Iberian Honeymoon Part 1

Greetings! I’ve decided to take a break from posting fiction-in-progress, and reminisce about some of our recent adventures in Portugal and Spain. For those of you who don’t know, I recently tied the knot with my amazing wife Abi Nighthill. Months earlier we planned a honeymoon to the Iberian Peninsula. We chose Portugal to fly in and out of, because it was inexpensive, and were told by multiple people that it’s a very underappreciated vacation spot. We were both really curious about Spain as well, so we sandwiched it in.

The trip lasted around 10 days, and consisted of three major portions.

  • Lisbon (Lisboa) – Lovely capitol of Portugal.
  • Bilbao (Bilbo) – The largest city in the Basque Country of Spain.
  • Porto (Oporto) – Portugal’s second largest city, home of Port wine.

We flew in and out of Madrid, and then connected to Portugal

I’m hoping to write a few posts about each leg of our journey, and cover the highlights. My purpose here is more to recount our experiences, and not necessarily to make recommendations or paint an accurate picture of what these places are like. We tried to go off the beaten path whenever possible, and we skipped some of the usual “must-see” attractions in each place.

To start with, here are some cool things we did in and around Lisbon.

Lisboan Fado

fado

The traditional music of Portugal is called fado. It contains the “soul of the Portuguese,” embodied in the Portuguese word “saudade.” There is no direct English translation of this word, but basically it means “longing,” or the feeling that follows after one has experienced great loss. It is definitely very sad, but quite beautiful music. Traditionally it is performed with a vocalist (male or female), and two musicians on classical and Portuguese guitar.

Abi and I went to two different fado shows in Lisbon. Our first night there (after sleeping the better part of a day), we went to a hip sort of bar that attracted a younger crowd. The interior was loaded with local artwork, and even our place mats were creatively styled. Our singer for the evening was male, and his performance seemed to be geared toward easing tourists into what can be, for some, a challenging style of music. He was actually pretty funny, and didn’t fit my image of what a fado singer was. Still, it was a great introduction to the culture, and the excellent wine and Portuguese tapas didn’t hurt either.

Our second fado show was a little more traditional. The space was small, dark and intimate. We were right up front for the performance, and this time we had a female singer (a fadista). She had the shawl, the saudade vibe, and really belted those sorrowful tunes.

Sintra (Quinta da Regaleira)

At one point we took a day trip out to a neighboring town, Sintra, which is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. The trip was easy enough, since there’s a commuter rail line that connects with the city. Sintra is located west of Lisbon, in a range of hills not far from the coast. It was a popular place for the royal family of Portugal to spend their leisure time, as well as an assortment of aristocrats, rich capitalists, and so on.

There’s a lot to see in this seemingly small town. The royal family had two summer palaces here, there’s a ruined castle dating back to the time of the Arabs in Portugal, and more summer homes and palaces than anyone could see in a day. We hit the Pena Palace, and the Moorish Castle, and that managed to take up much of the morning and the afternoon. These were fascinating in their own way, but in the middle of August, they were packed with both local and foreign tourists.

But the true highlight of that visit was the strange and mysterious Quinta da Regaleira. This mansion and the surrounding gardens were bought in the 19th century by an eccentric millionaire who was obsessed with the occult. He hired an Italian architect to transform his whole estate into a bizarre work of esoteric symbolism. The grounds feature twisting pathways, carved figures from mythology and different religious traditions, underground tunnels, and an “initiation well” that has a winding staircase built into it, allowing visitors to venture underground and explore secret caves.

Abi and I were most excited about the well, and our journey through the grounds was built around the goal of finding it. Even with a map, we got hopelessly lost, and we ended up visiting nearly every strange place in the estate before we found it. After descending and wandering through dimly lit caves, we found another, unfinished well, that we could climb up and return to the surface. As she put it, we were “initiated,” then “uninitiated.”

We also found, inexplicably, a field full of cats.

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Literary Lights of Portugal

While we were visiting Portugal (and before we left), I tried to immerse myself in the local literary tradition. I didn’t know much about Portuguese literature, and I find reading the great works can add another layer of fun onto seeing the sights. I sampled Jose Saramago, probably the best known name because of his novel Blindness. Eca de Quieros is a 19th century novelist who wrote in a realist style, and his work is both insightful and sometimes really funny. Luis de Camoes is the Shakespeare or Cervantes of Portuguese letters. He wrote an epic poem in the style of the Odyssey called the Lusiads. He also had possibly the craziest life of any writer I can think of, complete with battles, doomed love affairs, and shipwrecks.

