi fighters.

It’s an interesting read, with plenty of the twists and turns associated with wars and spies.  In this case, though, it’s not a James Bond novel, it’s history.

If you’re interested in reading Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945, you can purchase it from Amazon here.


The Portuguese Travel Cookbook

The Portuguese Travel Cookbook, by Nelson Carvalheiro, is more of a travelogue than a cookbook.  Carvalheiro, a popular Portuguese blogger and winner of the 2015 World FITUR Travel Blogger award, toured his home country, focusing on the traditional foods of Portugal as well as the restaurants making their mark on the food traditions of the country.

The book is full of beautiful photos and recipes, but the best part of the book, to me, is Carvalheiro’s descriptions of the foods and traditions of Portugal.  The recipes are pretty basic, but Carvalheiro shows great respect and love for his country and the food.

We had the pleasure of dining at one of the restaurants Carvalheiro writes about, Ze Manel dos Ossos, in Coimbra.  It’s a wonderful little restaurant and the food, what I would describe as Portuguese country cooking, was great.  I will use the Portuguese Travel Cookbook as a guide to exploring more of the food and cooking of Portugal on our next visit.

The Collected Novels of José Saramago

José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was arguably Portugal’s greatest writer. Born in the Ribatejo town of Axinhaga, it’s a surprise that Saramago rose to such heights. His family was a poor farming family and, despite young Saramago’s excellent marks in grammar school, his family could not afford to continue his education, so at the age of twelve, his education moved to technical school, where he learned to be a mechanic.


As a young mechanic at a car repair shop, Saramago began to frequent a public library. He continued his education on his own, self-taught, and with a great will to learn. He loved to read and began to write in his spare time.

He was married in 1944 and, in 1947, his only child was born. It was about that time that his first novel, The Land of Sin, was published. After writing a second novel, which went unpublished, Saramago gave up writing. As he said, in his Nobel Prize autobiography, it had become clear to him that he “had nothing worthwhile to say.” That ended with the publication of his first book of poetry, Possible Poems.

Saramago continued to write, but it wasn’t until 1982, at the age of sixty, that he gained international attention with the publication of Baltasar and Blimunda. This is where the Collected Novels of José Saramago starts. It’s a nice e-book collection, though by no means complete. Saramago published several novels before Baltasar and Blimunda, and his last novel, Cain, was published after this collection was published, so it’s not included either. That being said, it’s a great introduction to one of Portugal’s greatest writers.

Most of Saramago’s novels have a fantastic feel to them.  In Baltasar and Blimunda, for example, the title characters assist a priest to construct a flying ship that is lifted by human souls that Blimunda has collected and put in jars.  In the Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, a pseudonym of Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa lives for a year after Pessoa, his creator, dies. And in Death With Interruptions, death  falls in love with a cellist who just won’t die.

Although Saramago’s formal education ended at an early age, he was incredibly knowledgeable of history.  Baltasar and Blimunda takes place during the building of the Mafra National Palace and integrates historical figures into the story.  In the History of the Siege of Lisbon, a proofreader is assigned to correct errors in a book about the aforementioned siege, inserts one word- “not”- into the text and therein creates an alternate history.   Finally, in the Elephant’s Journey, he adapts the real life journey of an elephant who was given by King Joao III of Portugal to Archduke Maximilian of Austria as a wedding gift into a wonderfully told story.

An avowed atheist, Saramago was never the less well-versed in the Catholic faith. In the Gospel According to Jesus Christ, he retells the story of Jesus, depicting him as a human character, complete with the flaws that accompany men. In the story, he has a love relationship with Mary Magdalene and attempts to back out of his own crucifixion. The Portuguese government declared the book offensive to its Catholic citizens and had it withdrawn from a European literature award, who had shortlisted it. The insult by his home country led to Saramago’s self-imposed exile from his home country to the Canary Islands, where he spent the rest of his life.

Saramago’s writing is not for everyone. He used few periods to end his sentences, choosing, instead, to use commas and running the sentences together. He didn’t place dialogue within quotations. In most cases the character wasn’t identified, and the only indication when one character stopped and another responded was the use of a capital letter to begin the second character’s reply. His paragraphs could go on for pages. Combined with the unique use of punctuation, it could make his writings a bit difficult to follow. You have to WANT to read his books, and if you choose to do so, you’ll be richly rewarded.

There’s a lot more to Saramago’s writings than just the dozen novels included in the Collected Novels. Many of his early works have been published as well as the wonderful travel diary Journey to Portugal, his memoir Small Memories, and a collection of his early articles called the Notebook. His final novel, Cain, is also available.

Each of Saramago’s novels are available individually, but the e-book collection is a fraction of the cost of the individual books.  If you would like to explore the unique writings of one of Portugal’s greatest writers, the Collected Novels of José Saramago is a great place to start.


Photography and the Art of Seeing

One of my favorite photography books is Photography and the Art of Seeing, by Freeman Patterson.  Patterson presents simple exercises designed to develop a sense of awareness by photographing familiar things and by thinking outside the box.  The book teaches the photographer to observe our surroundings.

On one of my recent morning walks with the dog, I carried my camera and slowed down our walk while trying to be aware of what I had passed countless times over the years.  These are the best of the photographs I returned with.

We live on a couple acres with a really nice section of woods, but Freeman’s point is you can find interesting and beautiful things anywhere.  The exercise of carry my camera and photographing familiar objects is one I like to do from time to time.  It helps keep me observant of everyday things.

