The Portuguese have a very strong attachment to their beliefs, customs and capabilities, which thankfully means that Portugal’s traditional art of handicrafts hasn’t been discarded as a result of the country’s rapid modernisation since the 1974 revolution.
In Portugal, the benefits of modern progress seem to be widely enjoyed without necessarily allowing the riches of the past be lost, a fact reflected by the authenticity of local artisans’ work through the mastery of specific techniques and the innovative use of readily-available materials.
Handicrafts are a common heritage, which helps explain the apparent contradictions of a Portugal that is old-fashioned yet eager for progress; a country driven by an innate desire to maintain a centuries-old artistic legacy.
These days, many of Portugal’s high-quality handicrafts are produced for an exuberant variety of decorative purposes or to depict a simple way of rural life now very much in decline.
But deep in the interior of the Portuguese mainland, as well as the lush green Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores, little shops no larger than a living-room still have their shelves stacked with stoneware jars and glazed earthenware dishes produced by proud, locally-born craftsmen and women intent on keeping the essence of their ancestry alive.
On closer inspection, you might spy a woollen hand-made rug lovingly laid out in an alcove or wonderful wickerwork hanging on the walls.
Many people living in Portugal’s rural areas still find a need for carrying bread and fruit from the market, washing sardines and other freshly-caught fish or collecting free range eggs from a nearby chicken coop, for which a locally-produced basket remains a very useful day-to-day commodity.
Touring the country’s small towns and villages, it’s not uncommon to see ladies in their later years sitting in doorways soaking up the late afternoon or early evening sun whilst embroidering the linen they most likely had picked, carded, spun and woven with their very own hands.
The fascination for finding such singly produced items, which serve to portray the human element as much as the artistic endeavour itself, makes the discovery of Portugal’s hinterland such a rich and rewarding experience.
Existing for many centuries, the art of filigree is an ancestral technique that found its origin in the Far East. Portugal abounds in intricately-fashioned gold and silver filigree work, particularly in the Minho region where some of the finest examples can be found.
Cork is another of Portugal’s mainstay products, most notably in the south where shepherds have been known to cut and fashion it with intricate skill to make boxes for keeping their lunch cool and fresh in the searing summer heat.
Rugs from Arraiolos in the Alentejo are reminders of the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula several centuries ago. By stitching flowery designs using yarns tinted with natural dyes, local craftswomen have made them by hand for generations in small workshops dotted across the region.
And let’s not forget nearby Portalegre with its long-established factory where famous painters make a point of going to sign the wall tapestries.
Further north, it’s worth looking out for the exquisite bedspreads embroidered with silk shaded patterns by artisans in Castelo Branco, a charming town in the heart of Portugal’s picturesque Centro region.
Portugal is also popular for its leather goods, which mostly come from sheep and lamb skins. Cows produce a tougher leather that’s made into jackets and coats and there are hundreds of family-owned shops up and down the country selling leather jackets, coats, gloves, pocketbooks and wallets to the many tourists passing through.
Portugal also has a long-standing tradition in ceramics, especially the brightly-coloured wall plates and large jugs found at local markets all over the country.
These markets are an integral part of Portuguese life. Most are held on a weekly basis in a large square, starting at first light and running until the sun has reached its peak. They provide a fine showcase of the region’s best rustic pottery and ceramics, together with glazed terracotta dolls and other locally-produced handicrafts.
Portugal’s most famous market takes place every Thursday in Barcelos (indicated on the map below), a bustling town in north-west Portugal. Here, visitors can pick up all kinds of souvenirs, including hand-crafted pottery, lace, embroideries and rugs.
Other markets to look out for include Sintra’s Feira de São Pedro, which takes place on the second and fourth Sunday of each month, and Lisbon’s famous flea market (Feira da Ladra) held every Tuesday and Saturday morning in the city’s ancient Alfama district.