Sunday, 2 August 2009

Pena and Capuchos (Cork Convent) 1760


Promontorium Lunae. Holes, and Holes, and Holes again. An odd evening walk. A chearful dinner. Coins dropped to a Mary Magdalen for a very good reason.

Cintra, Sept. 12. 1760.

I Have had the good luck to secure such a bed for to-night, and passed the day besides with so perfect a satisfaction, that the dirty canvas and uneven bricks are already forgotten. And so goes this fickle world ! A perpetual shifting from good to evil, and from evil to good. And now the natural order of things seems to require a description of the Royal Convent: but what I have seen to-day presses a great deal more upon my fancy, and my impatience of imparting to you a share of the pleasure I have received myself to-day, makes me invert the laws of narration without any great hesitation.

[219] This morning early I quitted this place along with my trufty Kelly. Leaving the mules and the horse at the inn, each of us got astride upon a jack-ass ; and so we went up a high and steep mountain to see a convent of Jeronimites which is on the summit of it.

That convent could formerly contain, near a dozen of inhabitants ; yet at present there are but four or five, because a part of it has been demolished by the earthquake. What is left of it consists of five or fix rooms supported by a portico that encloses a court-yard. This yard is paved chequer-wise with white and blue tiles of earthen ware, and so disposed as to collect all the rain-water into a cistern under it. The walls of the portico are likewise incrufted with such parti-colour'd tiles.

From the windows an extensive prospect is commanded, as that summit is near a mile higher than the level of the sea. The eye runs freely over an immense [220] tract of .country, too much of it quite barren.

The middle parts of the hill seem composed of numberless broken rocks, some as big as houses. Yet between rock and rock the Fathers have cultivated several small bits of ground, which furnish their little community with more pulse and herbage than they want. It is pity that no fruit-tree will grow there, becaufe of the sharp air and chilling mills: so that whatever fruit they have, is fetched every day from Cintra with their other provisions, and carried up to them upon asses of their own. But besides herbs and pulse they cultivate Turkey-corn, with which they make savour'y cakes for themselves and visitors, and feed poultry with the overplus.

To the summit of that mountain there is no access but by the path we went. Every other side consists of cliffs upon cliffs, inacceslible even to goats.

[221] As the church and the convent were originally built in a most solid manner, the earthquake had not strength enough to demolish them intirely, though it was felt as violent there as in any other part of Portugal: nor did any of the friars perish, though the whole mountain was horribly shaken. The church stands on the very spot that was formerly occupied by a Roman temple dedicated to the Moon, which had given the name of Promontorium Lunae to the hill. This scrap of erudition I got from one of the friars.

We stay'd thereabout two hours ; then came down, afoot, our jack-asses driven before us by the Negro. About mid-mountain I hired a guide to show us the way to another hill near two leagues from this. The fellow took us about and about through a pathless country, partly covered with loose pieces of rocks, partly heathy, and partly sandy. Yet from space to space we met with numbers of [222] fir and cork-trees, with some small oaks and a few other plants, that contribute to render several parts of it romantically beautiful.

The place we were going to, stands on the summit of another mountain no less high than the supposed Promontorium Lunae, called by the Portuguese Cabo de Roca, and by the English the Rock of Lisbon. I hope you have not forgot that Rock, and the pleasure it gave me when I saw it for the first time. It was the Cork-Convent on its summit I wanted to visit, and we reached it with some difficulty, as we went to it by a cross-road extremely rugged and steep, and over several precipices that demanded much attention both from us and from our asses.

The Cork-Convent is properly a hermitage ; and you have but one path to it under a kind of arch irregularly cut through a piece of rock by the hand of nature. That arch is about two hundred [223] steps below the hermitage, and all other parts near that summit are perfectly pathless and not to be clamber'd. . Near that arch we left our asses in the custody of our guide, and ascended the rest of the mountain a-foot. And here, ye Muses nine, I invoke your assiftance ! Help me to an adequate defcription of the oddest, wildest, most romantic, and most pleasing place that ever I was in!

The hermits had discover'd us from a-far ; therefore we found them ready to receive us. We bow'd, shook hands, and seem'd as pleased as if we had long been most intimate friends. The Father Superiour ask'd us whether we had dined, and being answer'd in the negative, dispatched one of his Friars to make something ready as fast as possible. He then took us to see the place which begins with a flat irregular area about forty yards square.

