What are the main contrasts to be found in Portugal?
When answering a question such as this, one must primarily begin by pointing out that not only does Portugal have a great many contrasts within its land, but also that it contrasts greatly with the other Mediterranean countries. Portugal is not to be considered by any means as Spain's poor neighbour, nor should a shadow be cast over it by such a formidable nation. Portugal has a great deal to offer any visitor, it is not merely a tourist's paradise, yet this is regrettably how it is viewed by a large number of individuals. One must also not forget Portugal's history of being, in days gone by, one of the greater maritime nations, one of the more advanced exploring countries of Europe. Whilst Spain was occupied with discovering the Indias and consequently the Americas, Portugal was itself busy exploring Africa and making its own invaluable discoveries, although these are for the most part overlooked.
Being situated on the westernmost edge of Europe and the Iberian Peninsula, Portugal enjoys a relative privacy and independence from the rest of Mediterranean countries. Bordering on Spain on two sides and the sea on the others, the nation as naturally turned towards the sea, from which it draws both its strength and wealth and turned its back on its greatest rival, Spain. Due to its constant waves of invasion throughout the ages, Portugal is a vastly diverse land, not only in geographical terms but also in terms of heritage. It is true to say that Portugal does share a number of similarities with Spain, but it is by no means identical. Rather it is a nation which blends Moorish influences, British tradition and Mediterranean culture to form a truly unique land of peoples.
When considering the diversity of a country such as Portugal, the mention of which immediately conjures up a melange of images from North African to Western European, from hot and balmy weather to snow capped mountains, one must really begin by describing the two principle factors, those of climate and geography, which themselves are interwoven.
These in turn have a great effect on and to a certain extent bring about other differences which can be noted within the narrow confines of this nation, such as those of vegetation, economy and landscape.
On examining Portugal in terms of contrasting regions or areas, one must obviously have a starting point and that is generally considered to be a comparison between north and south, the River Tagus (Tejo) being the dividing line. However, Portugal can naturally be divided into three great natural regions, the North- West Atlantic, the North-East and the south. It is here that one truly becomes aware of substantial differences, therefore it is from this point where one must begin.
Although one might imagine the climate of Portugal to be almost the same as that of Spain, due to it geographical position this is not so. The country is much more open to the Atlantic winds which in the winter warming influence, ensuring temperatures seldom drop below seven degrees Celsius. In the summer, the opposite is the case, the Atlantic wind have cooling influence which maintains temperatures reasonably lower than the interior, where they can reach about forty two degrees Celsius.
Generally speaking, the high, mountainous land of the north enjoys a humid Atlantic climate which maintains the soil well-watered and fertile, making it possible for it to be covered in a rich mantle of vegetation. The south in comparison is far less mountainous, it is more gently rolling, the climate itself not being as extreme as in the north. The region known as the North-West Atlantic tends to have a rather plentiful amount of rainfall, whilst the North- East enjoys a more continental climate, whose extremes are felt both in the summer and in the winter.
Due to the variety of climates, which can be noted in Portugal, it should not be unusual to discover that the country also produces a number of a different crops, making the agriculture a considerable factor. Fishing, (Which was once the most important factor in the economy, but which sadly has become less so due to the introduction of EC regulations), textile,(also important since 1960s), and tourism, (which has unfortunately shown a decline in the last ten years due to the overdevelopment of the country and the deviation of holiday makers from Europe to other continents), are also major factors, which together make have always been of great importance to the country and carry on being so, although nowadays other factors have been added. These are all common to the country as a whole , but there are obviously regions where such produce is more easily grown and found.
One might easily decide to device Portugal once again into three parts, the three great natural regions which have previously been mentioned, yet contrast exist within such large areas that this is nor really feasible. It would be much easier to compare different regions of the country individually, because although some similarities may be noted, there are also a number of contrasts to be made.
The area around Coimbra and along the western coast of the country is one where the farming and fishing are the main sources of income. Along the coast, covered with extensive sand dunes, a small number of fishing villages still remain, whose catch regrettably is on a rather small scale. The farms which exist in this area are small, (the properties being divided amongst heirs), and their methods somewhat primitive compared with those elsewhere in the country, yet the crops which are produced are substantial. At low-level, crops such as maize, wheat and barely are produced. Fig trees are also kept and vines known as "vinhas de enforcar", (hanging vines), are grown everywhere in the fertile land of this region. At sea-level rice is grown and at high-level olive trees are kept which produce a good quality oil.
