Family Reunion in Portugal
You could say that exploration in is in my blood. I’ve always been a wanderer; first in my mind’s eye with a wild imagination as a child, to today, a woman with wanderlust who still has ambitions of seeing how people live in every corner of the globe. I say travelling is in my blood because my father is Portuguese and any student of history knows this little country was once a very powerful European empire due mainly because of its explorers’ seafaring prowess that led to conquering new lands and engaging in very lucrative trade with people across Africa, South America, China and India. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Portugal rivalled Spain, England and France as a world power and had significant political, economic and cultural influence.
And while Portugal’s once-dominant history as a colonizer is evident in many Portuguese-speaking countries around the world today like Angola, Brazil, Goa (India), Macau (China), Mozambique and many others, explorers even landed and influenced Canada. Did you you know that the name “Labrador” in Newfoundland and Labrador comes from a Portuguese explorer? It is thought that the name evolved in the 15th century from João Fernandes who was a “llavrador,” or landowner, who explored the coast of Greenland. References to “the labrador’s land” evolved into the area’s new name: Labrador. The term was first applied to a section of the coast of Greenland, but the area of Labrador now includes all the northern islands in the region. Previously called only Newfoundland, the province officially became Newfoundland and Labrador in December 2001, when an amendment was made to the Constitution of Canada (thoughtco.com). So cool, right?
So yes, the Portuguese, my ancestors, have touched and influenced almost every corner of the Earth…Which gets me back to why I wanted to travel to Portugal this summer: to reunite with my family there!
Ryan, Marquesa and I flew two hours from Mallorca direct to Lisbon where we set up shop in the stunning 5-star Eurostars Museum Hotel in Alfama, one of Lisbon’s oldest and historic neighbourhoods. The plan? Await the staggered arrival of the rest of the Grelo Clan and spend as much as time as we could with our Portuguese family.
My father was born and raised about 45 minutes directly north in the city of Caldas da Rainha and it’s where most of his family still lives. After spending a lazy Saturday drifting through our beautiful Lisbon neighbourhood, we drove our rental car to my Tia Adelaide and Tio Joao’s home Sunday for our first meet-up with my newly arrived parents. My aunt’s hospitality is legendary and we were immediately spoiled with a perfect home-cooked meal of bacalhau, potatoes, eggs and “grelos”, or sprouts, drizzled in rich Portuguese olive oil and vinegar.
It was non-stop conversation, catching up and reminiscing for four solid hours before the rest of the families who live nearby stopped in for a visit and mini-reunion. My two first cousins, Marta and Joao arrived with their spouses and children. It was the very first time Marquesa had met any of them. We didn’t know how it would go given the language barrier, but within minutes, the four girls and two boys ranging in age from 3 to 12 were off and playing together! It was truly a marvel to watch play transcend language. They found a way to communicate perfectly without saying much at all. They would be inseparable for the rest of the trip. My heart swelled with joy!
That night, we all travelled together to the last night of the local Caldas Fair in the stunning Park D. Carlos I, named after a Portuguese king, but not before my aunt showed us the very spot where she, my father and their sister had their first childhood family home. What’s there today? A crosswalk!
While this once small town has swelled into a city of over 50,000 people, my father still managed to bump into several old friends at the fair. That perfectly captures what Caldas da Rainha is – big city attitude with small town familiarity and warmth.
The rest of the week was a combination of personal family time and sightseeing with planned family get-togethers.
Ryan, Marquesa and I explored new parts of Lisbon I had never visited before like Mirador de Santa Luzia and Castelo de Sao Jorge. It’s when we learned that the city is NOT very accessible. We struggled at times with Marquesa’s stroller to climb cobblestone stairs and alleys and slipped more than once walking down those same stairs and paths. Well-worn cobblestone can be as slippery as ice! I guess that’s what you get from an ancient city! Our solution to getting around for the rest of the week on foot was to take frequent snack, drink or coffee breaks at charming cafés we’d find in our travels. The benefit of all the walking was earning a good swim at our hotel and sleeping soundly and deeply every night.
Our hotel neighbourhood, Alfama, is one of the oldest in Lisbon and is also the birthplace of Fado, a form of music characterized by mournful tunes and lyrics, often about the sea or the life of the poor, and infused with a sentiment of resignation, fatefulness and melancholia. This is loosely captured by the Portuguese word saudade, or “longing”, symbolizing a feeling of loss (a permanent, irreparable loss and its consequent lifelong damage). Every night in restaurants, bars and cafes in Alfama, you can find the country’s best fado singers, accompanied by equally gifted musicians playing the guitarra portuguesa and viola (a type of guitar). The night my sister arrived in Lisbon, she, her boyfriend, Marquesa, Ryan and I had dinner at the famed Clube de Fado where we were serenaded over the duration of our meal. Rumour has it that it’s not uncommon for Madonna to pop in to one of these establishments to take in and even partake in fado singing sessions! (She’s lived in Lisbon since 2017.) Four singers and a few bottles of vinho verde later, we walked exactly 3 minutes back to our hotel.
Just a short drive from Lisbon is the historic municipality of Sintra and home of the Pena Palace. The 19th-century palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. The site was originally a chapel but evolved over the centuries to become the summer home of the Portuguese royal family beginning in the mid-1800s. The very last queen of Portugal, Queen Amelia, spent the last night of her reign in the palace before fleeing the country into exile after the Portuguese Revolution in 1910 that overthrew the monarchy.
The palace has been beautifully maintained with the interior décor restored to its state in 1910. My family along with my sister and her boyfriend toured the interior and took in to the stunning views from high atop the palace. I first visited the palace as a young child and it’s just as majestic today as I first remembered it to be. It was peak tourist season so we waited over an hour to get inside. If that spooks you, rest assured that the visit and views are well worth the wait!
