One afternoon in the 18th century, I believe it was a Sunday, there was an accident to the Count of Areos in a bull ring. It is suspected that a bull was involved. Ever since, thanks to a ruling by the Marquis of Pombal, there has never been a bull killed in the ring in Portugal. There are bullfights, of course. But the Portuguese tourada is quite different from the Spanish corrida. The bull is never dispatched. It signals the difference between beautiful and poor little Portugal and its proud and large neighbor, Spain.
There can be no more arresting sight on earth than the spectacle on red sand when a horseman, mounted on a caparisoned stallion, takes on a bull. That’s the Portuguese way. They refuse to see, in the fight, a mere contest of intelligence against instinct. To them, it is a display of skill, of elegance and of courage. The bull is only the instrument.
The area of research is the Algarve, the flower-drenched strip of beaches that hang below the cliffs facing south on the Atlantic. When I am about to die, my debtors are instructed to take the body and drop it off one of those cliffs. It is heaven on earth and, since I’m headed that direction anyway, this would seem a suitable shortcut.
Portugal, once the poorest of the European Community’s 12 members, has now struggled past Greece and is only number 11. Its car sales have risen to record levels, which is ominous, since the country has the worst fatality record levels this year on the roads of any motorized jurisdiction. What the Portuguese refuse to do in the sands of the bull ring they do on the asphalt.
The second best thing in Portugal are the grilled sardines. When you do get to heaven, they will serve grilled sardines for breakfast. Those who are deprived of Portugal think of sardines as those tiny, cocktail-party-size things that sit on a Ritz cracker. No way. On the Algarve, where we’re talking serious sardines, the specimens are the size of a small Fraser River salmon. Full of salt and oil, they stoke a man for half a day.
The first best thing in Portugal is the sight of the dancing horse, as swift on his feet as Fred Astaire, charging and sidestepping away from the black bull. His rider, in an embroidered coat of silk and velvet, with shining knee boots and silver spurs, is something to behold—shaming by his shimmery the grounded Spanish chap in his suit of light.
The locale on this coast is the proper place for reflection at the moment, since the Algarve takes its name from the Arabic “El-Gharv” “the west.” It was the most westerly region on the Iberian peninsula conquered by the Arabs. One reads the current headlines with interest—washed down with wine.
The horseman, at full gallop towards the charging bull, stabs the banderillas into the nape of the neck, provoking and exhausting the beast. The Americans in the audience yell, “Go, go, go!” to demonstrate their democratic nature. It does not help his frustration, since
the hoof-clad Astaire cannot be caught. When the bull is suitably winded, he is faced with the mocos-de-forcado—eight dour-looking daredevils who appear (save one) as if they might run the town pharmacy as a regular job. They are lined astern as the bull charges, their leader attempting to seize the bull by the horns while the others overwhelm him with their weight. Their leader, a young man whose near skinhead look contrasts with the thick Portuguese locks of his comrades, at first charge buries his face in the gore pouring down the bull’s shoulders. It is a rite of passage, succeeding valiance gashed and bruised with each successive charge. Tourists with their cameras love it The bull does not and, like his predecessors, is slaughtered the next day.
The rolling Atlantic has carved tiny coves out of the limestone cliffs, like bite-size chunks out of the coastline. The coves are lined with golden sand the color of Michelle Pfeiffer’s bank account. They have not invented clouds in Portugal in August. They are clearly against the law.
There are only two minor problems on the Algarve. One involves the Germans. The other involves the Brits. The reason the Germans are so popular at any beach from Portugal to Greece is that they commandeer all the lounge chairs and confiscate all the beach umbrellas. Commando squads creak from their rooms at dawn to stake out the prime territory by the pool: warning encampments of towels and books and suntan lotion mark their areas of conquest. The future peace and tranquillity of the European Community may not survive this habit.
It is offensive, indeed almost as offensive as the way the Brits dress. The Brits, you see, are not made for casual garb. Their weather at home does not make them familiar with the sun, and they do not know what to do with it. They emerge into it blinking and confused, as if jus \ landing on Saturn.
The current popular dress code is kneelength surfers’ trunks of wild hues and patterns. At least this is what the Brits think California surfers wear. In fact, the look went out in California about a decade ago, worn then only by acne-ridden 13-year-olds. To view a portly British businessman in this ludicrous outfit is enough to blind one temporarily and to make one feel queasy when gazing down at the sardines.
These are really major detriments, as can be realized, and if it weren’t for the sunshine and the beaches and the grapes and the bulls and the lack of news about the Arabs it would
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