The area is fronted by a huge rock variously perforated ; and its various [224] perforations, caverns, or holes form the hermitage. The church of it is a hole; the sacristy a hole ; the confession-room a hole ; the kitchin a hole; the dormitory a hole ; the refectory a hole ; every cell a hole ; and the doors and windows of all these holes are still nothing else but so many other holes. But so narrow are those which form the doors of the cells, that should a man grow hydropic while in one of them, he never would be able to come out of it ; and the cells themselves are so small, that no tall friar when in his bed has room enough to extend his legs. Yet in them they lie at night upon straw-bags, after having taken the precaution to shut what they call their doors and windows with small planks.

Not one hole in the whole place deserves the epithet of spacious. The largest is that which they term the Kitchen. A French cook would be angry at the prostitution of so noble a word, but the friars are not so scrupulous. The smoke [225] of that kitchen is carried out by a cylindrical perforation over the fire-place.

Dame Nature indeed was in a merry mood when she took it into her fancy to form so whimsical a place. You cannot conceive what little help she received from art to fit it for its present inhabitants. The earthquake shook it to and fro, and, they say, with inconceivable violence. Yet that violence proved vain, and I do not wonder at it. The demolition of the hermitage cannot be effected but by the fall of the mountain.

What adds to the singularity of this natural edifice is that every part in it is covered with cork; the walls, floors, and all. And this is the reason why the English sailors call it the Cork-Convent. That cork prevents the bad effects of the dampness which would otherwife be very inconvenient, as many parts of its walls are cover'd with a thin moss, and the water distils through the pores of the rock in very small drops.

[226] From the hermitage they descend by a range of irregular steps to a piece of water and to their several spots of garden. Not far from that water there is another hole, in which one of their predecessors had the patience to live the last twenty years of his life, without ever quitting it day or night. At least you are told so by an inscription over that hole, absurdly supported by the testimony of the friars themselves, who were all born near two centuries after, according to the inscription, which I wish fairly destroy'd and the hole filled up for their own sake, as the place has no need of a lye to induce people to visit it. No human being could ever live in that hole for several reasons that I will forbear to tell.

I said that there is a piece of water on that eminence, which fertilizes several spots. The friars are all gardeners and have vegetables of various sorts in great abundance, but no fruit. The many [227] steps by which they descend to that water, they term humourously their evening walk ; and, abating the inconvenience of the steps, it is really a pleasant walk, shaded with many trees and bushes. After having visited the whole hermitage we went to dinner. In the midst of that hole that is called the Refectory a stone serves them for a table whenever the rain forces them to eat their victuals under shelter. But to-day, as the weather was very fine, we chose to dine in the area. Being a meagre day we had an ample dish of salt-fish moft favourily drefs'd after the manner of the country with garlick and pimenta, a large sallad, and Dutch cheese with pears, apples, grapes, and figs, ten times more than we could eat, good bread, and excellent wine. During dinner the hermits kept us in chat with the greatest good humour ; told us of the many English gentlemen and ladies that visit them, and help'd us to our glasses very briskly. The wine [228] was was good, and we could not help drinking the English Ladies.

These hermits are of the Franciscan order; therefore will touch no money : but there is a Mary Magdalen painted over a kind of altar in the church; and to Mary Magdalen you drop a coin slily. It would not otherwise be in the power of this little community to furnish their numerous visitors with meat and drink, and entertain besides a good number of poor people who visit the place, partly out of devotion and partly to get a meal. They admit ladies to visit the hermitage when they are in company with gentlemen ; otherwife not: and as to women of low rank, they are not allowed to ascend beyond the Arch mentioned before, except on fome festival days.

About an hour after dinner we took our leave and went back to our asses who had leisurely cropp'd the thistles about, while our guide and the Negro feasted merrily upon herrings, cheese, and fruit, [229] convey'd to them with a sufficient quantity of bread and wine by one of the fathers.

And now I may truly say that I have feen the strangest solitude that ever was inhabited by men, amidst the most pleasing assemblage of craggs, rocks, trees, and bushes that can possibly be fancied ; the whole commanding a most wide and amazing prospect, as from thence you discover a vast tract of the ocean with many of the caftles and habitations at the mouth of the Tagus, the tops of the Royal Convent of Mafra, several villages and hamlets, with many single cottages scatter'd over a long chain of uneven mountains, some of which are perfectly rocky and barren; some shaded with oaks, fir-trees, and cork-trees; and some cover'd with vines, olive-trees, and lemon or orange-groves, besides numberless other plants of every kind and generation.


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