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the great green gargle

The spring rolls were wrapped, the fish cakes prepared, the squid and chicken marinated. It was time to start the summer 2012 vinho verde tasting.


For the uninitiated, vinho verde – literally green wine but more correctly it means young wine – is a national treasure. It’s a very old wine style unique to Portugal and only produced in the North (cold, wet) where it has its very own little DOC. The Minho is a spectacular region with a different look to the rest of Portugal. Granite is the predominant stone there – unlike the dark grey/clay schist colours of the Beira Litoral, where I am, the North’s houses are built with massive pale grey granite slabs – as are the roads, town squares, and pillars and posts that provide structures in the vineyards. There the grapes are grown very high off the ground on tall vertical pergolas. Originally these structures were designed to solve boundary disputes – aided by their high visibility and clear and permanent demarcation lines – but like the espigeiros they are now just a part of the grand Northern landscape.



Although vinho verde can come in red and rosé it is most commonly white, pale, fruity, acidic and with a light bubbliness which is a key part of its charm. Broadly speaking it has a lowish alcohol content which further adds to its conviviality. I first drank vinho verde on a cold November night in a small bar in Viana do Castelo where they serve it in little blue and white bowls. Like most novices I drank far too much and ended up with a wicked hangover. Bubbles, quaffability and a headache – that’s vinho verde.

It should have been obvious to me that as a party drink, the greens to not apply themselves well to a properly conscientious judging. I regret to say that the results make us look like a bunch of drunken buffoons, which we were, or else the pursuit of excellence in the vinho verde denomination is a total sham.


laap bo

Here’s a list of things we did that you shouldn’t do at a serious wine tasting.

1. eat, although cheese is permitted, but only with reds

2. use the same glass, plastic ones

3. get drunk

4. tell hilarious stories and distract everyone from the job at hand

5. mix the wines with sticky Mississippi mud pie, a tart apricot flan and a spongy, gooey chocolate torte

6. forget to drink any water

I planned well, really. But it got out of hand. It’s not my fault. It just all went terribly wrong.


We started with a Casal Garcia. Medium priced, highly exportable, ubiquitous, Casal Garcia is a crowd pleaser of a vinho verde and a decent benchmark to sort the grass from the weeds.

Three or five glasses of that later we started on wine number two, which came out all red and was unanimously rejected. Vinho Verde Tinto, tautology in a cup, is an acquired taste. Revolting, I mean.

So with some anticipation came wine number three, named “Veronica do Lenço” for the occasion*, and she was all frothy which was generally thought of as a bad thing. The commentarios, yet earnest and legible, were unanimous – thin, sweet and low scoring.


The fourth wine, “Sangue” was a rosé and it delighted the punters with its pinky colour, raspberry-floral nose and its surprisingly well-balanced palate and dry finish. This wine defeated the reputation of rosés being sickly lolly-water. “Interesting, curious and very good” and with very high scores all round.

The next wine “Pedro” was generally well liked but received average scores. A guest named Jean Batiste Porquelin commented that it was good with seafood (perhaps the salt and pepper squid had been served) but Gary Busey thought it was too sour.


The entrance of “Agonia” caused somewhat of a stir and the bottle was finished on the first round. Perhaps that’s why the comments are rather thin and difficult to read. Muito vinho and very drinkable perhaps describe the moment best. Very high scores were given and while the rosé was already assumed to be Casal Garcia, this one got everyone guessing. Or showing off. Acting like wino afficionados. It was very Sydney for a moment.

I think this was when the lemon chicken was brought out, which I considered to be the best dish of the night. Everyone was happy, and the next wine was also a winner. “Os Ladrões” was described as perfect, light and sweet by Oscar Wilde and cheap shit but nice by Jason Donovan. High scores, although it was recognised as a cheapie.

From then on we were on a downhill slope. The next three wines lived true to their given names. “Madelena” was a whore of a wine and scores went plummeting. “A Queda” did indeed and “Gethsemane” was depressing.


