We don’t need to be convinced of the European Union’s bureaucratic overreach. Its administrative and regulatory impulses, particularly in its largest and wealthiest member states, have long been a problem. Still, despite the ongoing challenges posed by the European “deep state” headquartered in Brussels and Strasbourg, some member states have managed to preserve a little bit of independence and cultural sovereignty. Such is the case of Portugal.
This was much in mind during two recent visits to the capital of Lisbon. And as I explored the city’s seven hills—walking down from the ancient mazes of the Alfama district to the flat “gridiron streets” of Baixa and then back up to the theater district of Chiado and vibrant Bairro Alto—I was struck by how little one hears of Portugal. The country seems to have kept a low profile internationally, despite the fact that a former prime minister, José Manuel Barroso, served as president of the European Commission for ten years.
To be sure, tourism is booming in the country. But it pales in comparison with what one sees in, say, Venice or Vienna. And despite nearly half a million in cruise ship passengers arriving yearly along the Tagus River, the shuffling hordes of sightseers in Lisbon do not yet merit the label of “cultural terrorists” as they do in other European capitals.
Truth is, I find the city little changed from the first time I visited more than 25 years ago. It fascinated me then with its many hidden corners and steep, serpentine streets, and it continues to delight me now with its gentle charm.
As a young man fresh out of college, I had come in search of “Old Europe,” cobbling together my own traditionalist Catholic version of the Grand Tour. My first stop had been Portugal. In fact, I spent several months living with a group I had once described as sedevacantists—all members of a lay association originally from South America. Through mutual friends in the U.S., I had arranged a sort of homestay at their Lisbon headquarters in exchange for help with administrative and English-language tasks.
For both architectural and historical reasons, one of my favorite places to visit has always been the mesmerizing Jerónimos Monastery. Its construction began in 1501 under King Manuel I with the dual purpose of commemorating Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India and marking the final resting place of the members of the so-called Joanine Dynasty (the House of Aviz).
The monastery—like many other churches and palaces across Portugal—is decorated in an exaggerated rococo style called Manueline. This, I had learned, describes a richly ornate, late-Gothic style typified by a proliferation of motifs such as coils of rope, seaweed, coral, and sea monsters. Seen as affected and pointless by crass utilitarian types, it is an aesthetic delight—and not even the urban revolutionaries of the modern age have been able to raze it from the Portuguese landscape.
The dazzling structure, which took a century to complete, eventually became the home of the Hieronymites, an order of monks living in accordance with the Rule of St. Augustine. With their white tunics, brown hooded scapular, and brown mantle, they provided spiritual guidance during the 15th and 16th centuries—in much the same way that their predecessors, the Military Order of Christ, the Portuguese successors to the Knights Templar, had done in the 14th century.
Sadly, in 1833 the secular state dissolved the religious orders, expropriating all Church properties and secularizing more than 500 monasteries—including the Jerónimos Monastery. Nearly 175 years later, the desacralized structure—perhaps aptly—was the site of the 2007 signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, an opaque agreement that eroded the sovereignty of E.U. member states and gave more power to the European Parliament.
Among Portuguese conservatives, opinions on the treaty and the role of the E.U. in general seem to vary from the Euroskeptic to the Europhilic. On the one hand, there is a deep mistrust of the European project—particularly among those sympathetic to the authoritarian Estado Novo (New State) of the classically trained António de Oliveira Salazar.
I’ve learned quite a bit about this controversial figure over the years—first, from the nearly impossible to find 2009 biography written by Filipe de Meneses, a professor at the National University of Ireland at Maynooth, and from conversations with several writers and historians. They include Jaime Nogueira Pinto, author of more than a dozen books, including a 2007 biography of Salazar.
Over grilled fish at the excellent MoMo, we talk one day about the Estado Novo and the subsequent era of democracy, all of which he describes with due academic detachment. The modern age has given rise to new threats to freedom of speech. He tells me, for example, of a talk he was scheduled to give in March at the Universidade Nova on “Populism or Democracy,” which was cancelled after threats were made by left-wing students—demonstrating yet again not only the left’s totalitarian impulse but also the global reach of the ideology of “political correctness.”
The irony of this is staggering—particularly the next day, when two bright Portuguese graduate students I meet at a bookstore insist that such insidious attacks on freedom of speech by liberal students are far more dangerous than the explicit authoritarian policies of the Estado Novo. Interestingly, they note that given the unusually large number of academics and university professors who belonged to Salazar’s regime, it was sometimes called a “catedratocracia”—derived from the Portuguese and Spanish word for university chair, cátedra.
