Monday, 3 August 2009

Cork Convent & Colares, 1851

There is a tolerable road over a rugged and frowning tract that leads to the Cork Convent, " Convento da Cortica." This monastery, placed in a forlorn and solitary spot, in a recess of the craggy serra, and bearing a poverty-stricken aspect, recalls to memory its poverty-stricken, pious founder and projector, Joao de Castro, of whom on his deathbed—if, indeed, he had a bed to die upon — St. Francis Xavier, his confidential friend, remarked, " the Viceroy of India is dying in such penury and want, that he has not wherewithal to purchase a fowl."
This poor convent, or as some, I believe, call it, hermitage, comprises a church, a refectory, chapterhouse, sacristy, and somewhere about twenty cells. The different apartments are in part built over the surface, and partly they are formed of apertures in the rock; they have cork linings throughout, as a means of counteracting the pernicious effects of the great damp; and so these cork belts to their rooms were really " life-preservers " to the monks. It is from this circumstance the Convento da Cortica takes its name.
In the time of the reverend occupants, all in their abode was squalid and shabby; they gloried in having everything as uncomfortable as possible; (query, would not a true Hibernian have found this place the perfection of all comfort ?) — such a thing as a bed was unknown to those reformed Franciscans. The bell at the entrance to the convent was rung by the instrumentality of a vine-stem that obligingly lent itself to this service instead of a rope. Each cell was about five feet square, with very narrow, low doors, and in every respect they would have been better accommodation for the dead than the living. Conducting to the refectory there is a court, where had once flourished, we are told, fair flowers, such as hydrangeas and geraniums. (These monks had some taste, it seems.) The seats of the dining- cavern, for such it was, as well as their dining-tables, were roughly hewn out of the solid rock : they could certainly ask none to their hospitable board, or to sit round their mahogany, seeing they had nothing but a block of granite.
At no great distance from the building a hole is to be seen, partially hidden by a huge stone : in this hole a hermit, named Honorius, literally lived for the last sixteen years of his life. Here he slept, and when he stretched himself out, or rather doubled himself up to rest (like those " folded flowers " Mrs. Hemans so prettily tells us of, I suppose, for there was not room in the little cave for him to extend himself, at full length)—in the fashion of the defunct babes in the wood, a few dead leaves formed his couch—both his mattress and coverlet—and his night-garment too, probably ; and he had not even a robin-redbreast for a valet, to aid him in arranging these, in his gloomy solitude !—while a mishapen rough stone was his very incommodious pillow, which must have given him many a severe headache, one should imagine. Poor fellow! what a treasure would a well-knitted anti-macassar have been to him ! not to protect his cushion of granite from contact, with Rowland's infallible preservative, which he could not have had the advantage of using, but to preserve his own skull from the rough friction of such an apology for a bolster. However, notwithstanding this, and a multitude of acts of penance which the annals of the Order to which this convent belonged recount faithfully of him, Honorius lived to be ninety-five.
The hermit was indeed a " folded flower " night and day, in his solitary life of penance! Strange delusion ! to think such mortifications can please Him who has given us all things richly to enjoy, with thankfulness and moderation.
From the humblest of flowers he might have learned a nobler lesson; they, perhaps, fulfil their part better. "Of what use are flowers?" asked Hafir of the philosopher, who had been rather severe on poets in the course of conversation. " They are good to smell," replied the philosopher; " And I to smell them," rejoined the bard,—" they are good to smell! "—A pleasing quality, assuredly. I doubt if that much could be said of Honorius.
The road from the Cork Convent to the west continues for a good distance to wind in and out among the bold and jutting crags. For the most part, the "serra" is formed of granite of unequal consistency; the grains are large in some places, and small in others, and in some parts are very soft, so as to be with ease crushed by the hand, and in other portions extremely hard. The felspar it contains is generally of a greyish-tinged white, the mica black, and the quartz a dull white. Fine particles of magnetic iron mingle with them. Magnetic iron is also found in the mountain-crests, having a thickness of several inches. In general the strata follow no regular direction; and this, in addition to the confusedly-piled, and distorted, and rugged appearance of the crags and rocks, which are massed one above another in the most fantastic manner, favours, the supposition that their origin was decidedly volcanic. Of this, indeed, there seems but little doubt.
