by Michael Patrick O'Leary

A  version of this article appeared in the November 2013 edition of Echelon magazine


I have only once in my life had a gun pointed directly at me. The man who took exception to me was a Portuguese soldier on guard outside the Palácio Nacional de Belém in Lisbon. This was in 1968. I had sat down on the wall opposite and the soldier found this disrespectful because the dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar, who had ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968, was dying inside the palace. Or so it was thought – he did not actually die until two years later. His rule ended in 1968 when he suffered a brain haemorrhage after falling in the bath, but he died in 1970.

salazar and francoIberian dictators – Salazar and Franco

My left wing friends and I had some qualms about holidaying in a fascist dictatorship but managed to put them aside. We had booked an apartment in Albufeira (on the same street as Tom Jones and Ringo Starr) in the Algarve, but had not arranged accommodation for our stopover in Lisbon. As soon as we got off the plane, a representative from a student hostel greeted us and took us to comfortable and clean quarters. We spent evenings listening to his views on the political situation in his country -and talking about Manchester United.

We shared a room with a heavily moustachioed Swedish hippy called Viljo, who was on his way to Afghanistan. We had a vacant space in our Albufeira apartment so he decided to travel there with us. When I got back to England, I received a postcard from Afghanistan.

Before we headed off to the Algarve by train, Viljo showed us around Lisbon, which he knew well, for a few days. Viljo arranged for us to get cheap lunches at the University. While were queuing in the cafeteria, Viljo pointed out the sinister men in suits and shades who seemed to be lurking everywhere.

These were representatives of the PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado), which had been created in 1933 under the direct orders of Salazar himself. During World War II, the PIDE (PVDE as it was then called) experienced its most intense period of activity. Portugal was neutral and Lisbon was a thriving centre of espionage as well as home to exotic exiles, like the Duke of Windsor and the King of Spain. Ian Fleming was based there. Britain recruited Spaniard Juan Pujol Garcia, (Codename Garbo), in Lisbon as a double agent.


PIDE came to be one of the most effective secret services in history, using a wide network of covert cells, spread throughout Portugal and its overseas territories. They exerted control over almost every aspect of Portuguese daily life. PIDE encouraged citizens – the so-called bufos (snitches) – to denounce suspicious activities. Torture was one of PIDE’s tools.

Despite the ever-watchful eyes of the PIDE, there were signs of a thaw and of the outside world impinging. I saw in shop windows, alongside albums of Portuguese polyphony and fado, the works of Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa.

black soldiersPortuguese soldiers in Goa

A depressing sight in the Lisbon of 1968 was the large number of black soldiers in army uniform. By April 1974, black soldiers constituted over 50% of all government forces fighting against liberation movements in Africa. The Portuguese Empire was particularly brutal. It was the first and the longest-lived of the modern European empires, spanning almost six centuries, from the capture of Ceuta in Morocco in 1415 to the handover of Macau to China in 1999. The empire spread throughout a vast number of territories that are now parts of 53 sovereign states.

While one might celebrate the maritime achievements of Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, and Pedro Álvares Cabral under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, one must not forget that Portugal was involved in the slave trade right from the beginning. Forced labour, including labour contracts with forced relocation of people, continued in many regions of Portuguese Africa until it was finally abolished in 1961. Dum Diversas was a papal bull issued on 18 June 1452 by Pope Nicholas V that is credited with ushering in the West African slave trade.  The Bull authorized Afonso V of Portugal to conquer pagans and consign them to perpetual servitude. The Papal Bull permitted the enslavement and conquest of all lands south of Cape Bojador in Africa. As well as  encouraging the seizure of the lands of Saracen Turks and non-Christians and gave permission for the enslavement of such peoples. The bull’s primary purpose was to forbid other Christian nations from infringing the King of Portugal’s rights of trade and colonisation in these regions. The Papal bull Romanus Pontifex of 1455 has served as the basis of legal arguments for taking Native American lands by “discovery”, and continues to do so today. The logic of the rights of conquest and discovery were followed in all western nations including those that never recognised papal authority. This continued under the Americans after they established the United States.