What is clear is that there is a lot more to learn about Portugal’s controversial past. In fact, many Portuguese, young and old, seem to have a more sympathetic view of the Salazar years than what many of us might find comfortable. I am then rather nonplussed when I learn that in 2007 Salazar finished first in a public contest of “the greatest Portuguese” organized by the public broadcasting station RTP, and that a bestselling 2016 book was his collected Speeches and Political Notes, 1928-1966, a weighty, 1,140-page hardback tome.
On the other hand, not all Portuguese thinkers yearn for the past, and some harbor no doubts about le projet européen. This is apparent after a visit to the Institute of Political Studies at the Catholic University of Portugal, led by the charming Oxonian João Carlos Espada. He is an anomaly, for he is a non-Anglo who admires the “Anglo way”—particularly the political tradition embodied by Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, and Michael Oakeshott, among others. He also eschews the “conservative” label and rejects the Euroskeptic populism that has spread across the Continent.
In fact, at the annual Estoril Political Forum, which Espada organizes every June, he and his guests impart a much more sober tradition to students. The theme of this year’s gathering—which was organized in association with the International Forum for Democratic Studies in Washington, the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, the Royal Institute of Philosophy in London, and the Abigail Adams Institute in Boston—was “Defending the Western Tradition of Liberty Under Law.” And Espada’s new book, The Anglo-American Tradition of Liberty, which is the English-language edition of his 2009 Portuguese bestseller, offers readers a survey of the ideas and personalities that make up the world of “ordered liberty,” of which Espada is an able and effective steward. Today’s populism is seen as a threat to that idea of liberty.
Regardless of how Portuguese intellectuals view the E.U., one thing is certain: The destructive egalitarian spirit that has reduced so many other societies to an unremarkable mass of people seems to have made few inroads here. Even after the “Carnation Revolution” of 1974, which overthrew the authoritarian Estado Novo and ushered in anticolonialism and democracy, Lusitanians have maintained a healthy respect for Portuguese traditions.
The traditional elites—made up of the nobility, the landowners, military officers, and academics—have maintained a place of prominence in Portugal. And while in other European countries the nobility seem to have faded away, here they have retained a hold on the culture. A solid conservative bedrock remains.
The residents of Lisbon and other elegant cities like Coimbra also seem to have preserved a proper sense of decorum. To borrow from the late Russell Kirk, it’s almost as if in Portugal Zeus has not yet been overthrown, and Whirl has not yet been made king.
I find Lisbon to be a place where time passes slowly and where beauty remains important. From the Old World elegance of the grand urban residences with iconic tiled exteriors to the ornate interiors of places like the Pastelaria Versailles café and the clubby, wood-paneled Gambrinus restaurant, all mesmerize. Even the sleek, modernist, avant-garde Belcanto, which boasts two Michelin stars, leaves one speechless with its spotless interior and intricate, surprising dishes.
There are also the many important religious sights. I’ve stared in astonishment at the golden altarpieces of the Church of São Roque, the earliest Jesuit church in the Portuguese world. With its eight chapels—including the outstanding Chapel of St. John the Baptist, decorated with agate, gold, ivory, lapis lazuli, and silver, said to have been the most expensive chapel in Europe at the time of its construction in the 18th century—it is a reminder of a time when Portugal ruled half the world.
Of course, no account of a visit to Lisbon would be complete without a mention of the art form that is the fado—literally, “destiny” or “fate”—the mournful song that emerged from working-class neighborhoods across Lisbon in the 18th century. One has to experience it. Amália Rodrigues, the “queen of fado,” has said that to sing fados is “to sob softly at night.”
One cannot equate fado with “Os Lusíadas,” the epic poem by Luís de Camões (1524-80), Portugal’s Homer, which tells the story of Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India. But fado powerfully reflects the Portuguese heart and soul—which, like the country itself and its people, remain resilient and proud.
To date, Portugal has preserved her identity while avoiding some of the problems afflicting other European countries. How much longer can she maintain her distinctions? If there is one certainty today, it is that sooner or later all that remains of her heterogeneity and individuality will be crushed by the wheels of the modern European superstate.
Once that occurs, we can all turn to fado.