In descending from the mountain, the town of Collares, lying at some distance to the north-west, is discerned; this town gives its name to the wine so, well-known in Portugal, called, like it, " Collares." A late Portuguese writer describes it thus enthusiastically (the town, not the wine):—" At about a league to the west of the town of Cintra, and at a distance of six leagues north-west from the city of Lisbon, above a fertile and verdurous vale, known by the appellation of the Varsea, is situated the ever-smiling town of Collares, which for the flow of its fairy fountains, the melody of its delightful birds, the delicious temperature of its air—which in the most oppressive heats of summer never fails to be fresh and exquisitely cool, like the atmosphere of tender spring,—the delicacy of its rich fruits, and the purity of its pellucid water, deserves to be called a very paradise upon earth."
These extravagant commendations are, without doubt, overstrained and exaggerated ; but still the lovely valley of Collares, covered with orchards and smiling orange-groves, presents a truly pleasing prospect, and contrasts itself exquisitely with the arid and naked mountains, along whose base it so enchant- ingly spreads. As to the straggling town, poor and inconsiderable, it has little of interest. Some Roman inscriptions have been discovered near it, most of which are transcribed in the volume from which the description I have quoted was taken— a work written by the Viscount de Jurumenha. Around Collares the vineyards are small, and so cut up into petty portions by stone walls, that the country presents slightly the appearance of a chessboard.
But there are other things more lovely in the neighbourhood of Collares; there grows the arbutus, gigantically high; there flourish the wild olive, the colossal stone-pine, the chestnut, the plane, and the tulip. There the cork-tree is twisting itself into ten thousand gracefully grotesque shapes, with misletoe depending in profusion from its branches,- increasing the wildness of its appearance. The oak, too, is found here in its kingly grandeur, odoriferous jessamines abound in their fairy and starry beauty, while feathery fern adds its aerial lightness to the charm of the varied vegetation, and numerous parasitic plants climb about the trees, hiding the foliage and the branches often with their exuberance. Water-melons, wild strawberries, Indian corn, rosemary, rhododendrons, geraniums, orange- trees, lemon-trees, and many other delightful productions of Nature, all are beautifully confounded together in the fine season.
At the extremity of this " happy valley,"—such, methinks, it must have been to the Viscount de Jurumenha—the crystal streamlets that flow gleaming and babbling through it, unite their sparkling waters, thus forming a kind of lake, on whose tranquil bosom of beauty a pleasure-boat is to be found, for the gratification of those rurally-disposed parties who come from Cintra and Lisbon to disport themselves amid these fragrant haunts. From hence a murmuring rivulet, like a silver thread, winds along its graceful way to the great ocean.
This is said to have been once a navigable river; and it is further stated, that in these flourishing times of its prosperity the fruit-trees, like other officious sycophants, ever, — bent and showered down their gifts on its waters as they assiduously overhung its verdant banks; these were rapidly carried down the current, and as it arrived at the beach, with its never-buttoned pearly pockets crammed with ripe apples,—like a schoolboy of a stream, it gave the name to that beach which it still bears, " Praia das Macas" (Beach of the Apples).
There is a lofty headland about three-quarters of a league from Collares, rising almost perpendicularly to the height of two hundred feet, if not more, above the roaring Atlantic; it is known by the denomination of " Pedra d'Alvidrar:" at particular points the billows of the mighty ocean rush foaming against its base, and are believed to have worn and undermined it to a considerable, and perhaps dangerous, extent. This may be ascertained by looking through a singular circular chasm, or aperture (situated at some distance from the brink of this fearful precipice), at the bottom of which the restless sea is to be seen chafing and fretting like a haughty steed against its rider. Altogether, beheld from above, the scene appears sufficiently threatening to appal a spirit not easily daunted. But the male part of the population of a somewhat insignificant village in the neighbourhood perform here a curious feat, and seem quite at home on the perilous precipice, if not on the most familiar terms with the h.pary Atlantic himself, when, entirely without any aid or support but their own hands and feet, they descend the rock, despite its perpendicularity, from the crest of the precipice to the edge of the roaring waters, and ascend again in the same way: the slightest slip, or the accidental giving way of a portion of the rock, must unavoidably send them headlong into the thundering deep below, whose waves seem howling and leaping for their prey,—yet they shrink not.
What makes the feat more remarkable is, that the rock is mainly composed of smooth blocks of stone. Accidents, however, have rarely occurred, which would lead one to suppose the undertaking cannot be so desperate a venture as it appears, nor, one should think, attended with a great amount of skill, as there is scarcely an inhabitant of the neighbouring village that does not successfully accomplish the task.
These poor people consider themselves adequately remunerated for this exploit with a few " vintems."
Fishermen will occasionally ascend this fearful- looking steep, bearing the encumbrance of a basketful of fish, solely for their own convenience, to save them a more roundabout journey.

Stuart-Wortley, to p. 140

No comments: