BootsnAll Travel Network

Alcobaça: Tombs, a Wedding, and One Amazing Woman

Yesterday I went to Alcobaça, Portugal´s largest church, built over a long period of years starting in 1178. It´s the home of the famous tombs of Don Pedro and Ines de Castro, whose romance has been the subject of many plays, including one written by Catharine Trotter, which was in my first anthology and which had its first modern production at Smith when Karena Rahall, Angelique von Halle, and a powerful group of young women decided to do a revival. I wish I had their email addresses. They would love to know I have come here at last. In the Trotter version, written in 1695, Ines was in love with Costanza, and Pedro was in love with Ines, but Pedro´s father was outraged by the trio and had Ines murdered. The production was so successful that the actors were asked to perform it at the WOW Cafe in NYC. In the Portuguese version that meets the tourist´s eye here, Don Pedro was in love with Ines but was forced to marry Costanza; Pedro´s father, fearing Ines´s influence, had Ines murdered. Then, continuing the Portuguese version, when Pedro´s father died, Pedro personally tore the hearts out of two of her murderers, had her body disinterred and crowned, and then made all the people at court kiss her mostly-decomposed hand. Then he had two astonishing tombs made, one for her and one for himself, and decreed that the tombs face each other across the nave of the Cathedral. They are still there. Whichever version of the story you prefer, the tombs are incredible: intricately carved, Gothic in their elaboration and lines, with carved angels holding the bodies of each of the two, she with a little Italian Greyhound at her feet, and he with a mastiff at his. (I didn´t know the bit about the dogs till I saw the tombs myself.) But here´s the wild part: yesterday there was a wedding taking place smack in the center of the main aisle, between the two tombs. And that´s not all.

When I paid my four and a half Euros to get in, I was ushered out of the church, into the historical rooms and the cloister, but I heard an organ and felt I was missing something, and then a choir started, so I made my way back to the church. It´s enormous. Would hold thousands easily. From the back, I heard what I thought was a chorus of either tenors or contraltos singing Schubert´s Ave Maria. The androgynous sound fascinated me. Beautiful sound, rich and vibrant, echoing through the massive nave. I walked closer, searching for the singers, but I couldn´t find them. I saw an organist, a little woman about my age in a short red skirt and a loose top, and then I gasped. She was playing the organ and SINGING the Ave Maria herself, and she was the ONLY singer. The combination of the power of her voice and the echoes of the church created the illusion of a choir (of angels, no doubt). There she was, feet and hands going like mad, and her voice was lyrical, pure, rich, and completely serene, floating up into the unimaginably high arches of the church. I took a picture of her, but I can´t upload photos at this place, so it will have to wait for when I return. It turned out she was practicing for a wedding that was about to take place. When I got my astonishment somewhat under control and could close my jaw, I noticed the red carpets, the flowers, the two chairs up front. So of course I stayed for the wedding.

They they were, two Portuguese kids, probably very wealthy ones, getting married in this enormous place full of tombs. The groom was escorted down to the front by his parents, and then he stood around, looking as though he wasn´t sure they were going to bring his bride in, for about half an hour. Meanwhile the place filled with about 200 or so people–every age, size, and variety. Poor old people in black, rich old people in fancy suits and gorgeous dresses, teenagers with gel in their hair, couples in their 20´s holding hands, couples in their 30´s trying to control their kids. The whole catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek put it.

When the bride finally appeared, it was clear to me that she wasn´t really there. She bobbled strangely, must have been wearing shoes that kept catching in her underskirts. Her eyes looked preoccupied, worried, vacant. Nerves? All the preparations, I guess. She´ll have to watch the video to see what happened. She missed her own wedding. She looked great for the pictures. She almost matched the interior of the cathedral with its cream-colored pillars reaching into the sky. She wore a cream satin huge skirt with many petticoats, a separate bodice with ecru lace over it; carried an arrangement of ivy and orange lillies. But she wasn´t there. It took two hours, and she kept getting her part wrong and having to do little bits over. Afterwards, I heard the old men shaking their heads and waving their fingers and repeating “dinhiero” (money) over and over. I imagine they were saying her father could have bought her a house with what he paid for this wedding.

After the wedding, I resumed my visit to the rest of the building. Beautiful, unimaginably beautiful. Such old stones hold the coolness in, and while it was another hundred-degree day out, inside it was cool and quiet, and the whole place is so vast that the tourists hardly seemed to matter. Whole chambers were empty as I walked through them. I found a niche in the cloisters, leaned against a pillar with stone carved to look like ivy at the top, and ate the peach I had bought at the market from a Portuguese woman in black clothes. Eating, feeling the 800 year old stones beneath me and behind me, I lived there for a moment. I tried to take in the meaning of stones that have been touched, sat on, walked over, for 800 years. Then, in a couple of hours, I wandered back into the post-wedding church. Only a few French and German tourists nattered about, checking their guide books. I lingered in a little chapel that holds the tiny coffins of eight children of some king named Alfonso. One of the coffins has Celtic interlacing all over it. Another has a date: 1304. I ran my fingers across the numbers, the stone work, feeling those years, trying to imagine the stone carvers, and then all those generations of people looking, looking, looking at death. Next to that chapel is the one for old Alfonso himself, lying in a stone shroud held by many stone characters (perhaps modeled from life). He is being invited into heaven by the Queen herself, in polychrome, floating on the bodies of three cherubs. I wondered if this were the same king who had Ines murdered, so I consulted my guidebook. In another wonderful mis-translation into English, it says this is the “Chapel of Our Lady of Deportation.” We could use her in the USA, with all this fuss over illegal immigrants.

Alcobaça is about half an hour from Leiria, and the heat was unbelievable. I had the bad luck to get the same bus going and coming–one with the air conditioner broken. It´s a bus made for AC, so the seats are thick plush, the windows don´t open, and we were all crammed in, suffocating. But Portuguese people are terrific at endurance. Nobody complained. A few people fanned themselves. We all just dealt with it.

The Youth Hostel has filled up and is more fun than a litter of puppies. Even as I wrote that last blog entry what seems like days ago, the beds were filling. This morning I had free breakfast (part of the cost of the room) with two women from Montreal, a French guy, a Danish couple, a Spanish woman, and a number of people I didn´t even meet. The women from Montreal are full of energy and light. One teaches theatre to high school kids, and the other is an actress. They´ve been to Porto and are on their way to Lisbon, carrying gigantic backpacks and wearing thong sandals. I am the only person in the entire country with hiking boots (yeah, I changed my mind at the last minute and wish I hadn´t). I may ditch these things and buy some sandals yet. OK, this is long enough, and that was only yesterday. I´m going to do another entry for the amazing events of today.

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