Monday, 6 July 2009

Through Spain and Portugal

Ernest Clifford Peixotto
New York, Scribner’s 1922

The Serra de Cintra, that purple silhouette that [87]we had first beheld from the ocean, is an exceedingly beautiful succession of hills in whose dimples nestle glens of surpassing loveliness. In them you might fancy yourself in some tropic land — in Guatemala, for example — for tree-ferns spread their umbrella- like fronds over cascades and splashing waters; laurestinas and daturas grow in rich profusion, while roses and ferns cover the huge oak and cork trees, and under your feet the petals of azaleas, magenta, pink and gray, mingle with rich camellias and magnolias to form a carpet soft and rich in color as the weave of a Persian loom. Such a vale is lovely Monserrate, the princely quinta laid out by Beckford, of Fonthill, centuries ago and still owned by an Englishman, Sir Francis Cook, who draws hisPortuguese title of Visconde therefrom.

I think I prefer, however, mysterious Penha Verde, once the home of Dom Joao de Castro, an honest man who died with but a single vintem in his coffers, though there had passed through his hands the untold wealth of India, of which he was governor for many years. All the reward he asked for his successful siege of Diu was the hill with the six trees, upon which the chapel now stands — a knoll over- [38] looking the lovely valley of Collares, and a vast expanse of glen and hillsides of dense pine woods mounting to rocky summits that touch the fleecy sea clouds. Penha Verde is a sad dark park, if you will, but filled with romantic charm — with mossy statues aligning green-carpeted pathways and, at unexpected corners, capillas and quaint fountains adorned with rare Talavera tiles depicting homely scenes of rustic beauty.

But Cintra's chief enchantment is the wonderful drive up the mountain to the two highest points in the range, one crowned by the old Moorish castle walls, hung in mid-air as it were, the other by the Palace of the Pena.

While the road is undoubtedly beautiful upon a sunny morning, with the pungent odor of the pines in your nostrils and glimpses at each turn over plain and valley as you mount ever higher and higher, I shall never forget it on a certain forenoon when the sky was gray and leaden. During the night the sea fog had driven in and blotted the hills from sight. We thought it would lift later, however, so called a coachman and started up.

First, the vapory clouds were well above our heads [39] but, as we mounted, the air freshened and the pines began to bend and their needles to hum in the gathering wind. Then all but the nearest objects vanished; then the vapors would lift again and dim silhouettes appear like prints on Japanese kakemonos: writhing tree-forms and great granite boulders. Each twist of the road brought us more completely into a realm of dreams, of goblin-shapes and grotesque outlines, until we turned at last through a gate, a green-coated official saluted us, and we strained up to a massive portal — a fantastic creation in the dim light like the entrance to an enchanted castle.

Here I sketched for a while until patches of blue opened above my head and flecks of sunshine darted through the trees. The areas of clear sky grew larger, and then, as if by the wand of a magician, the sun dispersed the cohorts of the fogs and mists and the noonday burst serene.

I climbed to the aerial terraces of the castle and there below lay the great province of Estremadura spread out like a map in every direction. What a sense of space, of vision without limit ! What exhilaration to stand in this proud eagle's nest and survey the unbroken stretch of land and sea ! [40]

Vast plains dotted with pink-roofed farms and villages stretched to the northward and to the eastward — to the spires of Mafra's convent as large as the Escorial; to the lines of Torres Vedras, where Wellington finally stopped the all-conquering march of the Napoleonic armies; to the faint blue mountains, one behind the other, that culminate at last in the Estrella, the Mountains of the Stars.

But the eye quickly turns from these and focuses upon the mouth of the Tagus, the source of Lisbon's beauty and of its wealth — its raison d'etre. This, too, is the high light of the picture, though the city itself half hides behind its hills. All lines lead to it: the glittering white roads drawn like ribbons over the green fields; the dazzling sickle of the white sand-bars that skirt the sea to the south; even the vessels that creep in and out from the broad blue Atlantic stretching forever to the westward.

And again I thought of all the mariners that had set out upon this treacherous sea, so many of them never to return, and of their comrades, who, even if they did survive, bronzed and grizzled by their buffets, came back stricken with strange tropical fevers. Yet others persevered, with the indomitable [41] spirit of their forebears, bringing home the first black men from Cabo Branco to work the fields of the Algarves, the spices and ivory from Guinea, and,finally, when the goal was reached, the wealth of Malabar and Burma to the gates of Lisbon. And yet in a single century after this golden age of achievement, sapped by corruption and enervated by its new-found wealth, the little Portuguese nation,shorn of its colonies, had sunk from its position as the wealthiest and proudest in Europe to be a mere province of Spain. This is the lesson that its history teaches: that not upon its wealth and commercial prosperity does the greatness of a nation depend so much as upon the high ideals and endeavors and the stout hearts and rugged sinews of its people.

Many times during our stay in Cintra did I walk these castle terraces, now, since the departure of the royal family, freely open to all, and always did I find new beauty in the changing moods of the picture.

No comments: