F-Words in Portugal
“His life was saved because of a cock.”
Maybe it’s my filthy mind, or maybe it’s his accent, or maybe it’s the sangria I’ve been drinking since 10 this morning, but I’m lost.
An old man shoves an upside-down postcard towards me.
“The cock is famous in Portugal!” my tour guide, João, tries to explain, gesturing at the postcard. “The cock proved the innocence of a falsely accused man. He was sent by God.”
A cock sent by God?
“The accused said the cock would crow, lying cooked on the dinner table. And he did. And the judge set him free. It is simple like that, no worries – no passanada.”
He turns the postcard over and I see the beautifully patterned red and black rooster — sorry, cock — who is the star of this legend.
“Ohh, a rooster,” I say.
João frowns. “Yes. A rooster — the Cock of Barcelos. What did you think it was?”
We’re in a market in Evora when I first hear about the legendary cock. The tiny stall sells postcards, magnets and umbrellas, all made from cork. Thanks to the warm climate, Portugal is near perfect for growing cork oak trees. So next time you uncork your wine bottle on a Saturday morning – uh, afternoon – there’s about a 50 per cent chance that stopper came from Portugal.
We stroll through bright and narrow streets checking out variations of the cork hat, then puff our way up to the lookout. We pass the ruins of the Temple of Diana, built by the Romans about 2000 years ago, which sort of look like a miniature Pantheon with the roof missing. From the lookout, we see a carpet of red and brown tiled rooves stretching out towards green hills, occasionally interrupted by a grey church dome. Directly below us is a huge chunk of dirt wall from when the Moors built a Kasbah around the city.
So is Portugal a land of sangria, history, religion and cork? Sort of. Back on our tour bus, João breaks it down.
“It is simple like that,” he says. “Faith – in our lord, family – it must always come first, and Fado – the soul singing you will hear in Lisbon tonight. Oh, also there is football. Football is very, very important to the Portuguese man.”
Although Lisbon is much younger than Evora, it’s still three times older than my grandma. Picture white-walled, red-rooved houses, towering churches and trams built in the 1800s. On our way to hear the Fado, I glance down an improbably steep and narrow alley to see a cheerful yellow and white metal box with huge square windows chugging its way up the hill. If you’re ever visiting Lisbon, the trams are definitely worth a ride.
At the Fado restaurant, the lights dim and a strong woman in a black shawl strides onto the stage. Two solemn men follow, one with a standard six-string and the other with a 12-stringed Portuguese guitar. The singer spreads her arms, scrunches up her face, and produces a piercing warble. You know when you’re completely focused on something and you forget that you have a face? Most performers get trained to tone down those weird expressions. Fado singers actually get encouraged to just “bare their souls”. Weird expressions are not optional.
It seems to be all about f-words with the Portuguese, but not the one you’re thinking. Instead, it’s all the puristic lovely ideas that start with ‘f’.But as Joao says, the Portuguese value Fado, family and faith. We’re on the bus to Fatima, when he tells us he was once a priest.
“My family, we were very religious. We always pray to Our Lady of Fatima” – aka the Virgin Mary. “It is simple like that. So I knew from when I was very young that I would be a priest. But it turned out it was not for me, and I wanted to travel. My mother, she was not at first happy about this decision but then she said, ‘Joao, now you must start a family’, because you know a priest must not marry, and must be celibate.” He pauses, then adds, “My girlfriend, she is also happy about my decision.”
We reach Fatima an hour later and head for the shrine. It’s a very holy site because they say the Virgin Mary appeared there in 1917 to three shepherd children on the 13th of May, then again each month until September. She made predictions, requests and threats, and then prophesied a solar phenomenon on October 13th. On D-day everyone gathered around, and then the sun danced and threw off colours. The Vatican put their official stamp on the miracle, and the Catholics built a shrine. People from all over the country walk to visit the church, sometimes hundreds of kilometres, and when they arrive they crawl on their knees. Their dedication brings a bit of perspective to my own not wanting to get up to make a cup of tea.
It’s now our last day in Portugal and we’re standing outside Taylor’s Port Wine in Porto. It’s raining, and water droplets trickle down the grape vines on the awning and splash into a puddle at my feet. I shake out my cork umbrella and head inside. The waiter has trouble understanding our broad Aussie accents but brings us some Port. Joao says he too has trouble with his accent.
“Once I was taking a tour, and we were heading to Spain, to the seaside. And I was telling this older group of ladies about the lovely white beeeches.” He over-pronounces the ‘e’. “They became very upset. The long e sound in English is not simple for me,” he laments. “It is not no passanada. For example, I pronounce the fruit ‘peeeches’ like ‘pitches.’ And I realised later my mistake — I’d been telling a group of old ladies about the hot, white bitches.”
Cover by Manfred Klassert