For me, Portugal is all about the backstreets and alleys. Whether you’re slowly trudging up a winding pathway of cobblestone through the Alfama or climbing the seemingly insurmountable steps in Medieval Coimbra, the sights, scents and sounds deaden the ache rising from your feet. You’re pulled upward by the search for that perfect vantage point to look out over layers of red tile roofs and whitewashed stucco descending to the banks of the nearest major river.
It was along the ascent to the grand plaza of the Universidad de Coimbra that we came across the first of a series of messages taunting the tourists that struggle to make their way to the top. This alley led to the plaza’s rear entrance and broke off from the street serving the central shopping district. Students dressed in their black cloaks congregate along the stone steps and ledges in front of fado bars, cafes, and shops filled with phony curios and Portuguese trinkets, watching over the weary travelers with unsympathetic smiles like crows perched on a wire on the lookout for prey.
On our return back down the hill from the university’s monumental facades and empty hallways, I collected a few more images that reflected the somber tone of the many Portuguese men and women I had passed by during our visit. The reality is that people work very hard and long for very little throughout Portugal. For most tourists, Portugal’s affordability is a reprieve from the expensive attractions and getaways in Western Europe. City streets throughout the country are cluttered with brightly painted Tuk Tuks operated by multilingual entrepreneurs who have abandoned professional careers offering little in the way of upward mobility and financial prosperity. Tourism is now driving economic growth.
Just as in their music, there’s an undertone of sadness and inevitable misfortune in many Portuguese eyes. Many faces appeared to feel forgotten. Others have simply lost sight of themselves.