All this coincided with the fried spring rolls and their exquisite sweet chilli sauce, sending many guests into eulogies of sloppy rapture. Was it a major food/wine faux pas?

Fortunately the next wine saved the night. “Sireneu” was described by Matt Damon as inspiring,  Pussy McVibie liked the nice bubbles, Gargantua thought it was leve and muito euti havel and Penelope Keith was under the table. Kyle (Broflovski I presume, going by the handwriting) called it sweet and sour, which was good, but Molière said it was like formaldehyde. Nevertheless, high scores.


Then disaster struck.

The biggest fattest Mississippi mud pie arrived. A chocolate marshmallow sludge bath of decadence and mortal sin. The One and I had two gross helpings and then sat back looking like Jabba the Hut twins. Not to be easily satiated though, we then went all healthy and had a whopping section of awesome Apricot pie, the acid perfectly cutting the rich mousse of the mudster. And then came the chocolate torte, quite light and spongy on top but moist and dense underneath. It was like a quality mattress that I wanted to spend the rest of the night lolling about on.

The next two, final wines, made everyone pull ugly faces, gesticulate, gag and some guests even rushed to use the neighbours’ spittoon/garden ornament. Horrivél, antifreeze, nasty, poisonous, acid, vile and a whole lot of portuguese bad words peppered the commentary with neither wine beating a score of 2 out of 10. Total. From 15 judges.

Luckily it was all over then. Or so I thought. In the morning I found one bottle that was left behind. Label-less. Even with a murderous hangover I instinctively felt that this was the one that got away, the rightful champion of the night. But how would we ever know?


the wines the scores the prices

crucifixo casal garcia 41 €3.29

pilates ponte de barca tinto 19 €2.29

veronica de lenço via latina 22 €2.29

o sangue casal garcia rosé 44 €3.29 FIRST

agonía campo de gruta (lidl) 43 €1.69 SECOND

pedro gazela 37 €2.99

os ladrões aldeia do sol 40 €1.29 FOURTH

madalena arinto quinta de santa maria 30 €3.60

a queda torre de menagem 21 €2.99

gethsemane campelo 33

sireneu coop agricola de felgueiras 41 €1.59 THIRD

chicotear loureiro muros antigos 20

maria adega de monçao 14 €2.59

Frankly I’m shocked, appalled and horrified that, outside of the respectable Casal Garcia we chose the very cheapest as our favourites. I had no such pretensions about the how-low-can-you-go whites or reds, and the co-op felguerias is even The One and my own Wednesday wowser. But, but, I drink a lot of vinho verde and I’ve come to think that there is a difference between the cheap and the noble and price being no object I’d choose to drink an alvarinho Deu la Deu over a cooperativo any day. I’ve become a vinho verde snob, you see. I should’ve made the tasting rule to be only expensive vinho verde. But how would the results be skewed if there were more alvarinhos on the list?


You see there are vinho verdes and vinhos verde. The grapes permitted in the denominação are Loureiro, Azal, Trajadura, Arinto (Pederña) and Avesso, which are most commonly blended – nearly everything on our list was blended.

Then there’s the alvarinho grape, which is only grown in the sub-region of Monçao and Melgaço. Alvarinho grapes are never included in a blend and vintage has more importance, making these wines more expensive. Of the other grapes only Loureiro and Arinto are used as varietals.


This makes finding your own vinho verde easier. Just find out which grape you prefer – some labels, like Via Latina, make a blended, a loureiro and an alvarinho, which would make for a fair night’s testing, more or less. The Aveleda label has the same range.

In final tippage, vinho verde is green wine. It is meant to be drunk young. Unless you really know your label and vintage, don’t bother choosing anything more than 2 years old. Age is no friend to this drink and nor is serving it anything other than very, very cold. After opening a bottle, chill it, or by the end of the bottle you’ll be wondering where all the charm has gone.


*shall I explain why all the wines have new testament names? Actually no I don’t think so, because in the end they were not necessary because everyone arrived at the same time and therefore the stations of the wine idea never eventuated. A decent party is an organic beast.

down on the farm

For the last few months we’ve woken up to the sound of harvesters felling trees over a large tract of forest above the village. Thousands of eucalypts cut, shredded, piled up and taken away. What’s left behind is a scene of post apocalyptic devastation.


