At home in Portugal

DON OBE August 1 1973

At home in Portugal

DON OBE August 1 1973

At home in Portugal


And that's a dilemma

I used to think — and was kind of taken with myself over the thought — that most tourists, those of the lumpen bourgeoisie anyway, traveled in order to get back home. Now, having spent some time abroad with them, I know that to be wrong: the truth is they never leave, whether they go somewhere or not. Wherever they go the atmosphere that encloses them is their own — an extension of home. They take tours, which are a kind of portable neighborhood where nobody threatens psychic property values. For all the tour’s multilingual vibes, the people they meet are pretty much their kind, people who, like them, are there to forgo any connection at all with the country they’re passing through in return for a very necessary sense of security and order. They are not travelers; just tourists, surveying another terrain with the close eye of loving ignorance. “Waiter,” said the cruise lady at home in the bar of the Ritz in Lisbon, “what is

that beautiful contemporary building my husband and I have been admiring over there?”

“An incinerator, madame.”

The tour bus squeezed through the streets of Benedita, a small village 70 or so miles north of Lisbon, at about ninethirty on a browngold fall morning. The streets were very narrow and the bus squeezed through them like Binaca toothpaste (superfresca). There was an old English lady, a chatterbox, on the bus who was very much against the scheduled non-stop here. She wanted crucially to see “the lovely market” (a fair was on) up close. “Oh can’t we stop? Surely we can? The fruits and vegetables are so fresh and clean and, oh, the flowers . . .” She was to keep it up — sitting there in the clear light of harmlessness — for the whole 12'hours and 200 round trip miles (Lisbon to, principally, Alcobaça, Nazaré, Fátima and Batalha). In

the seat in front of us, a young couple from some South African suburb made fun of her in four languages. I think she only wanted to take home a cork tree — and that was all right with me; in fact, she was all right with me. The South African geeks, on the other hand, weren’t; I hated them both in my one good language.

All the action on the tour bus took place inside, inside the bus itself or the sights so diligently seen or the heads of the sightseers, enclosed, for the most part, in what Dennis Lee, the Canadian poet, calls Western liberal modernity. Outside the windows the farmlands of central Portugal were hung out as neatly as pictures at an exhibition (and, of course, seen that way): low snarling vineyards, painterly orchards, fields tilled with a brush — but nobody here is getting cross-fertilized by the pollens of a strange culture or anything like that, buster. For that to happen would call for

a change in attitude. And that’s not likely, because attitude, reflecting fixed manners and values, is the only real kind of self-definition these people have. Like foraging anthropologists, they’re here to celebrate the great technological distance they’ve come by contrasting it with the relatively short strides the Portuguese have made. This is what makes Portugal such an agreeable place for North Americans to visit; it’s what allows them to like it so much — that and the final justification for travel; to keep the eye interested.

So, with all our interested eyes at the ready, we piled off the bus and shuffled, all in a row, into the famous abbey of Alcobaça, celebrated, at various times since about 1152, for austerity, power, gluttony and wealth. I managed to bring up the rear of our pretty young guide, which I had been celebrating, at various times since about eight this morning, for most of the same reasons. Into the nave: Naked austerity and whiteness generate an astonishing emotional response. Here one feels engulfed in the womb of Christian faith. No wonder King Pedro I brought the body of his murdered [mistress] Inés here (though not until after he had dressed the cadaver in royal robes, proclaimed her Queen of Portugal and made his entire court kiss her hand), no wonder he brought the body here in 1361 to lie at Alcobaça a fin do mundo (until the end of the world) and that he ordered his own body placed in the same church, directing that the caskets be placed so that the two lovers would rise face to face on the Day of Judgment . . On to the

kitchen: Through the centre of the immense and nobly-groined hall runs a brisk rivulet. The A Icoa River was thus diverted expressly for the utilitarian purposes of keeping fish alive till needed for the cook pot, and for washing dishes and cooking utensils. Monumental chimneys covered in white-and-blue glazed tiles provide space adequate for roasting six or seven oxen simultaneously. . . Alcobaça is the largest, longest church in Portugal, its dimensions more grandiose than Clairvaux in France, the monastery on which it was modeled. The columns of the nave rise up 66 feet — yet our group at home in their bourgeois space, had managed, from the meanings behind their compliments, to look down on it Me too but for different reasons

It occurred to me, riding on to Nazaré. that the tourist stereotype misses the point: we’re supposed to be the epitome of overstatement, in dress manner and response. But a much more arrogant thing about us is understated from the point of view that understatement depends on commonly held assumptions -and that is the belief that we represent the best way to live in the world and that everything we’re seeing here is great raw material for our own joyless efficiency

And, though it’s scarcely stated, we’ve all struck a bargain: to give up any possibility of adventure on this trip in return for safety, to band together (it’s okay to stand out as a crowd but never in one) so that we cannot be intimidated, so that our assumptions cannot be called into question here anymore than they could be at home.