The Empire eventually brought down the dictatorship. While the rest of Europe granted independence to colonies after World War 2, Salazar doggedly hung on to what Portugal had left. Portuguese leaders attempted to stave off calls for independence by defending a policy of assimilation, multiracialism, and civilising mission, or Lusotropicalism, as a way of integrating Portuguese colonies, and their peoples, more closely with Portugal itself. Whatever the theory of colour blind assimilation, strict qualification criteria ensured that less than one per cent of black Mozambicans became full Portuguese citizens and  a system of apartheid was the reality.

When Marcelo Caetano took over from Salazar in 1969, he changed the name PIDE to DGS (Direcção-Geral de Segurança, “General Security Directorate”).  Caetano attempted some democratization, in order to avoid popular insurgency in Portugal itself. This resulted in a decrease in the perceived level of violence used by the secret police and a consequent reduction in its effectiveness.


The Carnation Revolution in April 1974 brought down the long-established Estado Novo regime. The young army officers who carried out the coup did not use direct violence to achieve their goals. Holding red carnations (cravos in Portuguese), many people joined revolutionary soldiers on the streets of Lisbon, in apparent joy and audible euphoria. The military officers were soon supported by an unanticipated and popular campaign of civil resistance. The only victims of the coup d’état which were four demonstrators shot by PIDE agents on a rooftop.


After 1986, Portugal’s economy progressed considerably because of EEC/EU structural, cohesion funds, and Portuguese companies’ easier access to foreign markets.

Prosperity hit the buffers with the financial crisis in 2008. Economic disruption and an unsustainable government debt led the country to negotiate loans. Otelo Saraiva de Carvalho was a charismatic officer whose face became the symbol of the Carnation Revolution. Carvalho was a product of the Portuguese Empire. He spent many years in the colonial wars in Africa, and was born of humble parentage  in Mozambique of some Goan ancestry. Carvalho is still an icon for activists of the left in Portugal, and is hated by many people who consider him a terrorist who tried to seize the country to become Portugal’s Fidel Castro.


In 2011, Carvalho said, when Portugal gave in to the Troika’s austerity demands in order to bail out the economy,  that he would not have taken part in the revolution if he had known it would come to this. He said that the country would need a man as honest as Salazar to deal with the crisis, but from a non-fascist perspective

Lisbon City Guide

Navigating from Empire to EU and Beyond

Sri Lankans might still enjoy a holiday in Lisbon, despite what the Portuguese invaders did to their ancestors. General Don Jeronimo De Azavedu and his soldiers allegedly threw children to crocodiles in the Kelani River, raped the women and tortured the men. In spite of this, many Sri Lankans proudly bear Portuguese names.

Portugal was in the vanguard of European overseas exploration from 1419. In 1498, Vasco da Gama led the first fleet around Africa to India, opening a maritime route from Portugal to India. By 1571, a string of outposts connected Lisbon to Nagasaki along the coasts of Africa, the Middle East, India, and Asia. This commercial network brought great wealth to Portugal.

While one might celebrate the maritime achievements of Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias, and Pedro Álvares Cabral under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, one must not forget that Portugal was involved in the slave trade right from the beginning. A series of papal bulls in the 15th Century gave Portugal authority to enslave, and convert the heathens to Christianity. Forced labour, and  forced relocation continued in many parts of the Empire until it was  abolished in 1961.

Imperial wealth decayed into fascist dictatorship, with Portugal becoming the poorest country in Europe. The Empire brought the dictatorship down in 1974. The EU brought prosperity but the downturn has hit Portugal badly. The nation came out of its worst recession since the 1970s, but the economy will continue to shrink in 2013 before returning to feeble growth in 2014. For holidaymakers, Portugal is now cheaper than anywhere else in Western Europe. Revenue from tourism accounts for around ten percent of gross domestic product.


view from sea

Lisbon overlooks the Atlantic Ocean and stretches along the northern bank of the Rio Tejo (Tagus), with bleached limestone buildings climbing the seven hills on which the city is built. The Gulf Stream provides one of the best climates in Europe, with mild winters and very warm summers. The elegance of the city is the result of the great earthquake of 1755, which killed up to 100,000 people and destroyed eighty-five percent of Lisbon’s buildings. The debris was cleared in less than a year and replaced with big squares and broad avenues.



Emirates fly daily to Lisbon, so Sri Lankans could travel conveniently via Dubai. Portugal’s national carrier, TAP, covers an extensive network throughout Europe, Africa and the Americas. Many international and budget airlines fly to Lisbon.

