Bussaco – Portugal

In Bussaco you may live in a king’s house, and wander through a sacred grove where a Pope once said women should never go. And at luncheon in a royal hall you may see barefooted peasants bump their heads on the window glass as they stare in at you, because they do not know what glass is, and fail to perceive that it is there. And, later, you may watch these peasants dance queer dances in the openings of the forest, and hear them sing strange folk songs. And you may see many beautiful things, and many curious things, and look out at great views of mountains and plains, and tread old battlefields. If your visit is in the winter, there will be no frost, for the mercury never goes below forty degrees, and if in summer, there will be no heat. By night you will sleep amidst the great quiet of the woods, and by day you will be served elaborate meals exquisitely cooked. It will cost you two dollars and sixty cents a day, and you will be glad you came, and happy to stay, and sorry to go. And all this will happen to you when you are in Bussaco in Portugal.

I like to find places that are unusual, and that possess a distinct character all their own. And nowhere else in the world is there a spot in the least like Bussaco. To one familiar with California, it may suggest Del Monte, but added to natural charms greater than Del Monte’s is the remarkable historic association, and a local color as rich and varied as can be found anywhere in Europe west of Dalmatia.

The readers of Ben Hur will recall the description of the sacred grove of Daphne situated near Antioch, and dedicated to the heathen goddess. Here at Bussaco is another sacred grove once dedicated to Christian worship; shrines and temples filled the pagan wood, and shrines and temples crown the green heights of Bussaco and gleam through the deep, dark aisles of the forest.

For a thousand years this strange, wonderful spot has been the domain of successive Christian orders. During the years from the Eleventh Century to the Seventeenth the Archbishops of Braga owned this territory, and hither came saints to pray, and sinners to escape an avenging law, for not only was God close to these solitary places, but here was declared sanctuary from the consequences of crime. Then, in 1636, the Archbishop gave the property to the Carmelites, and upon the outer wall the Pope placed his edict that whoso injured the trees and flowers within was anathema of the Church, and later, and on the other side the gate, a second bull appeared decreeing excommunication against any woman who should ever dare to pass within. And to-day, through the open doorway, women come and go, and few pause to translate the quaint Latin of the old inscriptions, and none turns back.

As the centuries passed on, and the world fell away from the old faith, the State looked covetously on this beautiful domain of the Church, and some fifty years ago boldly seized upon it as its own-and, after a thousand years, the long-robed friar prayed no more at the shaded shrines, nor knelt at the monastery’s altar.

Later a Portuguese king called together the architects and artists of his kingdom, and he bid them build in this fairy grove a palace such as they thought the folk of fay themselves might build; it was to be the incarnation of a dream, of their ideal of a truly fairy castle in this enchanted wood. And in the midst of a clearing by the side of which fountains splash in a garden of palms, with giant cedars for a background, sprang up a pure white marble vision, turreted and towered and girt about with strange fantastic carving; and within, upon the walls, are painted beautiful frescoes, and are placed rare tiles so fine, so costly, that few of the royal palaces of Europe can equal this strange, lonely castle in this lonely, beautiful wood.

In 1888 it was finished. But the years move faster now. Gone was the priest, but gone now is the king. The monastery fell before the palace, and palace and king before the People, and the king’s house is now but a hotel-some say the rarest, most exquisite hotel in Europe, and some say in all the world.

Bussaco is a mountain ridge, and ’round its base, many miles in circumference, runs the ancient wall. Within, and crowding to the very summit, is a forest such as can be found nowhere else. The remarkable climate brings to perfection the trees of the temperate zone and those of semi-tropical regions. Cork trees, palms, cedars of Lebanon, oranges, lemons, figs, mighty oaks and pines, unite in what competent authorities pronounce the greatest variety to be found in any region of the world.

During the centuries it was a labor of love impressed on all the wandering monks to send to Sussaco’s sacred grove specimens of the rare plants and trees found in other lands, and, transplanted here and carefully tended, the result is one of unprecedented beauty. Within the forest the monks built numberless shrines and Stations of the Cross, lonely dwellings on distant rocks, and sacred stairs that lead, a penitential way, to a far figure of the Christ.

Threading all the forest are roads that go through beauty to wide views and strange places. One path climbs by a steep zigzag to a ruined watch-tower, and from its base a vast landscape is visible; to the east the mountains, and to the west a great plain stretches to the sea. Another road ends at a beautiful gate that looks out upon a wide expanse of country where I can count twenty scattered villages set round with olive groves and orange trees.