The annual timber season upset me when I first moved here. The crack and crash of huge trees echoing down the valley sounded so final and destructive. I’ve gotten over it now. We are in the heart of timber country and it’s not like eucalypts are native, carefully tended or even very old. The variety grown here, Eucalyptus globulus isn’t particularly well-suited to Portugal (it doesn’t even flower here), is left to grow inefficiently in awkward clumps, not resembling at all the majestic Triassic trees of home. Eucalypts grown anywhere but Australia will strip the soil of water and nutrients at the cost of every native plant around them, eventually causing irreversible erosion. They don’t belong here.

But I don’t begrudge the loggers and land owners from earning their living. Most of my neighbours own slices of the forest and fortunately not all of it is being replaced by the fast growing gum tree which fetches a higher price than pine. Once upon a time the pine tree’s partners in this forest were oak and chestnut – trees which continue to fertilize and enrich the soil and are indigenous to Southern Europe. There are a few varieties of oak which are specifically native to Portugal (including the cork oak, an enduring major commodity) and the Romans probably introduced chestnuts to Portugal, as they did in most places, as a food source. What depresses me is the loss of these great timbers in favour of the spindly, super-combustible paper-making eucalypt. Strange to think there is still such demand for paper, when paper was clearly the loser in the great paper/scissors/data storage contest of the late 20th century.


Just as the last tree fell from the hillside, a hundred tractors descended upon Cu de Judas to collect firewood. Now every village around here has a huge pile of stumps at its gates. The scavengers, us included, came in every evening and all day on Sunday in industrially organised teams – one truck we saw carried 7 men and about 5 tonnes of gnarly stumpage. All and sundry seemed to understand the rules – that it was ok to scavenge (even though the land is privately owned by a guy who lives nearby) and the designated times that scavenging would take place.


I’ve been a bit put off by the huge scar looming above us. So when I went up there at dawn, only a day or two after The One and I became like locals and filled the kangoo with next winter’s wood,  the sight of newly planted tree-lings was an inspiring sight. Just a pity they’re not noble, or maple… baobab… a field of sunflowers… lavender? 🙂

Just being up at dawn is inspiration enough. Watching how the weather for the day is taking shape. The cool crisp air. The silence. And the wookie possessed with fun and freedom. It’s been too long since I’ve done this.


The day before, I had a long chat with an old friend who said ultimately that she didn’t understand why I had moved to Portugal. Why Portugal? The financial crisis has had me by the throat for so long I have forgotten why. I’ve even been planning to go back to Sydney to work just so I don’t have to watch every bill that comes in. This tedious self absorption with money makes Poor in Portugal no different to Successful in Sydney.

So the clouds dancing around our little village at 7am meant something. And then my 8am superb coffee and sticky, still warm croissant, plus a loaf of bread and an extra croissant for the sleeping husband all for €3… that meant something too. Stopping for a long chin wag with Tia Maria, who’s now a little older and grateful for the help carrying buckets of feed to the ducks and chickens. Waiting to rest with her and admire her healthy, feathered, free range crew all destined for the table. All that meant something too. The time to linger.


I asked Tia Maria what she knew about the current crisis in Portugal. She wasn’t bothered by it because it’s not effecting her (graças a Deus) and she gestured towards her field of cabbage and potatoes. Does she remember at time when things were worse? Her old eyes went glassy as she talked about her post-war childhood, when all they did was work – the olives, the vines, the wood, the fields. All the time working and nothing to eat, just turnips all the time. And no flour for bread – she still hates corn bread. How one time they walked to Entroncamento. She can’t remember how long it took, maybe a month?

What a whinger am I! We eat like kings, the pets are happy, we have no major debts and we sleep in until 10. Why Portugal? Why anywhere else?


beijinhos to tessa and virginia



spies, lies and double agents: portugal in ww2

A neutral country is the perfect environment for spying during a war. It may not be possible to find out exactly what was happening in Berlin from London, but on the neutral ground of Lisbon you could find out was happening in both cities.