On a side note, we’ve been dealing with Hurricane Florence today.  We were located on the northern edge of the storm, so the worst seems to have passed us by.  We’ve had a lot of rain and wind, with a lot of yard debris from the woods, but no damage and no danger to us.  We’ve been lucky.  There are a lot of people that are seeing much worse, so please keep them in your thoughts over the next few days.  Here’s a screenshot of the storm, with our location marked on the map.

Hurricane Screen Shot

Livraria Lello, Porto Portugal, March 2018

I love books and I can spend hours in a good bookstore.  Porto’s Livraria Lello & Irmão was on my short list of places to visit in Portugal.

Livraria Lello, or the Lello Bookstore in English, is one of the most beautiful and, thanks to J.K. Rowlings, one of the most famous bookstores in the world.  When J.K. Rowling lived in Porto, she began work on the Harry Potter series.  She was a frequent visitor to the bookstore and the amazing central staircase was the inspiration behind the moving staircases of Harry’s Alma Mater, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

Livraria Lello began life in 1869 as Internacional Livraria de Ernesto Chardron.  When Senhor Chardron passed away, the bookstore was purchased by Lugan & Genelioux Sucessores who eventually sold the bookstore to the Lello brothers in 1894.  The brothers Lello decided to build a new bookstore and hired engineer Francisco Xavier Esteves to build the new bookstore on Rua das Carmelitas, in the shadow of the Clérigos Tower  The new Livraria Lello & Irmão opened its doors in 1906.

The bookstore is truly beautiful.  The exterior is a Neo-Gothic with vivid Arte Nouveau paintings, including the two figures of Art and Science, painted by Professor José Bielman.  Just above the door, in gilt lettering, the name “Livraria Chardron” celebrates the early history of the bookstore.

Lello Exterior

The bookstore saw an increase in visitors who, driven by the popularity of the Harry Potter books, just wanted to see the interior that gave birth to the fantastic architecture of Hogwarts. Because most of the visitors were not actually there to make a purchase, Livraria Lello began charging an admission fee in 2015, with the price of the admission ticket being deducted from the price of any book purchase.

The interior is truly special.  There are busts of some of the greatest Portuguese writers, including Eça de Queirós and Camilo Castelo BrancoThe interior has a lot of art deco touches, including the stained glass skylight and the famous forked staircase.  The interior seems to be of wood, but it’s actually plaster painted to look like wood.

Lello Interior 3

As you can see from the photos, browsing through the books is a bit of a chore.  You have to fight your way through the hundreds of visitors.  We did manage to look through the cookbooks but, alas, the selection of English language Portuguese cookbooks was extremely limited.  Once I’ve learned enough of the Portuguese language to read in the language I’d love to go back to peruse the selection of Portuguese classics.  What I’ve read so far- Jose Saramago, Eça de Queirós and Fernando Pessoa- have whetted my appetite for more Portuguese literature.

Lello Interior 4

My dream is to be able to visit Livraria Lello when there are no crowds so I can browse the shelves for literary treasures that may be hidden there.  And while I’m searching for treasure maybe I’ll try to catch a few photos of this amazing store.


The Last Day, by Nicholas Shrady

At mid-morning on November 1st, 1755, while many of Lisbon’s citizens were in church celebrating All Saints Day, a massive earthquake struck the city.  As many of the survivors made their way to the city’s quays to escape the fires that were raging after the earthquake, three tsunamis hit the city and swept many of the survivors into the sea.  It’s estimated that between 15,000 and 60,000 people perished in the earthquake, fires and tsunamis that destroyed Lisbon on that day.

Unknown, 1755 Lisbon earthquake, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

While many of the survivors were just trying to stay alive, one man, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, a secretary of state to King José I, took charge.  The king asked Carvalho what was to be done.  Carvalho replied, “Bury the dead and feed the living.”

Unidentified painter 18th-century portrait painting of men, with Unspecified, Unidentified or Unknown, artist, location and year. Anonymous portuguese school, O marques de pombal, conde de Oeiras, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

The Last Day, by Nicholas Shrady, is an interesting look at the earthquake and how Carvalho, later appointed Marques de Pombal, took charge, not just of the recovery efforts after the earthquake, but of the country, ruling with an iron hand in the name of a weak king and saved Lisbon and, very possibly, Portugal.  Ignoring those who wanted to abandon the city and move the capital to nearby Belem while, at the same time, battling both the powerful Church and his political enemies, Carvalho oversaw the rebuilding of Lisbon, abolished slavery in Portugal, fostered commerce and rebuilt the military until his political downfall 22 years later.

The book looks at the Catholic Church’s centuries-long control of Portugal that left its citizens in the dark ages, the lopsided trade agreements with England that kept Portugal at a commercial disadvantage and how gold and slaves from Brazil and other Portuguese colonies kept the country afloat while weakening any homegrown commerce Portugal had.  Carvalho, in a frequently brutal way, fought these negative influences on his home country and helped to build it into the nation he believed it could be.  Some of his influence didn’t last; Queen Maria I, successor to Carvalho’s protector King José I, returned much of the power lost under Carvalho to the Catholic Church and the old nobility.  But much of his legacy, not the least of which can be seen in the city of Lisbon, remains.

The Last Day is a fascinating look at the earthquake and the man who saved Lisbon.

Carmo Ruins
The Carmo Convent Ruins, seen from Rossio Square, are a monument to the 1755 earthquake.
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