Tuesday night was the first of three big planned family reunion events. My cousin Marta and her husband Luis hosted a large family dinner at their beautiful home that overlooks a pear and apple orchard below. My sister Rosanna and her boyfriend Ali arrived from a trip to Berlin, Germany and joined us. Before dinner, I captured some great photos of our posse (minus one family) including all the young cousins. It would be the first night of many when I would shed happy tears. I could feel my soul being rejuvenated and filled with immense gratitude and happiness, like drinking a tall glass of water and not realizing just how thirsty you were until you finished it. I was slowly quenching a deep desire for connectedness. The only thing that could make it better? A pyjama party! My sister and I and our families were invited to stay the night, allowing the conversations to go late into the night. It was a perfect evening.
What followed were days filled with more family get-togethers and, horses, of course!
“Sereníssima Casa de BRAGANÇA” (“The House of Braganza” in English): Once one of the wealthiest and most powerful noble houses in the Iberian Peninsula during the Renaissance period (15th and 16th centuries). The family came to rule the Portuguese empire of Portugal, the Algarves and Brazil until 1889. The House produced 15 Portuguese monarchs and all 4 Brazilian monarchs. Today, a direct descendant continues the family’s rich history of classical horsemanship with the Lusitano horse, the same breed that my father first imported to Canada in the mid-80s and upon which he built his business.
In true Portuguese style, we called up my father’s old friend, Don Francisco de Bragança, late one morning and a squad of us showed up at his home’s doorstep within the hour to pay him a visit.
There are so few people in the world who practice the classical art of dressage like my father, Francisco Grelo. On a hot Wednesday afternoon in rural Portugal, I was breathing rarefied air: two masters of classical horsemanship together, both named Francisco, both in business for over 40 years, both Portuguese, both who share the same philosophy of training, both who are obsessed with the Lusitano horse. It was a meeting-of-the-minds that I have only experienced once before during a visit to the world-famous Spanish Riding School of Vienna in Austria when my father spent time with one of the lead riders of the almost 450-year-old riding school. Like in Vienna, I spent the afternoon marvelling at what was unfolding before me: my father sharing stories from the front lines with someone who was, in virtually every way, his equal and understood so intimately everything he was describing about teaching, training and breeding. Two men who were living out their dreams and passion in an almost parallel fashion a world away from one another. It was as close as any human can get to meeting a twin they never knew they had.
My father wouldn’t have travelled to Portugal to have only ONE horse-related visit! No way! That’s why I also arranged a visit to the Portuguese School of Equestrian Art or Escola Portuguesa de Arte Equestre located in the heart of Lisbon’s historic Belem neighbourhood and first founded in 1726. It is one of the “Big Four” of the classical riding academies in the world; the others being the aforementioned Spanish Riding School of Vienna, Le Cadre Noir de Saumur in France and the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain. We met up with Michael, one of my father’s former students who is affiliated with the school. We received a VIP tour of the farm, stables and premises that was once home to Portuguese military. We then took in the morning exercise training sessions of the stunning, bay Alter Real stallions. My father reconnected with old friends who still ride and train at the school. And like a fish can’t help but swim in water, my father couldn’t help but teach while visiting! Little did I know that a little surprise awaited me….a stallion of my own to ride! I wasn’t expecting the opportunity of a lifetime to present itself to me that day and my outfit showed it – a romper and espadrilles! It was another unforgettable day!!!
While in Belem, we visited some of the most famous sites in all of Portugal via horse carriage: Pasteis de Belem bakery founded in 1837 and the awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Site, Jerónimos Monastery built in 1502 to commemorate famous Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India and to give thanks to the Virgin Mary for its success. It’s elaborate “Manueline” architecture incorporates maritime elements and motifs. Its imposing size and beauty are breathtaking.
The benefit of multi-generational travel is the possibility of an adults-only, child-free night out on the town! That’s exactly what I planned with my sister and my Portuguese first cousins! With the kids at my aunt’s house for a slumber party with the grandparents, 9 of us had a great night out dining at hotspot Praia no Parque in downtown Lisbon. Amazing cocktails, phenomenal food and a gorgeous atmosphere came together to provide the backdrop for a great night of reconnecting and family bonding.
The weeklong gatherings were leading up to one big night: a full family reunion dinner in historic Obidos. This was the last event of the week, but it was the first event I planned for my family trip to Portugal. I wanted a historic site that was beautiful, memorable and held significance for all of us. The medieval, walled town of Obidos with its majestic, imposing castle overlooking the entire municipality below ticked all the boxes.
To capture the historic night, I planned a professional photo shoot at and around the castle and town below. At sunset, the atmosphere, the lighting and the mood were perfect…until the cobblestones caught up with us. As we were wrapping up the photo shoot, Marquesa was running (downhill) toward her cousins when she tripped on the uneven ground and landed face-first on the hard cobblestone pathway. Instantly, there was blood everywhere! It took me a minute to calm her down enough to determine where the blood was coming from and ensure she didn’t need medical care. A double-nostril nosebleed and deep inner lower lip gash were the culprits, but luckily, the bleeding stopped and she was back to herself within the hour.
Running 20 minutes late, we finally proceeded to a cocktail reception inside the castle-turned-hotel and restaurant and then to the dining hall where monarchs and noblemen used to eat. We’re mostly a family of pescatarians and vegetarians so I pre-ordered an amazing menu of mostly local fish, vegetables and produce.
After four hours together, our stomachs and hearts were full. We tearfully said our goodbyes and promised to stay in touch via social media and our group chat.
We’ve been home for weeks and I can happily report that we are still messaging almost every day and already planning our next reunion!