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But the writer I chose to read throughout most of the trip was Fernando Pessoa. He is associated with the Modernist tradition, and did most of his writing in the early twentieth century. He is most famous for inventing dozens of alternate writing personas, or “heteronyms” for himself. More than simple pen names, these people he wrote as had complete fictional histories and identities, and sometimes expressed very different opinions from one another. His longest work is the “Book of Disquiet,” which I am still currently reading.

Abi and I visited the cafe that Pessoa was known to spend time at. The Cafe a Brasileira was a hot spot for artists and bohemians in the olden days. I also found out from reading signs that the word “pessoa” in Portuguese means “person,” which is kind of ironic. His name sounded like “Fernando Person,” but he was really lots of people!

Pastel de Nata

We tried some decent food in Lisbon, but my favorite culinary experience was the pastries. One kind in particular is incredibly popular all over the country, the Pastel de Nata. These are little tarts filled with sweet egg custard, baked in the oven. I must have tried these at 8 different restaurants throughout Portugal. The best ones I had were at La Brasilieira, but supposedly the best of all are located in the neighborhood of Belem, where the Pastels were invented by monks. I heard there were crazy long lines, so we avoided them. These tarts are so popular that there’s even a chain of bakery/restaurants called “I Love Nata.” I’ll have to find a place that makes them stateside…

Anyway, those are my personal highlights for Lisbon. My next post will be for Basque Country and Bilbao!

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Weird Fiction Part 6

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Greetings friends/family/uncategorized! I haven’t posted on this ol’ blog in a few months, because I’ve been crazy busy! I did a month of intensive grad school classes, I got married, and I went on a honeymoon trip to Portugal and Spain with my lovely wife. It was incredible, and I might do a post reminiscing about some of our experiences, but for now, here’s another piece of my short story cycle. I took an even longer break from writing this, because I’m at kind of a point of transition with the story. It’s difficult to work in exposition, and move things forward at the same time, but that’s what was required for this entry. Hope you enjoy it!

Entry the Sixth, the 18th Day of Poldoure, 738th Year of the Sanguine Reckoning

I have nearly caught up to the present day with my account. Those who read this journal now understand how I came to be back in the Doctor’s guardianship, short of a few valuable appendages. All that remains is to recount the rest of my punishment. I do not recall that time with fondness, but there were a great many revelations to be had as I stewed there in a thin puddle of nutritious slime.

Before I write further, there is the day’s draw to consider: the Sightless Scholar, a hungry looking woman clutching a tome, bleeding holes where her eyes once were. I’m sure there are a number of interpretations one can draw from that particular portent. All I can think of is that I lacked everything the Scholar has, with the notable exception of my eyes. I was her opposite in every way, except that our deprivations made us hunger all the more.

There were periods in which I was allowed to do little more than sit there, staring at the blank wall and contemplating the wretched state of my existence. Of course, to add insult to injury (decapitation in fact), the Doctor had Albadore bring me my books and make sure my poor head was kept alive with the proper fluids and electric stimulation. Were I able to speak, I would have apologized for visiting such trauma on his own unfortunate skull, but I doubt it would have counted for much. He could be a spiteful old badger when he felt he was wronged, and he enacted many small, poetic revenges on me for those few days. Leaving the phosphor-lamps on at night, setting me sideways in my tray, so that the nutritive slime lapped at my face, and so forth. Once he even put a tea cozy over me! Tucking me in for the night, so he claimed. I assure you, it is a special kind of Hell to have an itchy, foul-smelling woolen case over your head for all hours of the night, and no recourse for its removal.

But in spite of all the embroidered torments that were administered, there was the occasional escape. As the Doctor mentioned, I had my reading assignments. She created a marvelous device for me, which was a great kindness, though one born of necessity. I doubt it would be a very marketable patent, as there are few decapitated people with a great desire for reading, but there are stranger things I suppose. It resembled a dental brace, with graceful mechanical arms for the turning of pages. By winking I could turn forward or backward through a tome, and by sticking out my tongue I could bring forward the next book.

There were strange, arcane texts that I would not have expected from the Doctor’s pragmatic library: Practical Psycho-Cartography by Professor J.M. Phillicue, Deific Diagnostics by the Baroness of Ilquarx. And, oddly enough, more travel writing than I had ever laid eyes on. Veritable mountains of journals, expedition logs, photographic folios, all the secrets of the wide world that were forbidden to me during my upbringing, laid bare.