It’s a tribute to Nazaré, a truly beautiful place, that none of this head-tripping took anything at all away from the pleasure of sitting outside the Beira Mar restaurant drinking Sagres beer and looking down the long line of the beach toward the cliffs that rise up behind the Praia (seaside) on three sides. Nazaré — for all its white walls and orange tiles shining in the Atlantic sun, for all its Phoenician-eyed fishermen in stocking caps and its swaying women in seven petticoats, for all the high curving prows of the boats beached now for the winter — the village, for all of that, exists, not for photographers and tourists, but for fishing. Which means it still has its integrity, unlike, say, Torremolinos in Spain, a monument to hamburger culture that the travel brochures never stop calling a fishing village.

As the bus wound up the steep road beside Nazaré and turned inland past pine woods and eucalyptus groves, the old English lady was still talking. “I’ve had two ports,” she said, “and I’m a bit squiffed.”

There is little that I, an unsteady atheist, can say about Fátima, our next stop, except it’s probably as close to a power spot as I’ll ever get. There is about it, in James Baldwin’s words, “a rather terrifying air of sanctity.” I was there because my wife, a good Catholic, couldn’t possibly set foot on the soil of Portugal and bypass it (which was, and had better be, okay with me).

A little later, trinkets unblessed for lack of time, we went on up to Batalha to see the buttresses, pinnacles and fretted spires of the 14th-century monastery there Now the praises of Batalha, as a monument to art and architecture, as an astonishing tribute to God and man have been sung by all the prating voices of the world’s travel writers and many of the technical ones of its architects and art historians. Presumptuous or not, I found it oppressive. The nave of the church is 263 feet long, 106 feet wide, 105 feet high, and has arches and moldings that apparently remind the English of Winchester and the French of Amiens: but they reminded me of what life must have been like for the people whose sweat and toil paid for them. Leaving aside the whole argument that, historically, structured Christianity, by its actions not its words, has lost all claim to moral leadership in the world, Batalha. dedicated as it was to victory in

battle and then to secular power and wealth, left me as cold as the limestone of its facade. Nor was I particularly warmed by the knowledge that its Royal Cloister, 62-feet-square of unsupported ceiling, the “boldest example of Gothic vaulting to be found anywhere,” had fallen twice before this “engineering feat” was accomplished, killing many workmen; nor, in a contemporary context, by the thought of Dr. Marcello Caetano, Portugal’s current dictator, sitting in his pastel palace in Lisbon hanging onto his African colonies for cheap life. But then, as Hemingway says, in such a short trip we had no opportunity to see how things were with the country or the people.

In any event, this trip — which, after 11 hours, didn’t seem so short — was almost over. As the bus came out of the countryside and turned onto a highway running beside the Tagus, a lot of the riders, like the good scouts they were, began to sing (Lilli Marlene, Pack Up Your Troubles). Loud among them was a lady from, I think, Strattanville, Pennsylvania, who had started the tour in a rather different mood. As we sat parked in Marqués de Pombal Square, a covey of gypsies came up to the windows holding out tablecloths for sale. “It’s junk,” the lady said to her husband. “You got to be insane to buy one. Poverty will drive people to be very persistent.”

The gypsies drove away in a new Peugeot station wagon. ■

How to go, where to stay

TAP, Portugal’s flag airline, flies only out of Montreal. High season (June, July, August) fares; 14-to-21-day excursion, $429 return; 22 to 45 days, $327; under 14 days or over 45, $618. In the shoulder season (April, May, September, October): for 22 to 45 days, the most popular excursion, $250. The rest of the year is “basic”

— 22 to 45 days costs $227.

The government rates hotels on a scale from Luxury A (five stars) to third class (one star). The Ritz in Lisbon ($22 to $39 a night, double) and the Avenida Palace ($13 to $39 a night, double) are given five. We stayed at both the Ritz and a clean but not-very-well-lighted pension called Joäo XXI ($5 a night, double) and preferred, though you probably won’t, the pension. Around the countryside, look for the pousadas (state-owned inns), which are often in historic old buildings and offer regional cooking.

And don't miss fado, Portuguese soul. In Lisbon, the clubs — Taverna do Embuçado is the most famous, 0 Faia, my favorite — are in the Bairro Alto or Alfama. Go late (say, 11 p.m.) and stay early (say, dawn).