The International Writers Magazine: John Edwards speeds through Portugal in search of “Gothic Ghost” Lord Byron’s favorite stomping grounds. . . .
“Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes/In variegated maze of mount and glen. . . .” --Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto I, 18
In the historic Alfama district of Lisbon--(“Lisboa” in Portuguese, an Iberian language similar to Spanish which at the same time sounds vaguely Slavic)--I met a Canadian in a cobblestone courtyard featuring a dynamite “al fresco” café (that’s Eurospeak for “outside”), who was sporting a rather large bump on his head.
“Wow, what happened?” I ventured, flicking my cigarette ash expertly into an Orangina bottle.
“What?” the Canadian replied.
“That bump on your head.”
“Man, I can’t wait to leave Portugal. I was robbed by a gang of thugs who clobbered me with a baseball bat right on the noggin about a week ago.”
The Canadian’s wallet and passport had been stolen. He surmised that his attackers had probably been “street arabs.”
“Listen, be careful walking around here, especially at night,” the Canuck leveled like a tour guide: “It is not safe here. I can’t wait to fly home to Calgary.”
I took it for granted, after seeing the shantytown slums on the outside of the city centrum, that the Canadian had most probably been attacked by a gang of illegal Maghrebi businessmen, or peut-etre some swarthy Romas, some of the best pickpockets in the world.
But I figured my girlfriend then and I had nothing real to worry about, since to us the Mare Nostrum refugees and flamboyant caravan gypsies were like characters in a 1930s Universal Pictures horror film.
The waiter listening in, a marshmallow-complected dandy with a single gold tooth, grimaced with embarrassment and handed me my bill, which seemed almost in order, not bad, hardly enough of a markup (then in escudos, not euros) to make a big deal out of, in fact a lot cheaper than I had originally expected.
Until then I had imagined that pretty amazing Portugal, languishing under a fried-egg sun, where almost everybody spoke flawless RP British English--mainly because of the lucrative Port trade between the two countries--seemed like one of the most polite and civilized countries I had ever been to. Bright and sunny. But nonetheless every demesnes has its dark side.
Perhaps I was overly influenced by the absolutely fantastic Celtic ruins lining the west coast--some of the semi-secret druidical sites as interesting, in their own way, as the menhirs of Karnak, France, as well as Stonehenge and Avesbury in England. While there, I stamped around in my Walkport walking shoes and hummed to myself the song from Rob Reiner’s fake documentary “Spinal Tap”: “Stonehenge, where the demons dwell. . . .”
The real reason I had come here was merely an afterthought. I wanted to visit the straight-forwardly lovely, frank town of “Cintra” (Sintra) once the temporary home of the British Romantic poet Lord Byron, nee “Charles Gordon” (1788-1824), and which the poet raved about as lying behind “Elysium’s gates.”
Coimbra sings; Sintra croons.
Have you ever seen actor Gabriel Byrne seemingly living as Byron for us in the flesh--club foot and all--in Ken Russell’s astounding film “GOTHIC”? Which is about a lightning-filled night of storytelling between Lord Byron (who wrote “Don Juan”), Doctor Polidori (who wrote “Vampyr”), Percy Byshe Shelly (who wrote “Ozymandius”), and Mary Woolstonecraft Shelly (who wrote “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus”). You know, the hubris dude who stole fire from the Heavens, and didn’t really get in very much trouble for it.
Sometimes I had trouble remembering some of Byron’s lines--probably because most of them rhymed. I liked it even better than the male Shelly’s “Ozymandius,” probably the second-most-famous poem in the sceptr’d isles’ history, after the Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming”: “And what rough beast, his time come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born. . . .”
Although before arriving in Sintra I had spent more than enough time touring the entire country, with an extended stay in the Port-tasting venues of Porto (“Opporto” in Portuguese), a lovelorn city on a river, reminiscent of Naples (Napoli), where everyone hung out their windows their laundry to dry. I was smitten, especially when I did a lasting tasting at the Sandeman op. “More tawny, please?”
