We’re lost, driving slowly right and left and every which way through the streets of Santarém at 10 o’clock at night. We’re tired, too—what with Hannah’s full school day and Alma’s Cape Verde research lecture at a Lisbon university—so I try my best to tease out the logic of the town’s confusing roundabouts, which lie between long streets running the length of lovely parks, still hopeful the hotel we’re searching for does indeed exist. Alma stares once again at the map and, sparked by some unexpected insight into the printed web of streets, suggests a series of turns that ends up getting us where we’re going.
We lug our suitcases into the lobby, glad to check off this first leg of a five-day jaunt to the north of Portugal. We chose Santarém for starters because Alma discovered online that a church here boasts the 750th anniversary of some miracle, and the town currently hosts an agricultural fair we might wander through, so we have lots of questions for the grizzled fellow at the reception desk. He isn’t much for eye contact, though, and he might even be mute—not the ideal career choice for a man of less than a few words. When he slurs out a few syllables that might be a response to our own simple Portuguese, it’s clear he’s not drunk but damaged somehow. Alma notices on the wall behind him a large clock in the shape of Africa, unusual beside otherwise traditional Portuguese decor, and she whispers that he might be a shell-shocked veteran of the colonial wars.
I sneak a sad glance at him, and then pluck a booklet on the town’s agricultural fair from a pile on the reception desk. In our room, I page through the schedule—the whole shebang is open until the wee hours. I’m still charged up by a decent day of reworking a novel chapter. When I read that a Largada de Toiros will take place at 11, a quick flip through my ragged pocket dictionary tells me this means exactly what I suspect: Release of the Bulls.
Now, this is something I’ve always wanted to see, although from a goodly gore-safe distance. Alma, poor soul, sighs and shakes her head at the mere suggestion, and Hannah’s too tired to even consider extending our long day. They decide to stay behind, maybe play a game or two of Boggle before turning in, but I’m not allowed out the door without first swearing absolute scout’s honor not to get myself bluntly aerated.
With more than a little hesitation, I ask the fellow at the reception desk for directions. He mumbles a word or two without raising his eyes, then writes down a few cryptic squiggles of what he’s not further inclined to say. This is enough, it turns out, to get me there in just a few minutes. I park the car beside the monumental building that houses the fair, its curves and pillars a dour modern version of a Roman temple. Even so late, this palace is packed inside with families pushing strollers, teen boys eyeing teen girls wearing cowboy hats, middle-aged men traveling in groups of three and four without their wives. Rows of stands serve local food and wine, around the bend there’s a small petting zoo of sheep and goats, and everywhere traditional crafts are for sale. Ah, shopping—just the fulcrum I need to pry Hannah, and therefore Alma, out of that hotel room. I call to wheedle them into letting me drive back and pick them up (there’s still time, I point out), but my attempted charms get nowhere.
I wander alone until I catch a whiff of something that plugs into deep memory. The words “hot dog” and “baseball” rise up inside me, and I’m back to long-ago outings at Shea Stadium, where I watched the Mets—despite all my hopes—lose and lose again. The lip-smacking scent beckons from a booth selling grilled sausage, and after a glance at the chalkboard menu I order a chorizo sandwich. The young woman beside the register squints at the question mark of my accent, which pegs me as a way-way-out-of-towner, a type local agricultural fairs don’t normally draw, so I repeat my order, she finally nods, and I plunk down my euros and sit at a picnic-style table to wait.
What finally arrives is not the sandwich I thought I’d ordered (what tripped me up? Pronunciation? Grammar? Both?) but a mound of three types of bite-size sausage pieces, some already helpfully pierced by toothpicks. I take a tentative stab at the greasy morsels, trying first a black blood sausage, then a fiercely red and chewy chorizo, then a tan and softer version. They’re each delicious, scarily so, because if I somehow allow myself to eat everything my heart will surely shift down to a single ventricle. After digging a respectable dent in the meal, I return to the booth to ask the young woman, “Faz favor, onde fica a largada de toiros?”—Excuse me, where’s the release of the bulls?
I walk down the sloping field where she pointed and pass a clutch of flimsy-looking food stalls, then take mental notes while strolling past a display of imposing farm machinery—those gleaming tractors and threshers might offer me a nook of safety if I later return this way only steps ahead of a pair of sharp horns. Finally, I come to a large wooden circle of a building. A bullring—I’m at a bullfight? Apparently, “Release of the Bulls” doesn’t mean a barely sane free-for-all. Instead, I walk among farm families as I search for a seat, past sleepy children cradled in their mothers’ arms, buddies jostling and joking, shy first dates, and a hawker touting creamy queijadas.
In the middle of the ring, there’s some sort of theatrical performance in full swing, and I find a seat and watch two lovers trade exaggerated embraces and accusations. Then a pair of lean, mean actors exchange threats and mime a knife fight until three sultry dancers, skirts flaring, slink across the bullring’s sandy soil, each twirling a rack of horns. One statuesque beauty urges a would-be matador not to take up the cape, railing against “este espectáculo cruél!”—this cruel performance!