There are three terminals for cruise ships, with shuttles to the city centre.


Lisbon has many boutique hotels and cheap flashpacker pensãos. The Lapa Palace is one of the most expensive hotels, hosting royals and rock stars. You might be lucky and obtain affordable luxury at the Lapa through special offers.


During the high season (mid-July to mid-September), it might be wise to book ahead but if you do not, the Lisboa Ask Me Centre will help you find accommodation.


Portugal has Europe’s highest fish consumption per capita. I particularly enjoyed huge charcoal-grilled sardines served at the roadside and washing down garlicky ameijoas (clams) with vinho verde at pavement cafés that operate until the small hours.


There are many restaurants in Chiado or Bairro Alto showing evidence of the colonial past. The Rosa da Rua Restaurant offers a mix of Portuguese, Indian, and Cape Verdean flavours. Mestiços serves authentic African food.

There are 15 styles of DOP (Denominação de Origem Protegida) cheese. Many non-DOP cheeses are as good and much cheaper.


Sausages and salamis are delicious.


It is believed that monks at the Jerónimos Monastery created pastéis de nata (an egg tart) in the 17th Century.


The Guardian mentioned them as the 15th tastiest delicacy in the world. You can still buy them, near where they were invented, at Antiga Confeitaria de Belem.


Fado’s mournful songs are often about the sea or poverty. There are many fado venues. Senhor Vinho’s has prestige but is pricey. At A Baiuca there is no stage, no microphone, no spotlight. At Páteo de Alfama, classic Portuguese dishes are served between sets of fado performed by talented musicians.


Portugal’s imperial past has given a diversity of musical styles. Zouk comes from the Caribbean but Cape Verde and Angola developed their own type. The Cape Verde Association offers live music of an older style plus cachupa, a slow cooked stew of corn, beans, and meat.


sao jorge

To get to Castelo de São Jorge (St. George’s Castle), walk through the lanes of the Alfama that still bears signs of the Moorish past.


Baixa shows examples of the post-earthquake reconstruction by the Marquês de Pombal.


A €10 ticket will get you into Belém Tower and Jeronimos Monastery. Belém Cultural Centre houses a permanent exhibition, featuring Picasso, Dalí, Duchamp, Magritte, and Andy Warhol.


Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) is a monument inaugurated in 1960, on the northern bank of the Tagus River estuary, in the parish of Santa Maria de Belém. The design takes the form of the prow of a caravel (ship used in the early Portuguese exploration). The figure of Henry the Navigator is prominently featured. Thirty-three people of the era are represented including monarchs, explorers, cartographers, artists, scientists and missionaries. The construction was a gift from the apartheid South African government.


A Maritime Museum is installed the west wing of Jeronimos Monastery. There are 17,000 items including model ships from the Age of Discovery onward. The oldest exhibit is a wooden figure representing the Archangel Raphael that accompanied Vasco da Gama on his voyage to India.

After the earthquake, the homeless Portuguese royal family built a new royal residence at Ajuda with ten-acre botanical gardens around it. These are open to the public.



There are many places to buy stylish clothes. When in Lisbon go to Colombo. This huge mall even has a rollercoaster. Principe Real is a smart shopping district near Bairro Alto. One can buy nuts, fruit, cheese, bread or meat at the farmers’ market at Mercado da Ribeira.


Feira da Ladra is an outdoor flea market that has been offering new and used items since the 17th Century.

LISBOA - Feira da Ladra e Panteão Nacional

Discolecção at Number 53-A on Calçada do Duque is shop dedicated to vinyl records of all genres.


Lisbon is small enough to be walkable. I found a convenient way to see the sights was to strike a deal for the day with a cab driver. Some guides warn that Lisbon taxi drivers are dishonest, rude and unprofessional. As I always do in Colombo, agree a price before getting in. Century-old wooden trams and iron funiculars still lurch and rumble up the hills. The Metro is clean, quick, and efficient.  Buy a Lisboa Card and have free use of all public transport and free or reduced price tickets to museums.



The beach suburbs of Cascais and Estoril are only 20 minutes from the city-centre by train. South of the Tagus river/rio Tejo), try Costa da Caparica, with its beautiful beaches, or Setúbal—starting point for visits to Arrabida mountain. Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site 40 minutes from Lisbon. There you can see the royal National Palace, the ancient Moorish Castle and the Pena Palace.