Monday, 6 July 2009

Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira

Narrative of a Voyage to Madeira, Teneriffe and Along the Shores of the Meditteranean
W. R. Wilde
Dublin 1844

The immense suburbs through which we passed, showed Lisbon to be a city of much larger size than from the sea we should be inclined to suspect. The roads, paved with enormous blocks of limestone, are execrable; the carriages have no springs, and are worse appointed than the vilest London cab. Shade of M'Adam! had you been qualified for purgatory, you surely would have been sent to jolt out your period on the Cintra road. The seats of the nobility in the neighbourhood of Lisbon are little better than English farm-houses, with one exception, the delightful residence of the Baron Quintilla, a great friend of the queen, who has every thing about him fitted up in English style. The country along the road presents the greatest sameness; its brown aspect, without a single spot to relieve the eye, renders the drive of fifteen miles for the most part uninteresting and monotonous. Not a hedge-row is to be seen, and but a few vines and dingy olives, with the agave or American aloe, which grows in great luxuriance, bordering the roads and enclosures. The country appears to be but thinly populated, and the only objects in the landscape are the water-towers, and numerous small aqueducts, all running towards the valley of Alcantara. As we approached Cintra, the air became much cooler, and that noble mountain concentrated all our admiration, its rugged outline being exhibited in the sharpest relief against a back-ground of the most gorgeous purple, which marked the setting glories of the god of day.

While yet some miles from our journey's end, our sorry nags got blown, and the sable postillion regaled them with bread steeped in wine ; and then remounting, plied whip and spur with an energy that would have awakened the spirit of Dick Martin, had it been in the neighbourhood; but all in vain. He again dismounted, and, coolly unharnessing each poor brute separately, belaboured him on the road side with a huge club which he carried in the boot for the purpose. Again they were put to, and blacky practising every refinement upon the art of " touching upon the raw," and occasionally strengthening his meagre carcase with a pull at the wine flask, and his more meagre soul by an appeal to the saints, and a variety of crossings, he at length brought us late in the evening to Cintra. If possible, see this place by moonlight, as by day the barrenness of the surrounding country detracts greatly from the beauty of the scene. The bold mountain scenery—the lemon and orange groves—the waving rows of cane, with their nodding, plume-like tops—the beautiful and picturesque village itself—the old Moorish castle on the hills above, crowned by the Penha convent, and the lofty domes of the royal palace beneath—make this the most attractive spot in Portugal.

An additional charm is given to the scene by the ivy-clad walls, covered at top by amarylles and crimson geraninms, which flourish here in the greatest profusion and brilliancy, and by the huge evergreen oaks and cork-trees, (on which grows a beautiful parasitic fern,) intertwined with vines that spread their graceful festoons from branch to branch. There is a handsome prome-[46] nade, surrounded by rows of elms and tulip trees; at the lower end are the houses of two nobles, with their odious pink fronts and ugly busts. It was in one of those " the Convention" was signed. Our fare at the English hotel, and the Port and Col- lares, were very passable; I wish I could say as much for the beds, which were of flock, lumpy, uncomfortable, and tenanted by myriads of bugs.

The morning after our arrival we procured donkeys to ascend the heights. The road winds in a zigzag course up the steep, which, though most precipitous, our little animals climbed in safety. As we ascended, the scene beneath gradually disclosed itself. Cintra, its detached houses, the church and palace, rising out of the rich foliage of vines and elms, and, still further down the ravine, the numerous groves of orange and olive trees, watered by rills of the purest crystal, collected from the neighbouring heights—and the mountain itself, bold, rugged, and composed of blocks of granite boulders, with scarcely a blade of any thing green between—all added to the grandeur of our prospect. The outer wall of the ancient Moorish castle surrounds one of the secondary heights, and as it creeps from rock to rock, is guarded at short intervals by round or square towers, many of which are perched on enormous blocks of granite ; while the inner wall above, looks as if cast round the neck of the peak, like a collar, and the summit is crowned by the square black walls of the Morisco Fortalice, within which are the remains of an ancient bath and mosque. It must have been a place of great strength ; but there is nothing in the shape of inscription to declare the origin or the founder.

We continued our way to the Penha convent, which tops the highest pinnacle of the range; and in its eyrie-like position, looks like one of those small turrets that jut out from the walls of our ancient castles. With much difficulty we urged our donkeys up the steep ascent on which the convent stands ; the massive gate had fallen from its hinges—the grass had grown over the well-paved yard—the garden fence had been long since demolished, and the nettle and the hemlock had choked up its walls and parterres. No burly friar came to bid us welcome—no lay-brother ran to hold our donkeys—and although it was the Sabbath morning, silence and desolation reigned throughout.

