Ceramic wall panel on the Megre family country house, in Águas, northern Portugal; depicting the many voyages made by José Megre during his lifetime. An homage of the Penamancor City Hall to one of the county's most illustrious sons.
Months ago, one of my regular travels to the mainland was as much a periplus as it was a pilgrimage.With the purpose of visiting my alma mater, to fulfill some academic duties, I decided to make the best of those short eight days in the continental Portugal and, school compromises solved, head out to the Northern part of the country, to the Beira Alta region, steering my course towards the Central Massif to enjoy a few peaceful days of mountain air, surrounded by the high peaks of granite before returning to my island.
For a few reasons, I’m glad I’ve done it. Because that short trip was one of discovery and reflection.
He was a reference to many. Both mature and young people alike.
A mechanical engineer by college formation and early profession. A former Army Comando, with war commissions in Angola. An adventurer and a leader. A writer and a communicator. A grown man who, I can easily imagine, never ceased to look at the world with a youngsters' eyes.
He was also a father and a husband. A family man.
José Megre was all of this and, certainly, a bit more.
To the common layman, myself included, he was mostly the “father of the Portuguese off-roading movement”. He started it all, during the late seventies and early eighties, when this poor nation, freshly recovered from the Carnation Revolution, was opening up herself to the modern world and Europe.
There were many famous Portuguese adventurers through the ages. Many more forever anonymous, forgotten by History, although they were part of it. We were always a country of voyagers. Of dreamers. Of people trying to see beyond the horizon. A poet once said that this nearly millenary nation is too small for her own people. Hence the diaspora. And the simple, unquestionable, fact that anywhere in the world you’ll find a Portuguese.
José Megre had it on his genes. The “carpenters' bug”, as we say in Portuguese. A restlessness that forces us to move ahead. To unknown territories, mostly within ourselves.
Like for so many young kids of my age, avid readers of Jules Verne and Jack London, he was Mr. Adventure personified.
Sadly, I never met him in life. He was already a seasoned respected voyager while I was still in elementary school. Our paths never crossed. And today it’s already too late. So, I’ve decided I’d pay him a visit on his last resting place, when I had a chance.
So here was I, together with my faithful Citro AX GT, my very own modest, unpretentious (to say the least!) and timid approach to the motorized sports, at the gates of Águas one September afternoon.
Águas, like so many villages in the Portuguese mountainous interior, has a telluric relation with the Earth. The austere granitic architecture, seen from afar, looks like a part of the natural landscape. Like so many towns around, Águas seems stopped in medieval times. I sometimes wonder how can this be possible. How can a country be so full of contrasts, between modern and old, between futuristic development and the total lack of it. And all of this in a rectangle of 90.000 square kilometers. How can this diversity be possible in such a small area? A nation smaller than most of the USA states?
For an American citizen, used to its square-grid modern cities, where everything looks the same in the landscape for hundreds of kilometers regardless of the direction taken, the fact that the scenery changes at every fifty kilometers must be puzzling.
The central square of the small town is dominated by two main buildings, constructed side-by-side: the Catholic church, built in a neo-gothic style, and the country house of the Megre family, his own.
He was the son of one of many aristocratic and bourgeoise landowning families so common in Portugal’s interior during the XVIII, XIX and early XX’s centuries.
So, financially speaking, he was a wealthy person, having born within a rich family, whom, according to a local inhabitant , owned the vast majority of the land surrounding the village. But would that factor alone explain his devotion to motorized sports early on his life? And the later pursuit of adventure that led him to organize the first Portuguese team to race in the Paris-Dakar rally, during the early eighties?
And his passion for travel, fueled late in his life, that drove him to visit – in his own words – “all the nations of the world, except one”?
That’s an ambition, a need for fulfillment that has to come from within. And although money does help, it doesn’t justify it entirely. Otherwise, how could we explain the thousands travelling the globe as we speak without a dime in their pockets?
Someone said “every voyage is an unsatisfied anxiousness”. I would concur with the author. There’s a certain restlessness that some people have that always seems to move them to perpetual motion. José Megre, we can easily imagine, was part of those few. Living life by his own terms. Facing challenges where all the others saw unclimbable mountains.
Now, I cannot help but to think about the ephemeral nature of life and how dramatically short it is. There’s never enough time to fulfill our own very personal definition of destiny, although I’d say that José Megre approached his.
And after nearly forty years of an adventurous life, that took him to the four corners of the world, he found rest in here. In the same old town where he probably used to play as a child and, perhaps, dreamt with those faraway places he’d love to visit someday.
And, with that final act, he closed the circle.