Where everyday life hasn't disappeared into the mist.
YOU'LL have heard the story of Brigadoon," he said confidently. Which since I was standing in front of a 12th century Cistercian monastery in a quiet town in Portugal seemed rather a bizarre question.
"Well that's what it's like where I live," he said. Surely not I thought. He's from a village in Scotland that appears out of the mists once every 100 years and then only for a day? He's been watching too many old musicals on Portuguese TV and badly dubbed ones at that, I thought.
Or had he? Belatedly I realised that the elderly Portuguese gent who buttonholed me in the town of Alcobaa, keen to practice his English, didn't need any help with his language skills at all.
For what this dapper man, jacket draped across his shoulders and cap set at a jaunty angle, was describing perfectly was not a fictitious village buried deep in the annals of Broadway musicals, but a seaside village just a short drive away - on Portugal's Atlantic coast. The village in fact where I was staying.
I nodded as the mist rose, just like it did most mornings around midday in Sao Martinho do Porto.
For during my short stay, it seemed to me that the Costa de Prata could be called the Silver Coast as much for its mists as for its beautiful beaches.
Each morning, and often during the late afternoon, slim fingers of cool grey mist would curl around the long sheltered shoreline masking the hills and villages beyond and making the water dance with shadows. My new found Portuguese friend, his crisp, careful English courtesy of his South African wife, told me they loved living in the hills above the tranquil village of Sao Martinho do Porto. "It's just like Brigadoon. Remember? When the mist rises, the village appears and it's full of beautiful women!" From which rather disconcerting statement he moved swiftly on to quiz me about whether I knew the Romeo and Juliet style story of the couple whose tombs lie in the great monastery across the square in Alcobaa.
Thankfully I did. I hadn't yet seen the final resting place of King Pedro I and of the woman he loved, Ins de Castro but I did know their story. It seemed my new companion was satisfied.
He nodded in approval and told me to look closely. And I did.
Unesco has declared the monastery a World Heritage Site and it is easy to see why. It is not only a monument to the way in which a thousand monks once lived and worked in the fertile agricultural lands of this beautiful part of Portugal, but to the breathtaking skill and craftsmanship of those who built it.
At the heart of the abbey lie the pale marble tombs of a couple whose love affair was never to be accepted in life but only in death. And they are astonishing.
Ins de Castro was first mistress, then wife of King Pedro I but was assassinated on the orders of his father who feared her family was gaining too much political power.
Her status as queen finally acknowledged after her death, her tomb sits opposite that of the king, supported by carvings of those who killed her and panelled with scenes from the Last Judgement.
While the king may well have ordered anger and judgement be carved into Ins' tomb for all to see, his own depicts scenes from their life together and one final promise, that they will be together at ao fim do mundo (until the end of the world). Who says politics and passion don't mix? Days later, those delicate Gothic carvings came to mind again as I watched deft fingers creating more masterpieces only this time in miniature and not in marble but in lace.
Wandering around the fishing village of Peniche on the same stretch of Silver Coast, I'd come across a statue of a lace-maker, fingers busy with dozens of bobbins, her skirt delicately carved with the kind of tracery you could imagine her nimble fingers creating. Then from just yards away in a small park, came the hum of quiet chatter. Off I went to investigate, only to find a class in progress, packed not with children but row after row of women.
With doors thrown open to the sunshine, there was laughter and welcoming smiles for anyone who peered in as I did, fascinated by a sense of community all too rarely seen on an English street corner.
Lace-making is not just a tradition in Peniche, it is part of every day life. The lace-makers work on through what ought to be siesta time and every year their skills are celebrated in the Day of The Lacemaker.
The economy in Portugal may indeed be struggling, just as it is in Europe and across the Atlantic, but its culture continues to have riches that have disappeared all too swiftly here.
Traditions are kept, cherished and passed on to the next generation. And that can be anything from the simple idea of finding time to take a late afternoon stroll with the whole family, sharing a meal or a chat.
This is a society that still works and plays together and it seems all the richer for that. Groups seem to gather to tackle mundane tasks, as well as more intricate skills such as lace-making. But it's so refreshing to watch a cafe owner snatch a kick-about with his football mad son between waiting on tables, and see the waiters from the next restaurant put down their cloths and join in.
Maybe the reason why Brigadoon was made to vanish, to keep out some of the evils of changing times, wasn't such a bad idea after all.
* NIMBLE FINGERS: The lace-making skills still alive and well in Portugal
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|Publication:||Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)|
|Date:||Sep 23, 2011|
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