Lisbon was the hub through which the wires of espionage ran. Official departments from the warring parties provided the funding for the intelligence machine, plus the framework required to receive and deliver information to high command. The spies’ agents were the cameras and microphones and external drives feeding the computer with information. The spies intercepted the lines of communication between the street, the Allies and Axis, scrutinising, interpreting and filtering what they received before sending it on its way.


Intelligence officers from every country rubbed shoulders around town, especially espionage HQ, the Palácio Estoril. During the war there were as many as fifty intelligence agencies operating in Lisbon. There were official spies but they were way outnumbered by an army of freelance amateurs: waiters, cleaners, taxi drivers and shop-keepers who watched and listened and reported to whomever was paying. An American intelligence paper of 1943 reported that “a remarkably high proportion of the population are working for one or more of the intelligence services”.  Spy-fever gripped Lisbon, and spy-watching became something of a pastime. Foreign correspondent Polly Peabody remarked that spies would loiter in bars and cafes being quite conspicuous at times, while another part of the clientele waited for something to happen – some rendezvous or even a confrontation – until it was difficult to tell between these camps of lurkers who were the spies and who were the real customers.

And then, there was another group who was watching the people watching the spies. The Portuguese secret police were not only on the take (more often from the Germans) but acted like an arbiter for both sides. Its concern ran less with the foreign bureaus than Portuguese nationals, or illegal, working for them.

The elite of the spies were the double agents. While many of these supernaturally gutsy people faded into obscurity when the war was won, many others entered the realms of folklore.

None more deserving so than Garbo, or Juan Pujol Garcia, whose career as a spy started more strangely than fiction. At the start of the war the only credentials he possessed were a sturdy conviction about right and wrong and an extraordinary talent for bullshitting.

Spanish born Garbo wanted to be a spy because he didn’t like the Germans. He fronted up at the British Embassy in Madrid and volunteered himself, and they sent him away. So he contacted the Abwehr, the German Intelligence Agency who heartily accepted him and his plan to supply them with British currency for which documents were held in a Portuguese bank. Once in Portugal he met someone with an entry visa for Argentina, which he ‘borrowed’, had copied and took back with him to Madrid, where he spun the Abwehr another story about a mission in Britain (for which he’d use the Argentinean visa to leave from Portugal). The Abwehr gave him some invisible ink, a code book and $3000.


But he didn’t go to England. He stayed in Lisbon where he bought a map, a guide book and a English-French phrasebook of military terms (he didn’t speak any English) and used these to hash together invaluable intelligence about the Allied war effort for the Germans. Indeed, he made it all up. But his were very good, as one of his “reports” about a British fleet assembling in Malta caused the Germans to send a convoy to intercept it, rousing the interest of MI6 about a new spy on the loose.

Garbo continued his freelance counter-intelligence work from Lisbon for some time, being handsomely paid by the Abwehr for his long-winded letters packed with minisculia about troop movements and the occasional major gaff about English culture, while British M16 agents tried to discover his identity. Coincidentally he presented himself at the American Embassy in Lisbon, from where the British finally recruited him and brought him to England.

Under the control of M16 his real work began. He built a network of imaginary sub- agents and developed his credibility further with the Germans with titbits of quality, sanctioned by MI6, intelligence. In the beginning Garbo’s gift of the gab is somewhat laughable, but by 1944, the subtlety and psychology of his reports to the Abwehr had made him the most trusted of German agents, and the very valuable asset to the Allies. M16 put Garbo in the centre of Operation Fortitude, the plan to divert the Germans away from the Normandy landings. Garbo is credited as the most successful spy of WW2.

The Abwehr, as the Garbo case shows, was far from being a very effective intelligence agency. This is not just history written by the winners. It can’t be said that the German agency was implicitly subversive, but the Abwehr head, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was later recognised for his opposition to the Nazi party and his involvement in plots to depose Hitler.