There are, of course, in addition to the pathways, well-kept main traveled roads, starting at the palace and running in many directions under the dense shade of lofty trees. Here the automobiles of the rich guests come and go, and Portuguese gentlemen astride absurd little donkeys take the view, for why should a gentleman walk? So the paths are happily deserted save for the few stray Englishmen who chance this way. The roads are well sprinkled by a contrivance not much larger than a barrel, mounted on solid wooden wheels and drawn by two little oxen. This is filled through a hole at the top by dipping up water from wayside pools with a large, long-handled dipper., I watched two men take turns at the dipper for half an hour, and even then their task was far from finished.

Once, following a winding path that led far into the heart of the forest, where the light was pale green, splashed with bits of yellow sunlight sifting through the tangle of branches overhead, I heard afar the drip of water and, after a time, came to where, amid the trees, the Sacra Scala leads up the mountain side. These are broad stairs in ten successive stages of fifteen steps each, ending in the vision of a shrine, from underneath which pours out a brook that cascades along a rocky channel in the center of the great stairway. On each landingplace it broadens to a pool set round with palms and ferns and mossy marble seats. The long reach of balustrade and the pavement on the landings are inlaid with pebbles of white and red and black in intricate design, and the whole effect under the dusk of the great trees, and amid the profound silence of the place, is singularly beautiful and impressive.

For centuries penitent monks toiled up this way, and their day and its customs seemed as fixed and as permanent as humanity itself; and now they have vanished utterly, the kingdom, too, has passed, and gone is the power of king and priest and prelate; the shrines of centuries are empty, and there is none to worship at the deserted altars; an alien from a land they did not guess, of a faith that they abhorred, sits in the sacred places and studies anew the lesson of eternal change. Time and again I found my way back to this strange sweet place, the lonesomest and most beautiful in all the miles of woods.

But at every turn there is something to remind one of the priests that are gone. Seen through long vistas of stately trees, or through ivy-covered, half-ruined gateways, these tenantless cells of long dead monks form as strange, pathetic and yet beautiful pictures as can be found in all the world. Through the broken door sunlight floods in on faint frescoes of the Christ; little cup-like hollows for alms still remain sunk in the window-sills; the sad, little bedrooms, the kitchens-all remain. It is the world and the ways thereof that have changed.

One noon in the darkest recesses of the woods, where a faded shrine was given dimly back from a black pool beside it, T came upon a swarthy, gypsy-faced boy bending over a little fire of twigs toasting a bit of bread that was to be his dinner; a lonesome, pathetic little figure that so needed mothering. Somehow he seemed not of to-day, but to have been left behind by the days of monks and kings.

One night a strolling band of musicians, two of them blind, wandered to the hotel, and all the evening they played and sang the strange Portuguese music. It seems all in a minor key, and has an odd trick of ending a measure on a lower note when you expect a higher one. The theme is usually short, but is repeated over and over in different keys, but ever with a thread of sadness in the melody. The brightness that distinguishes the Spanish folk music has all gone out of it on this side the mountains. This strolling band of players also seemed to belong to some ancient yesterday as they vanished in the woods beyond the yellow circle of the hotel’s electric; lights.

Sunday morning brought to the sacred grove what in America would be termed a church picnic. Some two hundred peasants came toiling up the hill, the men in rusty black with commonplace, soft felthats of the same color, but the women gay as butterflies, the most gorgeously costumed peasantry I have seen, save in Dalmatia and the lands that lie beyond. Each wore a short skirt made exceedingly full at the hips, where it was girded in like a huge ruff by a band of some contrasting color. Sometimes these skirts were black, sometimes red, the red of the heart of a flame, sometimes intensest blue, sometimes orange, sometimes green. Over their shoulders were little shawls of the most vivid color schemes carried out in the most startling patterns it is possible to imagine. Then, over the head, and coming down upon this glowing mass of color, was a handkerchief of some other dazzling hue. Every possible shade and combination were represented, so that the white path between the dull-green cedars seemed alight with some strange fire as the folk came upward toward the hotel.

