Irreverent thoughts in Portugal

The original title of this post was going to be “Inappropriate thoughts in Portugal,” But on reflection I decided that some of you might take that places that neither of us wants you to go. Hence, “irreverent.”

As you may know from Facebook, Mark and I recently returned from a short trip to Santiago de Compostela (which, I concede, is in Spain) and Porto, Portugal. We went  because we were invited by two Austin friends, Janice Hazeldine and Mack Brewer. We’d met on a cruise last spring, and reuniting in Porto was a joy. We all landed in Porto at about the same time, grabbed a rental car, and spent one night in an apartment with a lovely view of both the Atlantic and pilgrims walking along the Portuguese leg of the Camino de Santiago.

Our drive the next day to Santiago was scenic and uneventful. I appreciated the happiness of the footsore pilgrims who’d finished their walk. They lounged (and in some cases, napped) in the main square next to the Cathedral, packs turning into pillows and flip flops emerging for what must be the first time in days. My irreverence problem, however, soon manifested itself as we toured the Cathedral. It’s undergoing renovations, so you have to use your imagination to understand what it looks like without the scaffolding and Saran-wrapped incense vessels. There was a line for some attraction, though, which we gamely joined. As we shuffled forward towards some small marble stairs, we were met with a sign telling us what lay ahead. “Embrace the Saint,” it said.

This simple statement sent me off with the fairies, as they say. My first reaction was that this was a Cathedral slogan, an exhortation like Nike’s “Just do it.” But why were we climbing stairs, then? My next thought was that St. James’s body waited at the top, mummified and ready for a hug. Shades of all those Scooby-Doo episodes where the mummy chased the kids around! The crowd behind me prevented any possibility of escape, so forward I went, creepy music filling my head. When I got to the top, I almost laughed when I saw a bust of the saint, facing away from us but apparently open to front-to-back hugs from strangers shuffling by. Mark was standing there a little awkwardly, trying to figure out what to do; his Baptist/Methodist background did not prepare him for this situation. He finally gave the statue a little squeeze on the shoulders and moved on. For a fleeting moment I thought James might be offended by the lack of enthusiasm, so I put my head on his, patted his back, and said, “There, there, everybody likes you,” and turned to leave so that the next, hopefully better-instructed hugger, could get into position.

Once my inner imp was released, there was no putting it back. For example, after we’d returned to Porto and were visiting the very ornate Church of St. Francis, the irreverent thoughts part of my brain went into overdrive. I hasten to add that the church is in overdrive, too. Every surface in this church except the floor is covered in elaborate carvings, gilt and paint, and extremely bedecked statues of everybody and his brother who had anything to do with Porto, the church, St. Francis, and all the other usual suspects. The Virgin Mary was stylin’, as always, in blue robes decorated with jewels. The only three figures who looked kind of underdressed were Jesus, John the Baptist, and, ironically, St. Francis. It occurred to me that I’m not on speaking terms with this saint, since I’m a Protestant, but my overwhelming impression was that Francis would be appalled by this.

My inability to control my irreverence also manifested itself at our next two stops. At the stunning Palacio Bolsa, the old stock exchange building, the poor guide leading our tour was my next target. The problem here was having too much time to think. Because the Palacio only lets you visit with a guide, and the only tour that fit with our tight timetable was completely in Portuguese. I understood roughly three words of the entire spiel. In fact, it’s not clear to me that anyone on our tour spoke Portuguese except the guide. That observation set me to wondering what she was actually saying. Had she twigged to the fact that no one understood her? If so, was her irreverent imp prodding her to include bits like “All of you look like chickens” or “I’m thinking of getting my hair highlighted, but I’m scared that it might turn out like the job on the lady in the yellow shirt who keeps farting.” Really, who would know? And then later at the Cathedral, we beheld a nook containing a Madonna who was holding, of all things, six knives. So what pops into my head? “It’s Our Lady of Cutco!”I actually shared the last indignity I conjured with Mark, although I kept most of the ones discussed above to myself until now.