The Abwehr staff came from civilian life rather than the military and recruitment focussed more on numbers than ability. In ideology the workforce ranged from the indifferent to barely-veiled anti-nazis. Neutral-country branches were run almost independently from HQ and their managers did only what was required to keep their jobs, while padding their expense accounts and creaming the top off agents’ generous fees. However, the Abwehr still managed to infiltrate almost every aspect of Portuguese life, from Government departments to brothels (the Allies also ran brothels for intelligence gathering purposes). The Abwehr bugged the foreign ministry, Salazar’s office, bribed officials and had a much wider network of informants than the British. And they paid their agents 10 times as much.

It might have been that Canaris wanted the Abwehr to overspend and under perform, even teeter on the edge of incompetency. He had filled his office in Berlin with staff who would be loyal to him rather than the Nazi party, and thus people who were less likely to inform against him. Maybe this background explains why WW2 history is filled with stories of the greatest double agents of all time.


Dusko Popov might have been the real James Bond. A womaniser, gambler and with a taste for champagne and sports cars, he was a regular at the Estoril Casino’s tables. Popov was a Yugoslav and a successful commercial lawyer, with genuine business interests in London and Lisbon. When he was recruited by an anti-Nazi Abwehr officer to work for Germany, he immediately volunteered himself at the British embassy in Belgrade who turned him over to MI6. The Abwehr ran him from Lisbon, where he developed a close working relationship with his case officer, a flamboyant character called Karsthoff which lasted throughout the war. Karsthoff enjoyed the theatre of the spy business and the two of them single-handedly created the movie star cool cliché of being a secret agent.

Popov, aka Ivan, would be concealed on the floor of Karsthoff’s car while being chauffeured to and from Karsthoff’s Moorish style villa in Cascais. Popov was taught elaborate manoeuvres to avoid being followed, secret writing, hidden cameras, and convoluted codes he would use to receive messages from Karsthoff’s gorgeous secretary-cum-mistress across the roulette tables at the casino.

The head of the Iberian branch of M16, Popov’s immediate boss, was Kim Philby, who was spying for the Russians and later a defector, along with his famous colleagues in M15 Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, John Caincross (MI6) and Donald Maclean (foreign office) otherwise known as the Cambridge Five. They gave Popov the code-name Tricycle, apparently because of his penchant for threesomes.

But the head of M16 in London, Stewart Menzies, had Popov lined up for the serious top- secret assignment of receiving communication from Canaris in Berlin about plans to depose Hitler.

After the German invasion of Yugoslavia Popov’s cover as a businessman in Lisbon evaporated and the Germans found him another job, as Delegate of the Yugoslav Ministry of Information, based in New York. For this assignment he perfected his playboy image, by first taking the luxury Clipper sea plane from Lisbon, his pockets filled with spy paraphernalia like microdots, crystals for making invisible ink, a coded copy of Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day and seventy thousand dollars in cash. In New York he was put up at the Waldorf Astoria and on his first day strolling the streets of Manhattan he bought a Buick convertible with red leather that caught his eye in a showroom window. After the Waldorf he rented an apartment and spent $12 000 on furniture, records and a Chinese butler. Of course he wined and dined sensational women like French actress Simone Simon and did almost no work. He disgusted J. Edgar Hoover with his behaviour, (Popov was on loan to the FBI) as well as by failing to entrap any German spies on American soil. He was running up debts and the Germans were refusing to send him more funds. Eventually MI6 had to recall him to London.


Although he hadn’t really provided the Germans with any worthwhile intel during his New York stint, they patched things up and gave him another $25 000 on his return. Nor could MI6 stay mad with him for long,  as the head of MI5 noted in his memoirs “Popov’s ability to persuade the Germans through sheer force of personality was remarkable” making the agent invaluable as a conduit of misinformation. Popov also engineered plans that were as enticing to the Germans as they were successful for the British. At one time he had both intelligence agencies unwittingly cooperating in organising the “escape” to Britain of 150 Yugoslav military officials. While on route through France the group would be infiltrated by German spies and then, once safe in Gibraltar, everyone would be turned into double agents to work for the British. The plan was successful and substantially bolstered Popov’s network of agents. The plan also briefly reunited him with his brother, whom Popov was hoping to bring back to England with him. Neither knew that the other was a double agent, even though both were working for the British.