The only disturbers of its solitude were a few jackdaws, that [47] cawed and fluttered round the chimney-tops, scared at our loud knocking, which reverberated through the building, and some straggling sheep, whose tinkling bells we heard as they leaped over the garden-wall at our approach. All else was silent, upon a day when these rocks and valleys so often rung with " the toll of the summoning bell," and the surrounding peasantry in their gay attire filled its courts, or knelt before its altar; for now, wretchedness, ruin, and decay have taken up their abode, where for so many years peculiar sanctity was believed to dwell. Our uproar for admission at last appeared to wake its only inmate, a wretched old woman, who admitted us, after a reconnoitring glance through one of the side windows. In the outer court stands the entrance to the church, the chief object of attraction here ; it is a square porch, supported on four pillars of singular twisted rope-work, with knobs between, from which springs a light and elegantly- groined roof; but on the top of this portico they have stuck a contemptible little spire, covered with the eternal Dutch tile, that quite spoils the architectural effect.

The chapel itself is small; the doorway is an old round arch, deeply groined, and of exquisite workmanship, and the altar, which reaches to the roof, is looked upon as a piece of most elaborate art. All is going fast to ruin, even the figures of saints and virgins that still stand upon the altar are losing their tinselled finery, which is now falling to rags, and the tabernacle or shrine was thrown into a corner, and is mouldering to decay. The monks themselves have been all driven hence, and the whole pile, amongst the cloisters and arcades of which many beautiful specimens of Moorish architecture are to be found, wears an aspect of loneliness that lends its saddening influence even to the casual visitor.

The view from the Penha is most extensive; beyond Cintra, and the wooded heights of Collares, all inland appears a brown, barren waste, as far as the eye can reach ; but seaward, the prospect is glorious. The Tagus, from above Lisbon, is traceable to the ocean; while, to the north, the tall towers of Mafra rise high above the horizon, and close the view.

In our ride over the mountains we passed the Cork convent, a most romantic spot, and so hidden among the rocks, that you see nothing of it till you get between two large blocks of stone that form the entrance. Inside, it is completely covered with the [48] rough bark of the cork tree ; the simple friars had decorated the altar, opposite the entrance, with pieces of china, broken plates, shells, and bits of coral from the coast, not inaptly resembling a baby-house ; but it too is abandoned to neglect and to the ruthless hand of time. Its community consisted of only two or three capuchins, the last remaining of whom, taking the strong hint afforded by the treatment of his brethren of De Penha, decamped with the plate and the little treasure belonging to his house. In the garden we found a full-sized figure of our Saviour lying on its face, imbedded in the soft earth, and the crown of thorns, that had bound its brow, in one of the adjoining walks! A few short years, nay, almost months ago, this figure was held to be one of the most sacred in Portugal, and none of the neighbouring peasantry went to their daily work without paying their devotions to it. What then shall we say for the religion of such a land ? Religion there is none ; infidelity has usurped the place of ignorance and blind devotion, and now stalks naked throughout the length and breadth of the Peninsula, but more particularly in Portugal. By the present constitution, no male religious houses are permitted; all priestly orders have been abolished—the monks and friars have been driven from their princely establishments to live upon the sum of one and sixpence a-day, and their estates and large revenues confiscated to the crown. What the French Revolution commenced, and Napoleon carried on, Don Pedro, and the glimmering of enlightenment now breaking on this land, have completed. It is in contemplation to do away with the different nunneries; but it is to be hoped that ample provision will be made for the helpless inmates, before such a measure is adopted; and I have no doubt but that it is one which will be hailed with the truest gratitude by every signorita in Portugal.

The parochial clergy, the only ones permitted here, have little influence over the people ; and it is a singular fact, that so far from assisting the monks, when driven from their homes, the peasantry refused them the necessaries of life, or even the shelter of a cottage roof; and this to men before whom they had so lately knelt, and who exercised over them a spiritual tyranny neither tolerated nor known in any other country. What, it may be asked, has become of such a large body of men, who had no trade, and are prohibited from following their profession ? It is not to be expected that persons like these, reared in luxury, and living on the [49] bucks of Mafra and the wines of Collares, could support themselves on two pistarines a day; and it cannot be said of them, as of the unjust steward, that by their liberality they made for themselves " friends of the mammon of unrighteousness." Most of them have left Portugal; many will be found under the banners of Don Carlos, having exchanged the church quiescent for the church militant; and not a few in Great Britain, perhaps within the walls of Stoneyhurst, or Clongowes.

We returned through Collares, a deserted village, its fountains dry, and Quint as uninhabited, the present state of politics making their noble owners exiles. We rested ourselves at a cool wineshop, and enjoyed a glass of the light claret which takes its name from this place. It is a thin, rough wine, agreeable in flavour, and weak enough to be drunk in tumblers—the vin ordinaire of this part of the country.

We took the lower road on our return, and enjoyed the magnificent view of the scenery along the wooded sides of the mountains through which we passed. With the exception of the lovely lemon and orange groves, the foliage of Portugal has not the green and refreshing tint of that of England, nor can it boast the glowing, mellow hues of our autumnal landscapes, as all the green has a rusty, brownish appearance, like that of the dingy olive. Quantities of those picturesque and noble trees, the stone pine, grow upon the heights, and their seed is much used as food by the poorer classes, whose children collect the cones, and beat them with mallets till the seed drops out; these are boiled soft, pounded in mortars, and used as beans are in other countries.