The next day we took a tour of the Douro River Valley, which has blue, winding rivers, terraced hillsides with grapevines strung in rows, and vistas to knock your socks off. The picture attached to this post may give you some idea. People should honeymoon here at the boutique hotels attached to the wineries.

All in all, it was a terrific day. But we did have a little transportation hiccup, as our minibus overheated as we pulled up in front of the restaurant where we were to have lunch. The timing was excellent, of course, as such things go. We had restrooms, food, and apparently unlimited supplies of local wines. Since lunch lasted longer than scheduled while we waited for minivans to come to our rescue, the consumption of said unlimited supply was truly breathtaking. In fairness, most people just drank to the point where they really didn’t care whether the minivans showed up. This probably helped our poor tour guide, whose schedule had gone to hell, not in a hand basket, but in a radiator. But there were four British young women who finished their wine and then, when everyone else left the lunch tables and ambled outside to rest in the sunshine, decided to finish everybody else’s. Out of the bottles. By the time the minivans arrived to take us to boat tour, our girls were feeling no pain and in the mood for love. They therefore spent the entire boat cruise flirting madly with the only two single guys in their age range, which would have been fine except it was pretty clear that this was a gay couple on a romantic trip of their own. It seemed like a waste of energy to tell our female compatriots that they were barking up the wrong trees, so I decided it was probably good practice for them  – sort of like fencing with covers on the tips of the epees – and let them be.

We did actually make it back to Porto, even though our minivan got lost; I didn’t know you could do that in the day and age of the GPS, but never say never. At first I sort of wondered whether we were being kidnapped by our minivan driver and began furiously making contingency plans about how to escape. Then it occurred to me that one young couple in our van was Israeli, and they’d been talking about how they’d recently completed their mandatory military service. Deciding that they could probably take one slightly bewildered-looking Spanish driver, I relaxed, and we did actually get home. Dinner was at the Majestic Cafe, a 1920s eatery festooned with ornate carvings, chandeliers, and lots of cherubs peeking at you from the ceiling. The food was underwhelming and overpriced, but if you tacked on a service charge of half a Euro per cherub, the valuation came out just about right. And that’s my irreverence for that evening.

In my defense of all these wayward thoughts, I must tell you that the most irreverent moment of this trip was supplied by the tale of a wannabe saint. Cristof – I’m guessing on the spelling – was a long-ago guy who decided to make a pilgrimage from his home in northern Portugal to Jerusalem. He actually made it there and back, but in he’d changed so much in the 14 years he was gone that nobody in the home place recognized him. Duly miffed, or driven out, he betook himself to the picturesque village of Amarante. He did all sorts of good works there, particularly focusing on acting as a Portuguese yenta and finding good husbands for the local girls. (Perhaps the British young women on our tour should take note.) He died, as people do, and his statue was placed in the local church. Cue the single ladies, who decided that rubbing his statue would work as well in the matchmaking department as having a chat with the actual Cristof. Apparently that rubbing worked really well as far as the gone but not forgotten Cristof was concerned, because his statue miraculously, shall we say, displayed his approbation of their touches. This caused no end of grief among the members of the order in charge of the church, who elected to dispatch said statue to an undisclosed location. The story does not record the fate of his anatomical alteration to the statue, but it does have what is a happy ending if you like pastries. The townspeople were not pleased with the statue’s disappearance and took revenge by starting a tradition of baking cookies shaped like male genitalia and selling them next to the church. Our guide told us that nowadays giving one of these cookies to a woman expresses the giver’s love for her, and that for once size matters: the bigger the cookie, the more love shown. Of course I bought a cookie, and I also took a picture. Since this is a family-friendly blog that picture isn’t attached to the post, but I’ll send it to you privately if you want. Just contemplate for a moment that this is all occurring in a village whose name translates as “Before Love” and you’ll get that picture, too.

Oh, the joys of traveling with an in-house imp!









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