Today’s extract from The Notebook.
June 22: Return
The elephant rejoiced in what he saw and let it be known to the assembled company, although there wasn’t a single point on our own chosen itinerary that might have coincided with those he guarded so zealously in his elephantine memory. An elephant who, we have been told, traveled north with the soldiers of the cavalry division almost as far as the frontier, at a time when the roads were in a truly dreadful state. Compared to the journey in those days, ours was a walk in the park: good roads, good lodgings, good restaurants. The archduke himself, however well accustomed to all the luxuries of Central Europe, would have been pleasantly surprised. The expedition was a working one, but it was as enjoyable as if it were a holiday. Even the long-suffering porters, obliged to carry over fifteen pounds of equipment on their shoulders, were enchanted. What was interesting was that none of our friends, and none of the accompanying journalists, were already familiar with the places we visited. All the better for them, then, since they could gather so much material to recount and record. We started from Constância, where it is believed that Camões lived and made his home, and where through his windows he must have seen the embrace of the Zêzere and the Tejo over a thousand times, whose gentle backwaters inspired his most sublime verses. From there we went on to Castelo Novo to see the Casa da Câmara, dating from the time of the thirteenth-century King Dinis, and the Joannine fountain that sits tranquilly beside it. We also saw the tub, a kind of open-air vat excavated from the bare rock, where grapes were trodden in times that are now reckoned to be prehistorical. We stayed overnight at the Foundation, which is set in an excellent region for cherries, and the next day went on to Belmonte, where Pedro Alvares Cabral was born, and where we went straight to the church of Santiago, to which I am particularly devoted. It contains one of the most moving Romanesque sculptures on the face of the earth, a roughly painted pietà made of granite, with the lifeless Christ spread across the knees of his mother. Set against this, Michelangelo’s famous pietà from the Vatican is barely more than a last gasp of Mannerism. It was not easy to drag our fellow travelers from the ecstatic trance into which they had fallen, but we succeeded in enticing them away to view the architectural enigma of Centum Cellas, the building whose unfinished state was and continues to be the subject of the most heated arguments. Could it have been a watchtower? Or a hostelry for passing travelers? Or perhaps a prison, despite the quantity of broken windows that remain, surely unusual for a jail? No one knows. Our hunger for images satisfied for the time being, we proceeded to Sortelha, with its gigantic city walls, where a thunderstorm unlike any other assailed us with striated rays of lightening, thunder to match, rain in buckets, and hail like machine-gunfire. We never managed to get our coffee, as the electricity was cut off. It took an hour before the skies began to clear. It was still pouring when we came out onto the motorway, heading for Cidadelhe, on which I will not now write. I simply refer the interested and well-disposed reader to the four or five pages dedicated to that place in Journey to Portugal. Our companions’ eyes were dazzled by the 1707 palio and afterward, on a tour of the village, by the bas-reliefs over the doorways to the houses and the tombs in the mother church, with its portraits of saints. They returned transfigured by happiness. Now all that yet remained for us to see was Castelo Rodrigo. The president of the council chamber of Figueira de Castelo Rodrigo was waiting for us on the bridge over the River Côa, not far from Cidadelhe. I retained an image of Castelo Rodrigo, from the fi rst time I went there, thirty years ago, of an old town in decline, where the ruins were already ruins of ruins, as if it were all intended as some kind of a multiple disguise. Nowadays Castelo Rodrigo is home to 140 souls, the streets are clean and accessible, the façades and interiors have been restored, and—above all—its sadness has decidedly disappeared, and its new mood is now its best advertisement. One has to return to these historic places, for they can come to life again. That is the lesson of this journey.
See the review in the LA Times.
See the review in the Huffington Post.