I learned of the strange lands beyond the Gateway Principalities, and all their checkered histories: Bloated, decadent Sanguinia, the Inverted Mountains of the South, and the half-sunken Ichthocracy. Beyond the Cavitous Sea the world grew stranger still, where the exiles of Lancully bartered in precious fats, the spirit-ridden Mabaséantes mixed piracy with politics, and the giants of Culahd made love to mountains. I was dazzled, overwhelmed. If I hadn’t already been missing my body, I would have felt lost, dissolved in the beauty of it all.

But why? Why was I allowed to learn about the outside world at last? As the Doctor came close to finishing her repairs to my body, I learned the answers to some of my questions. She appeared one afternoon, looking deprived of sleep and spattered in the black fluids of her medium. She sat in her armchair and regarded me coolly.

“In a few more days, you shall be up and about, free to ruin yourself and embarrass your creator once more. I wish to inform you of the next phase of your training. You have studied the required subjects, and hopefully read your fill, soon you shall practice journaling.”

I must admit that this wasn’t what I was expecting. The writing of diaries didn’t sound particularly glamorous or exciting at the time. I had in mind missions of espionage and intrigue, in which I would shake the very political foundations of the continent like my literary heroes. What better use for my abilities after all?

“You shall go on an expedition, or a journey if you prefer. Your purpose, for the moment, is to investigate a certain phenomenon that has manifested among the various states and polities of the West. You will not be the first to do so, but you will be the first who has been so thoroughly prepared. Your ability to blend in among those you travel among, your wit and cunning, and your remarkable stubbornness towards dying will serve you well in these endeavors.”

Never before had she been so forthright with me. I felt both sated and starved, as a million more questions formed with each of her words. Yet I still cruelly lacked the devices for giving them voice.

“Documentation is of the utmost importance. My colleagues and I do not desire the detached report of a scientist. No, your personal thoughts and observations are essential to your log, otherwise we risk corruption. Your innocence, your creative spark, should protect you from the attentions of the aberration that you study.”

Still she spoke in hints and riddles, to my utter frustration. But now there was hope, now there was a future for me! And I felt it approaching faster than ever before. But must she still be so obtuse? What was this “phenomenon” she spoke of?

“I can tell you only little of what y0u will study, for I know only little, and your ignorance will provide you some protection as well. This world we live in, that you and I were brought into, it has a sickness, an inherent flaw that was present from the moment of its conception. That sickness has a name, an identity. There are those who have followed before us, who tried to learn that name and understand it. They have all been lost, or utterly destroyed. Your purpose, your Great Work, is to finish what they started, to do what they could not. You will identify and diagnose the sickness, so that we address the possibility of curing it.”

Had I lungs, I would have asked: How will I know? How can you tell me so little if this Work is so important? How could anyone identify a flaw in the world itself, if I am part of that same world? Endless questions, esoteric, obscure, so metaphysical as to be practically meaningless. Was I to be a wandering philosopher?

“Initially, your work is to be simple. You will travel, observe, learn the customs of the people you travel among. You will provide a full and comprehensive picture of the places you visit, a holistic diagnosis. The deeper your observations, the more likely it will be that you or I uncover a pattern. And everything you write, you will send back to me for analysis. Together, we will discover a lead, a place where we can start to understand the bigger picture.

“As I mentioned, we are not the first to embark on this endeavor, but all others before us have failed, and the work they left behind for study is scant and fragmentary. When you are ready, you will study what remains of the journals of an old colleague of mine, Dr. Solit Hebdomon, our immediate predecessor for all practical purposes. In his writings lie our first clues. But even without those journals, our course is clear. You will create a faithful travelogue, and write what you see, nothing more.”

It sounded simple enough, though her vague references to destruction, failure, and the seeming impossibility of this ill-defined task made me uneasy. And of course, there was the uncomfortable question of what sort of “attention” I would be drawing with my work. Dr. Swantopelk rose from her chair.

“I must retire now, for it will do neither of us any good if I were to collapse from exhaustion. I no longer have my youth. Like this world we live in, my growing infirmity is showing itself plainly. I bid you good night. Enjoy the simplicity of your current state. Your life will grow infinitely more complicated when I stick your head back on your body.”

She left me in darkness, to contemplate the enormity of all she had told me. I wonder still at what she said. Is it mercy to be left in the dark? Is it better not to know? I would find out in time, no doubt. But there is no way to be a seed in the ground, and not want to sprout forth. Nothing that you are told about your future, or warned of, will remove that desire.