Americans who give Portugal much thought at all consider it an extension of Spain—the more familiar country occupying the remaining six-sevenths of the Iberian peninsula. Indeed, the two look much alike, and are separated by a border that in places takes the form of a low stone fence between two farmers’ fields.
But Portugal has a unique character, and Proper, who has spent a decade in Portugal itself and the former Portuguese territories of Brazil and Angola, is a nearly ideal interpreter. THE LAST OLD PLACE recounts a journey he takes through Portugal from south to north, accompanied by a staid, 77-year-old Lisbon lawyer named Adriano. It’s a journey through time as well as space, and a leisurely one at that. At Sagres, for instance, “the Sacred Promontory at the end of Europe,” Proper celebrates Henry the Navigator, the visionary prince who sent Portuguese caravels out to discover the world. Farther north, at Aljubarrota, he re-creates the 1385 battle in which the Portuguese asserted their independence from Spain.
Along the way Proper pauses to fly fish and hunt grouse with Adriano, and to sing the praises of such Portuguese dishes as thistle soup and Nun’s Belly, a rich dessert concocted almost entirely of egg yolks.
The country Proper reveals is a modest, largely self-sufficient one buoyed up rather than weighed down by past glories—a country with a sense of proportion. But will that sense survive the century? Tourists already swim nude along Portugal’s southern coast, and less desirable forms of progress are not far behind. Here’s hoping that potential visitors read Proper’s perceptive book first, and tread carefully.