17th. We rose early in the morning and visited the far-famed palace of Cintra—an immense building in the Moorish style, presenting a confused jumble of courts and terraces, and although composed of innumerable apartments, possessing hardly one good room. All the pillars and window-frames are twisted and much covered with carving and fret-work—the latter completely spoiled, however, by their immense heavy green sashes. " The hall of swans," so called from having the likeness of that bird framed in every panel of the walls and ceiling, is of goodly size and proportion. To another may be given the name of " magpie-hall," in the domed roof of which each panel contains the representation of a magpie, holding in his claw a rose entwined in a ribbon, on which are the words "por ben," " for good." The story connected with [50] it is, that a certain king was discovered by his queen in this very room kissing one of the maids of honour, who held a magpie on her arm ; on seeing her majesty he exclaimed, " por ben," the Portuguese "honi soit." The queen withdrew; but on the king's leaving for Lisbon, a few days after, she had this room thus decorated against his return. A small chamber, tiled completely over, is shown as that in which Don Sebastian held his last council before his ill-fated African expedition. Our guide next conducted us to a small attic room, where, assuming a most rueful aspect, he informed us, that Don Alfonzo the VI. was imprisoned by his queen for upwards of nine years :—unfit to rule his kingdom or his wife. The whole of the flooring, except where his pallet stood, is worn by the footsteps of the poor captive. The only other object worth mentioning is what we may call " the hall of stags"—the panels in the walls and dome of this handsome apartment having each a stag painted in the centre, with a shield hung from its neck, on which are emblazoned the arms of some one of the nobility of Portugal, and bearing the crest between the horns. The devices of the princes of the blood-royal form the upper range ; and below, the wall represents a stag-hunt in blue tile. As the present poor queen is not now allowed to enjoy the sweets of this beautiful retreat, the whole has gone much out of repair, and the furniture is hardly fit for a plain English gentleman.

Most of the English residents have houses at Cintra. A pic-nic was got up to-day, to which we were kindly invited. The rendezvous was one of the Quintas a few miles distant, and thither we now bent our steps, accompanied by three " cheeping middies," that morning let loose from their wooden prisons in the Tagus. Our walk lay by Montserrat—formerly the princely mansion of Beckford; now mouldering in ruins. It was an exceedingly elegant and tasteful building, in the English style, but scarcely a vestige of its roof now remains ; and within its once highly decorated halls and costly chambers, the bramble, the thorn, and the thistle, flourish in undisturbed luxuriance. A few short years more, and a guide will have to lead the traveller to the spot where the eccentric author of Vathcc held his court. It is a most romantic spot, commanding in its prospect every beauty that Cintra and the surrounding country affords. The lofty, tree-clad mountains behind, the undulating cultivated plain before—in the dis- [51] tance, the illimitable sea—and around, long slopes of vineyards, with groves of the finest orange and lemon trees—force an exclamation of rapture, sadly qualified by regret at the utter destruction to which this most lovely of retreats is fast hastening. On the western turret still stands the flag-staff from which the silken banner of old England so often fluttered in the breeze ; it seemed conscious of the dignity it once possessed, and in defiance of the ruin going on around, was determined to " spin it out, and fight it to the last." One of the largest Tangerine orange trees in Portugal flourishes in the lawn, and clumps of magnificent arbutus, not to be surpassed by even those of our own dear Killarney, border the ravine that separates the demesne from the hills behind ; but scarcely a trace of the walks and pleasure-grounds now remains. Our picnic went off as well as meals of that comfortless description generally do ; dancing followed; and having seen the ladies safely mounted on their donkeys, we strolled quietly home by moonlight.

The principal society in this part of the country is English, as the present Portuguese aristocracy are either beggars or exiles; and the few who do not come under this description, decline society, from disgust at the unceremonious deprivation of the power and honours they had so long exclusively enjoyed. On this account strangers see little of Portuguese manners or society, and what they do see is generally at the houses of the English residents.

Next morning we bade adieu to Cintra, and turned our faces towards Mafra. The roads are so unfit for carriages that we were obliged to ride. We traversed a most barren and thinly populated country, still worse than any we had yet seen; it looks a perfect desert, except where an occasional lemon or orange grove creeps up the sides of a ravine, owing its existence to the fertilizing power of some neighbouring spring. The small village of Penado was the only collection of houses we met for the distance of twelve miles. The gorge in which this picturesque hamlet is situated, is spanned by an enormous bridge of blue limestone, taken from the neighbouring quarry—an inspection of the fossil shells of which will well repay the traveller's trouble. On the other side of the ravine the porphyritic limestone breaks out; but the principal rock in this part of the kingdom is the common grey marble, the strata of which appear above the surface in many places.

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