Salt is also plentiful in this region, which in turn means that this area of the country has all that it requires for salt preservation of fish right on its own door-step.
In the very north-east of the country, in Tars-os-montes, larger fields are used to produce cereal crops such as wheat, rye and barely, which are capable of withstanding harsher climates. However, in the northern area, more specifically in the Douro region, the winter climate is mild and the summers warm or hot. The infertile land found here makes it necessary for fields to be small and a variety of crops to be grown such as maize, and barely, along with potatoes, vegetables and chick-peas. At high altitude cherry and apple trees blossom, whilst at lower altitude near the coast, a few orange and apricot trees may be seen. Fishing around the coast is fairly important, with catches of sardines, tunny, crab and lamprey, plentiful.
Due to the mineral composition of the soil and intensity of the sunlight, a very special wine is produced in this area called " vinho maduro", otherwise called port wine, renowned for its sweetness. In Minho, in the northern most coastal corner of Portugal, a wine known as "vinho verde" is produced, its name coming from the greeness of the grapes. This is due partly to the fact that they are harvested slightly earlier than is usual and also to the fact that they are grown so close to the sea, where the Atlantic winds do not allow them to fully reach maturity.
The Douro region is one with a variety of economies, not only replying on agriculture as its source of income, but also on wine production, fishing and textile industry around Guimaraes, famous for being the chief centre for Portuguese linen. Also important are Braga, best known for its fine cotton, manufacture of firearms and cutlery and Oporto, renowned not only for its textile industry but also for its production of requirements for the wine industry, (bottles, corks and barrels). One could quite reasonably argue that it is here that one encounters the greatest contrasts to be found in Portugal, in this richly diverse region.
The areas along the coast of Portugal known as Estremadura and the Tagus Plains, one of the most ancient provinces, is the richest plain of the country, with intensely cultivated fields and an abundance of orchards and cork-oak woods. The climate of this picturesque region is extremely mild and the scenery immensely varied, made up of wild limestone, rocky cliffs and wooded hills. Much of the vast land is flat and low-lying and sparsely populated. the crops grown here, much the same as those further north are wheat, barley, maize and rice. Almost every farm grows its own vines and lemon, orange and olive trees. Livestock is also important to this area; along the River Tabus, bulls, reared for Portuguese bullfighting , graze and in the Ribatejo area, fine horses are bred. The fishing industry along this cost is important as is fish preserving, due to cheap labour, the proximity and high quality of the olive oil (produced at Abrantes) and cheap salt which is evaporated near by.
South of Lisbon, the landscape begins to take on a different aspect. Alentejo, nearest to the Tabus, begins by being made up valleys. Its climate is rather more continental than regions further west, encouraging the growth of pine trees, whose products: resin, turpentine, and pit props, have been an important element of the economy. Cork-oak trees are of mayor significance to this area as they make up a large and valuable export for the nation.
Cereals produced here are primarily wheat, barley and maize, which are grown in small plots around the more plentiful cork and olive trees. The land, in contrast to regions further north, such as the Douro Valley, is not divided into small parcels, rather it is divided into vast estates, limiting both the number of crops and their variety.
The Algarve is another rather diverse region in itself. It is geographically divided into two separate areas, made up of mountains in the north and relatively flat coastal lands. The weather here is mild, with warm winters, scant rainfalls and sunny skies, making it natural paradise for tourists from northern Europe. The region however, is not merely appealing solely for its tourism value, agriculture of fresh fruit, ( oranges, peaches, pomegranates, bananas, plantains, figs and almonds), olives, cereals, (wheat, barley and maize) is also encouraged. Fishing of sardines, anchovies, and tunny, and in the coastal waters, of shell-fish, lobster and crayfish are also important, as is intense garden cultivation.
One can see how vastly diverse Portugal is, not only from its other Mediterranean counterparts but also within its own confines. It is the geography and climate, which are responsible various regions, although some similarities may be observed. One would not find it possible, when viewing the nation in terms of contrasts, not to draw comparisons between the produce and economies of the different regions and merely discuss climate and geography in a general manner, as this would be glossing over the question and not portraying Portugal in its true form. However, in order to fully appreciate the diversity of this land, one must visit the country and see for oneself, by exploring it not interested in discovering more about the land, the culture and the people which make up Portugal, not merely by lying on the beaches of the Algarve.
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