While Ian Fleming was watching Popov, another British novelist, was making notes on another secret agent who went by the code name Ostro, who along with Garbo and Tricycle was excellent material to base a character on. Graham Greene also worked under Kim Philby for a short time in the British intelligence office while they were being tormented by a spy who acted like a double agent but was not under their control. MI6 found the combination of Ostro having direct access to the German high command and his ability to have remained undercover and inaccessible to them to be very dangerous. Ostro, or Paul Fidrmuc, was the champion of liars. What was known about him was sketchy but what the British did know was that the intelligence he supplied the Germans with was false. Wildly and extravagantly false. What irritated the British, enough for MI6 to plan his assassination, was that high-ranking German officials came to Lisbon to consult with him and receive reports considered so confidential that they could only be received in person. Reports that to the British described as “humorously mistaken” and “fantastically wrong”. Now and then, however, Ostro’s predictions were frighteningly accurate – according to information he’d received from a staffer of Field Marshall Montgomery the D-Day landings would take place on the Cherbourg peninsula, so he informed the Germans, perhaps without knowing he’d made the intelligence coup of the entire war.

Fortunately the Germans took no action on this piece of news as they were also listening to the equally compelling reports by Garbo, that said Normandy was just a diversion and that the real invasion would take place at Pas-de-Calais. Both spies survived the war, although not much is known about Paul Fidrmuc after he was released by U.S. authorities when they found nothing to charge him with, having never been a Nazi party member nor implicated in any war crimes. More true to form for a spy novel hero, Garbo first faked his own death and then ran a gift shop in Venezuela for almost 40 years, until his death in 1988.



aristides de sousa mendes

Why do we know the name Oskar Schindler and not Aristides de Sousa Mendes? Portuguese friends say “because he’s Portuguese” but nationality doesn’t make you more or less a better film character. And that’s why we know Schindler.

Sousa Mendes was born into an aristocratic family in 1885, in Cabanas de Viriato, Carregal do Sal, Viseu. His father had been a judge and his mother was the granddaughter of the Viscount of nearby Midões. Thus Sousa Mendes and his family owned this sensational mansion which becomes the focal point for Sousa Mendes’ story.


Aristides studied law at Coimbra University and began a diplomatic career which took him and his family from Africa, to Brazil, the US and Belgium. At the outbreak of WW2 Sousa Mendes was the consul general at the Portuguese consulate in Bordeaux.

So far, Bordeaux had been an undemanding post and Sousa Mendes, his wife Angelina and their 14 kids lived a comfortable expat life. But almost instantly the war brought tens of thousands of refugees to the south of France, looking for a way out.


Salazar was wary of admitting large numbers of refugees, especially anyone from communist Russia – he hated communism. In 1939, Portugal’s visa policy order was that no visas were to be given to Jews, stateless people, political dissidents or to people who could not return to their homes voluntarily (who inevitably might become permanent residents). The policy was not dissimilar to that of Britain and the US at the time: there were refugee quotas and limits on who they would take, and how many. Even the newly created Jewish-Palestinian state strictly limited immigration.

Already Sousa Mendes must have realised that there was going to be a major problem. He could see there was a chasm between the urgent reality in Bordeaux and the blind bureaucracy in Lisbon. Hundreds of people queuing at the door, desperate, pleading people, those who had seen first hand what the Nazis were doing in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. He issued visas.


After the invasion of France & Holland in May 1940, the situation became much worse. The wait to get into the consulate extended into days, with people not eating or sleeping for fear of losing their place in line. And now the orders from Salazar were upgraded. All visa applications had to have prior approval from Lisbon. It spelt delay and doubt for the refugees.