But eventually I left this entrepot of “fortified wines,” as I have already told you, and then I of course visited farther south “Prince Henry the Navigator’s school for sailors.”
Ah, but the Portuguese had secrets to keep: especially the old black-widow women, dressed all in nun-like black, sacrificing goats on the cobblestone streets throughout Iberia, with horrifiying bleeting and bleeding.
Eventually, I plopped down on the beaches of The Algarve, where seductive vixens with massive groodies thought nothing of lying about topless in the sand. And so I fell asleep, suddenly waking up in Sintra like a time traveler following the Julian calendar from 45 B.C. (off only by eleven days), obviously dreaming of my short sojourn there less than a couple of weeks back, back, back, in search of a brooding poltergeisty “Gothic Ghost” gimp who turned a glib phrase, and who died on the battlefield fighting in the Greek War of Independence against the Turks.
Lord Byron. Interesting character.
After setting up my tent on a grassy knoll in sight of the splendid Moorish castle in Sintra, I argued with my then girlfriend, who wanted to stay in a “pousada” (historic guest house). “No way, baby, this is the spot!” As usual she was worried about robbers fleecing us during the night, as we shivered in our Fairy Down sleeping blankets.
We were also only steps away from a great restaurant.
We went inside and sat down, as the patrons, who all obviously knew each other, stared at us.
Immediately, a terrifyingly good-looking man in a fashionable bespoke Saville Row suit stumbled over with his empty wine glass extended. “Bom dia! Do you mind if I join you? I noticed you setting up your tent outside? Are you from England?”
“We’re from America!” my galpal said.
During our conversation, while my unreliable girlfriend flirted right in front of me and I ordered a turbot the size of a Nerf football, the well-dressed man said, “I am Portuguese, but I live now in France.”
“So do we, we live in Paris!” my galpal said.
I noticed he was avoiding looking at her.
I wondered which of us he was interested in.
“Have you seen our castle?” the well-dressed man inquired, as if he might in fact partially own it. (Castle-building techniques during the Dark Ages were stolen from the Moors and used throughout Europe.)
Then this “Don Juan” (named after a Byron poem) said to me, “I eat at this restaurant every night. It’s actually cheaper than buying my own groceries. . . “
The eventual bill was a laughable amount, equaling roughly five dollars. However the flan had been subpar; even the Parisian supermarché product “Flanby” (™) was far superior. I stupidly said this out loud, and left a piss-poor tip.
The olive-complected (no: green) waiter scanned the bill and looked like he was burning with revenge.
Then the mysterious man invited us to his house, but I was becoming a little suspicious of him as he drank most of our second bottle of wine, then our third. Indeed, the proverbial “Don Juan”--or, even better, “Childe Harold”--was becoming overly animated, his hands wiggling around like icky gesticulating spiders on invisible webs.
“We’re staying in a tent!” my companion bruited.
Out of my cranium, I imagined my galpal, who no way could handle the sauce (vino verde and vino tinto), was making goo-goo eyes at the well-dressed stranger, who with his dark brown suit and antiquated English diction appeared to be a dead-ringer for Lord Byron himself. I could tell the mysterious ghostly stranger naturally assumed with my Anglo-Welsh-Scots-Irish heritage that I might in fact be related to him.
I said goodbye in vulgaris eloquenta, and our duo left the company of the Byron Dopfelganger, both of us unhappy campers and itching for a fight. We then crawled into our tent.
And would not you know it, we woke up the next morning to birdsong. . . .
I pulled out my copy of Lord Byron poems and began to read aloud...
In all, I spent over a month in Portugal, which is not enough time to see everything. You know those dreams resembling melodious cantos that still seem real after you wake up? This was one of them.
© John M. Edwards, 2013
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BIO: John M. Edwards, an award-winning travel writer and Mayflower descendant directly related to William Bradfield, has written for such magazines as CNN Traveler, Salon.com, Islands, and North American Review.
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