Scene in Europe, Scene 10, Portugal, Peace and…
Henry spent the first two days of the Portugal leg of his trip in Lisbon, amid a wave of modern architecture in stark contrast with its older, neighbouring terracotta rooftops of charm and a sea of towering cranes best seen from the sleek cable-stayed Vasco da Gama Bridge while he satisfied his appetite with an array of fish dishes and an impressive selection of wines from the region but, after two days of hectic life in another city, he craved something a little more remote, so he hired a car and took to the hills and valleys and happily lost himself along country roads twirling through the landscape of forest covered mountains, tiny, almost deserted towns and sprawling vineyards that crept their way over the scenery as he coasted past it all.
He stopped, finally, at the Pousada Convento Vila Pouca da Beira, a place that had quite literally been chosen for him when he fell upon it during a spectacular rainstorm; a white beacon of hope in the early evening’s sudden downpour, with it’s huge cross and flickering lanterns on either side of its front door, a vision of sanctuary that came out of nowhere as his wipers frantically swept across the windscreen of the car just as he’d started to worry that finding a decent place to stay, in the middle of nowhere, in this erratic weather, might prove positively impossible.
As he slowed the car down and turned into the cobbled courtyard, the building and its adjoining church loomed over him in the darkness, looking haunted, naturally, but somehow cosy too, austere, yet comforting at the same time.
It turned out to be one of a chain of hotels all established in former convents or historical buildings throughout the country, hence its name. But it’s timing and arrival along Henry’s route was nothing less than a miracle. The large entrance door had just clanged shut behind him when the heavens finally crashed with thunder and, as he was lead to his room, past an inner courtyard and up a huge marble staircase with enormous tapestries and a thousand shadows that loomed ominously, the lightening clashed with the blackness of the night sky and echoed through the hallows of the building itself, giving an eerie uncertainty to the shapes, columns, corners and stone eyed angels that decorated the walls, lingering in shadows, waiting for the next bolt of lighting to announce their spooky presence.
The room itself was basic but spacious and, when morning woke him, he opened the doors, stepped onto his balcony and took in the breathtaking view that spread itself out before him. The rain had washed away the shadows and the landscape now sparkled in a million shades of vibrant, life affirming greens as a scent swept through the air of the bounty of nature’s freshness, crispness and energy while below him, fresh coffee was brewing which enticed him back through the same corridors, inner courtyard and down the same glorious staircase which had been home only to ghosts and shadows the night before, but which was now bathed in its own glow of morning light as antique treasures glistened in their own grandeur before he took a seat on the empty terrance overlooking the lushness and life of the whole valley.
It was silent, he was silent, the whole world was silent as he sat himself down. It was exactly what he had needed after almost a month of being constantly on-the-go; looking, searching, rushing, seducing, being seduced, being let down. A time of huge highs and a few comical lows. A time to become a man, he though as he figuratively tapped himself on the back. He had secretly feared the trip to Europe, all by himself. He hadn’t even travelled in the States without the boozed-up comfort of his often out-of-it mother, the occasionally present father or just on the road with his own friends, at the very least. But this trip had been his test, his personal journey, his own awakening. And boy, oh boy, was he beginning to feel awake.
He sipped his coffee, looking down over the vineyard that grew out from the end of the gardens by swimming pool of the former convent before it disappeared into the forest below it, just as the land rose up to greet the sky, sighing in the welcome return of the sun after a night of unimaginable rain which seemed like a dream now on front of this view; this mirage of tranquil wilderness. The car had been pounded so heavily with rain that he’d feared for his own safely along the tiny, mud soaked road the night before, so when he’d seen the light, literally, at the end of the road, he’d stopped the car and knocked on the door without a single care as to who or what answered. He’d already seen the ghosts of Europe, bold and brazen and tempting him on streets in broad daylight. What was wrong with another one or two to add to his list?
But surprisingly, in a place that looked more welcoming to the afterlife, even with its own gated old chapel in the basement, a crucifix on every available wall, and saints, carefully carved in stone, perched in every nook and cranny, the only souls that lingered about were living, breathing ones; smiling, nodding and giving off not a single scent of the scary.
The only Portuguese visions he saw came from nature itself as he wandered down the hills, amid the vines, and over fences to open pastures with grazing sheep and sleeping cows. The only smells he noticed sprang up from either the dew in the morning or out of every oven; simple roadside restaurants with the best roast chicken he’d ever tasted, deliciously fragrant cheeses from goats and sheep that came in clumps and spread itself over bread like butter or the traditional mini custard tarts, pasteis de nata, which was the one thing that haunted him as their delicate taste lingered on the tongue long after he’d finished them.
It was life and it was his for the tasting, his for the taking, his for the smelling, he said to himself as he swaggered nakedly over to his bed as the open window let a gentle, warm breeze blow in past the curtains and he turned off the light and slipped his youthful, unlined body beneath the folds of the perfectly crisp hotel sheets. He closed his eyes and let his head nestle into the soft pillow, sensing sleep lean in to take him just as a hand reached over behind him, beneath the constriction of the blankets, and ran its icy cold, fine, foreign fingers up along his spine while his entire body froze in fear and the window slammed shut as the scent of death crept along his flared and frightened nostrils…
All Words and Photographs by Damien B. Donnelly