The men slouched shiftlessly, but the women walked erect and carried on their heads lunch-baskets and tall slender winejars of red clay. By ten o’clock they were scattered through the woods, eating breakfast in picturesque groups. A. priest was with them, and, after the inevitable siesta at noon, when they stretched themselves out in the shade and slept, he gathered his flock around him and preached vigorously. And afterwards came the really interesting event of the day. A dozen musicians were in the party. The tennis court by the hotel was cleared, and in the center a circle was made in the crowd. The musicians stood at one side in a line, the music for one pinned on the back of his neighbor, while the man in front, who played the bass viol, had a boy to hold his notes. Besides the viol, there were three violins, three guitars, a banjo and several flutes. Into the circle stepped some fifteen couples. To a rather tuneless minor air a slow dance began. Three steps to the right, a pause during which the dancers stood rigid with arms bent above the head, three steps to the left, a pause, a swing half round, and then the men backed away from the girls, all clapping their hands together in time with the music. Forward again, and a slow swing completed the figure, which was repeated over and over again, the dancers singing the while in rather shrill voices, not at all comparable to the peasant voices of Italy or of Spain.

Another dance was quicker (the one just described was incredibly slow), and was in march time, with all the intricate figure of a modern cotillion. So involved were these changes that it was impossible for the eye to follow them clearly, but the effect was very beautiful, enhanced by the tambourines decked with long, gay streamers of ribbon, used effectively by the girls. There was a song for this, as for all the dances.

Then while the country folk were making ready for home, the little orchestra played national airs, ending with the Portuguese hymn. As the familiar strains began, nearly all the men removed their hats. Some of the younger ones, however, continued to wear theirs with a surly, defiant air. Near me was one whose bearing was particularly offensive, and at about the second strain someone knocked his hat to the ground. A blow was the answer, and in an instant a lively battle was in progress between the men with hats and those without. The hatless won, and the confusion lasted but a moment. It was explained to me that their feeling really marked the difference between the lovers of the old regime and the more rabid adherents of the Republic; in some subtle way respect for the old national anthem seeming to stand for respect to the monarchy that for so long was in fact the nation.

Very different was a ball given one evening by the guests in the hotel. There were conventional waltzes and two-steps, and in addition several dances peculiarly Portuguese. One especially was extremely beautiful. It was danced by four young women in the center of the floor, and they sang throughout the measure. It was full of motion and grace; at one point the dancers raised their arms above the head, snapping their fingers in time with the music; at another place they beat time by striking their palms together as in the peasant dance. But there seemed little in common between these refined, clearfeatured people of the aristocracy, and the heavy, blank-faced peasants who were dancing on the lawn.

In no other country of Europe is the physical and mental contrast between the upper classes and the peasant so marked as in Portugal. After reading Hume’s enthusiastic comments on the Portuguese peasants, I was frankly disappointed in what I found. Eighty per cent. of the entire population of the country can neither read nor write, which means that practically the whole peasant class is densely ignorant. But not only are they untaught, but they impressed me as the dirtiest, most illfavored and generally unattractive peas antry in Europe. Their voices are harsh, their ways uncouth, and their play as boorish as the crude horseplay the Dutch peasants sometimes indulge in.

In no respect are they comparable to the German peasant, particularly the keenfaced, sweet-mannered folk of Bavaria. The Swiss peasant is also immensely superior, as is the happy, handsome Italian, and the quicker-witted, more attractive Spaniard.

The land is immensely fertile, the climate the finest in the world, but the people certainly present, with their ignorance, incapacity and vice, a governmental problem which may be beyond the power of the lately established Republic to solve.

A hundred odd years ago history came this way, and from the intrenched heights of Bussaco Wellington’s warriors beat back the French, and first demonstrated to the soldiers of Napoleon that they were not invincible.

For days before the 27th of September, 1810, Bussaco’s day of iron and blood, Wellington’s troops had occupied the long ridge of the mountain, and his officers had filled every nook and corner of monastery, chapels and solitary dwellings, the monks sleeping, if at all, under the shelter of the trees. Fifty thousand allied Englishmen and Portuguese waited within the protection of the walls the oncoming Frenchmen under command of Massena, who had never yet been beaten. All day long the legions of France charged up the mountain side, to be hurled back again by the crushing weight of English shot and shell. Only once did a thin line reach the summit, to melt to death before the bayonets of Wellington’s reinforcements. And when the sun went down, six thousand dead lay upon the field, and under the trees the monks nursed the wounded.

But I know no place where today strife and turmoil seem more incongruous. The friars of old laid so definite a spell of peace upon these great woods that it yet abides, and the visitor yields so completely to its charm that the cares of life and the worries of the world drop away, and, as the days go by, one begins to question whether it is worth while to go back, whether, after all, anything could be better than staying on forever. I am not at all sure but that to remain here too long would be to find 4 all the rest of life an exile.”