Spring and Port Wine

9781108054171fc3d … is the name of a play and then a film about Bolton, in northern England. However, I’m borrowing the title because I’ve just spent a few spring days in (O)Porto, where the wine comes from. My Portuguese vocabulary has consequently mushroomed temporarily by several hundred per cent (admittedly from the low base line of one word). Sun, fish, wine, UNESCO heritage site, what’s not to like?

But it did reveal another of the depressing areas of bottomless ignorance into which I keep stumbling: Portuguese history … Er, Henry the Navigator (not in fact a king of Portugal but a younger son of John I and his English wife, Philippa of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt and older sister of the future Henry IV).

Prince Henry the Navigator, outside the Bolsa. Go west, young seagull!

Prince Henry the Navigator, outside the Bolsa. Go west, young seagull!

And er, that’s about it… Luckily there is a Concise History of Portugal at hand to ameliorate the situation. I did however recognise the equestrian statue in Plaça Liberdad, because we used an image of it on the cover of the two-volume Account of the War in Portugal between Don Pedro and Don Miguel, published in 1836.

Dom Pedro, carrying the constitution

Dom Pedro, carrying the constitution

Its author, Charles Napier (1786–1860), was a very active participant in the events which he describes. A member of the Scots military and naval dynasty (his cousins included Charles James, George Thomas and William Francis Patrick Napier, the family memorialist), Charles was a seaman, having joined the Royal Navy at thirteen. At nineteen, he was commanding a ship against the French, and moved rapidly up the promotional ladder until he was appointed captain: at this point he was unemployed for two years, waiting for a ship.

In 1810 he went to visit his army cousins, then fighting in the Peninsular War. Funny kind of holiday, you might think: he was wounded in one battle, and helped save Charles James when he fell wounded in another skirmish; this was his first experience of Portugal. Recalled to command in 1811, he saw action in the Mediterranean, and later provided ‘the rocket’s red glare’ and the ‘bombs bursting in air’ during the 1814 bombardment of Baltimore, which inspired Francis Scott Key’s patriotic song which later became the American national anthem.

At the end of hostilities in 1815, he was out of a naval job, but took a great interest in (and lost a lot of money on) the development of steam ships. After a great number of short-lived jobs, he went in 1833 (though the interest of his Hampshire neighbour, Lord Palmerston) to take command of a fleet supporting the constitutionalist claimant to the Portuguese throne, Dom Pedro, against the absolutist party of his younger brother, Dom Miguel.

He arrived in Oporto to find a ramshackle collection of boats, and an equally ramshackle crew, but his superior seamanship enabled him to defeat the much larger absolutist fleet off Cape St Vincent. This was a personal triumph for Napier (and a diplomatic one for Palmerston) for which he received no official commendation but great personal acclaim; he then retired to Hampshire again, and practised modern agricultural methods on his estate near Horndean.

Napier's Hampshire home, Merchistoun Hall (named after the family's Scottish estate), today a community centre

Napier’s Hampshire home, Merchistoun Hall (named after the family’s Scottish estate), today a community centre

Napier’s later career was a seesaw between rural pursuits in Hampshire, some time as a Member of Parliament, and two recalls to active service, through and in aid of the usually Machiavellian machinations of Palmerston. But this lively (and extremely partisan) account of the tortuous politics and dashing naval and military exploits of the Portuguese affair is well worth a read – though it has to be said that the Portuguese (except Dom Pedro) don’t come out of it too brilliantly.

Charles Napier's memorial column, in Victoria Park, Portsmouth (which I must have passed dozens of times in my giddy youth without noticing it)

Charles Napier’s memorial column, in Victoria Park, Portsmouth (which I must have passed dozens of times in my giddy youth without noticing it)

But back to Porto: there are Gothic churches, with grotesquely over-decorated, eighteenth-century, gold-leaf-and-polychrome-statue interiors; there are port warehouses which light up at night with British names – Warre, Sandeman, Cockburn, Graham, Taylor. There are spectacular bridges across the Douro, and a most extraordinary nineteenth-century stock exchange, the Bolsa, the interior rooms of which have to be seen to be believed.

The Arabic Room (for formal presentations and dancing) in the Bolsa

The Arabic Room (for formal presentations and dancing) in the Bolsa

But in spring, there are also camellias and magnolias in profusion, against clear blue skies, especially in the gardens of the Crystal Palace (built with the English model in mind in the nineteenth century, but – alas – replaced in 1956 with an ugly (to my eyes) dome), which also contain palms, mimosas, Victorian bedding-out, and the Romantic House, where the exiled Carlo Alberto of Piedmont–Sardinia died in 1849, having been defeated by Austria at the battle of Novara. (His son, Victor Emmanuel, was the first king of united Italy.) As I said, what’s not to like?

Caroline

A red camellia, related of course to the tea plant, Camellia sinensis

A red camellia, related of course to the tea plant, Camellia sinensis

Magnolia stellata in Porto (my Cambridge one is still in tight buds)

Magnolia stellata in Porto (my Cambridge one is still in tight buds)

More magnolias...

More magnolias…

Mag Soul.

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This entry was posted in Art and architecture, Biography, Gardening, History, The Naval Chronicle, Travel and Exploration and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Spring and Port Wine

  1. Pingback: Ten Things I Didn’t Know About Portugal | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

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