So Sousa Mendes found himself between a rock and a hard place. He put in a plea to Salazar challenging the regulation and defending the granting of visas on humanitarian grounds (Aristides’ twin brother was foreign affairs minister – it’s not like Salazar could ignore him). He sent visas for approval which were refused. Salazar demanded that he obey orders. The tension increased further a month later when Spain changed its “neutrality” to “non-belligerency”, giving everyone reason to believe Portugal would be invaded or at least the passage to safety would close.


Thus we come to the climax of the story. Sousa Mendes is sick with bad conscience. While in Belgium, he had become close friends with a Rabbi and his family who were now living at the consulate. When offered a visa by Sousa Mendes, the Rabbi had refused it because he could not “leave his people behind”.

Yet disobeying orders meant certain personal disaster for Sousa Mendes, and for his wife and 14 children.


After three days in bed, Aristides de Sousa Mendes goes to the consulate entrance to announce his decision. He will issue visas to everyone who asks for them, free of charge if necessary, because his conscience commands it of him. He will not let these people die. The consequences be damned!

Aristides, the consulate aids, the Rabbi and a couple of the Mendes family start a marathon of visa-signing that lasts three days and nights, without stopping. They short cut the procedure with abbreviated signatures, making one visa cover an entire family and with the Rabbi ferrying passports from the street to the office rather than everyone having to get to the desk.

Then they moved on to Bayonne, where Sousa Mendes’ consular colleague was not issuing visas, and they set up an assemble line there. Some say he signed visas in his car, on the street and in his hotel room.


By now Salazar has sent orders for him to stop and return to Portugal, which he evaded by moving between Spanish border posts ensuring that his visas were being honoured. At one where they had phoned the Spanish consul and were refusing to let people through, Aristides directed the refugees to another post without a phone and personally escorted them into Spain. At other border posts he took people in his diplomatic car across the border, in one case even raising the barrier himself. Back in Bordeaux and officially stripped of his diplomatic powers, he kept signing visas from his apartment.

Three weeks after the orders were issued recalling him, he returned to Portugal (still signing visas along the way).

Between November 1939 and July 1940, Aristides de Sousa Mendes signed 30,000 visas. It is estimated he saved the lives of more than 12,000 Jews.


Stripped of his diplomatic status, barred from practicing law and publicly disgraced, Sousa Mendes was prevented from ever working again. Financially crippled, having been denied a pension, Salazar’s orders prevented any institution or individual to support the family. Colleagues, friends and relatives distanced themselves for fear of falling under the shadow of official disgrace. His children were denied opportunities like university or promotions. Sousa Mendes had a stroke in 1945, his wife died in 1948 and he himself died in 1954.

Meanwhile Salazar received credit for Portugal’s benevolence towards refugees, especially Jews, during the war.

The Jews caught up with Sousa Mendes in 1966 by honoring him as a “Righteous Among the Nations”. More than 20 years later, Portugal finally dismissed the charges against him, restored his diplomatic status and paid compensation to his family.

So, back to the movie. In crude mathematical terms, Sousa Mendes is 30 times the hero that Schindler was. His proximity to the Nazis and his dubious moral position does give the Schindler character the dramatic edge, and his age (he was 35 at the peak of his story, 1943) and his infamous charm meant that he could be played by an A-list spunk like Liam Neeson. But the same could be done for Sousa Mendes: at 54, George Clooney could play him because, despite being married (so was Schindler) he was, rumour be told, quite the ladies man. And with 15 children (one born to a French girlfriend), rather virile.


aristides left, oskar right

The problem comes, I believe, in the climax of the story. Neeson and Kingsley only have 1,100 names to write for The List, and that’s not nearly as demanding of screen time as 30,000 visa signatures. 72 hours of climatic deskwork… could be tedious, although the run from Bordeaux to Bayonne, to Hendaye and Irun while pursued by Portuguese secret police would make an excellent bit of film.

And there’s the house. The story starts and ends here with this magnificent mansion. The Sousa Mendes family is still battling to save this palacete so it can become a museum. What? He doesn’t even have a museum? Was there ever a man in Portugal whose name should be remembered more than Aristides de Sousa Mendes?



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