“Shut your mouth and hit the road!” a fellow beside me shouts out, to nearby chuckles. The folks here behave as if they’re at home joshing a TV screen, and the acting before us is certainly telenovela style: those earnest, longing looks and grand gestures are designed for the farthest seats. In between these hammy scenes, from a small stage fit into the stands, a handful of fado singers take turns belting out songs with a tight band. Whether homebred or a traveling troupe of musicians, they’re damn good, pounding out muscular, passionate music that’s as punk as fado gets.
When the bull finally enters, through a swinging gate, a couple of matadors ease into the ring and wave capes. Years ago, I took in a night of bullfights at Lisbon’s Campo Pequeno, so I know these guys serve as mere warm-up, an attempt to wear down the bull a bit before the main event of eye-popping equestrian feats. Sure enough, a cavaleiro soon enters, perched on a fancy white horse, its mane and tail braided, and he takes a few turns to provoke the bull’s charge. The horse canters sideways, even backward, guided by the cavaleiro, staying mere inches from the horns of the bull (the tips are blunt, but they’re not playthings). Then, with a flourish, the cavaleiro reaches into a quiver of spears sporting colorful streamers and, horsy hairpin turn after hairpin turn, he pins them into the fleshy hump of the bull’s back.
In the face of this bloodletting designed to further fatigue the bull, I’m grateful my cell-phone pleading fell flat. By this point, Hannah would have held palms over eyes and fingers in ears while Alma led her out of the ring, not without a glance of utter disappointment at me first—yet another chapter of Father’s Failed Adventures we wish never happened. I would have followed, chastened, but an unexpected drama holds me here now. That bull down there is one reluctant beast, more confused than angry.
Between provocations, he, a seemingly meditative soul, wanders back to the now closed gate where he’d entered. This bull just wants to go home, wherever and whatever he imagines that to be. Yet something also stirs within at the approaching horse’s challenge, and he can’t help himself, he charges again, however disappointing the result. Clearly, this is his first bullfight. Then I realize he has no idea what’s coming next because every bullfight is a first, for every bull. There’s never a rematch. The entire spectacle is the waving of a wand of human cleverness just beyond each animal’s blundering ken.
Finally, the finale—and the closest any bull will ever get to a fair fight. Eight local fellows, amateurs all and ranging from scrawny to pudgy and flashed up in matador style, form a single file facing the worn-out bull, and the fellow in front stamps his feet, inviting the inevitable charge. Then that first guy throws himself on the bull’s lowered head, clutching the horns while the rest rush three to each broad side of the bull, the last fellow taking tugs at the tail, and they keep up this crazy crowding until the exhausted creature simply stops, subdued but still standing, one last humiliation.
The local heroes bow and wave and exit. The poor bull stands there in a bright spotlight beside the curve of the ring, tips of festive spears dangling from his bloody back, while farmers sitting around me crow insults. He has no idea why any of this has happened to him, and he waits, uncomprehending, for who knows what might follow, while a fado singer rips through another song. Usually, the bull is led out of the ring to be dispatched in private later, but maybe tonight there will be more to this espectáculo cruél, maybe folks will be invited down to the sandy ring for this tired animal to roam about after them. No longer interested, I rise to leave and ease my way sideways through the stands.
A turn here, then a turn there through the stark crags and chasms of the glorious Gerês Mountains, but still we can’t find the curiosity I’d uncovered in one of our guidebooks: a fojo do lobo—a series of stone walls, built in the Middle Ages, that once served as a wolf trap. Alma keeps glancing back at Hannah, who is curled asleep in the back seat. Our daughter’s not the napping type, but she deserves whatever rest she wants: though all her classes are in Portuguese, Hannah’s grades are among the highest in her school.
We’ve come so far—and so close, according to the guidebook—that I don’t want to give up yet. At the height of one wooded hill, I park the car, then march about in search of a clearing. Peering in all directions, I can make out, to my right, the rooftops of Fafião, which we passed a half hour ago before circling through these mountains. The village’s narrow streets, lined with stone buildings that seem as if they’ve been in place for thousands of years, remind me of the stories of Miguel Torga, a Portuguese writer I’ve been rereading recently. Torga died before his many nominations for the Nobel literature prize could snag him the big one, and he was robbed. I’ve always admired the rough-hewn poetry of his prose about peasants, who, in remote and unforgiving mountain landscapes, were “born poor, lived poor, and died poor.”
I turn from Fafião and squint at the wild terrain below, until I see a dark line or two that seem to fit and yet defy the natural contours of a nearby hill. I mark it in my mind and hurry back to the car, where Hannah still sleeps in the back seat. Peering in the window, I’m not sure how much I should worry about her recent hunger for rest. Off and on since our trip to Cape Verde, she’s complained of stomach pains, but a couple of doctor visits haven’t turned up a thing. As I ease into the front seat, erasing my concerned face, I whisper to Alma, “Last chance, and then we’ll turn back, OK?”
After reaching a dirt road that leads along the bottom of that hill I’d scoped out, I park and half-close the door so I don’t disturb Hannah. Off I go, not quite sure how this terrain fits with what I saw back on the ridge, but on a hunch I take a turn up a path on my right, past low scrub brush and sandy soil exposed in the midday sun.
I’m halfway up the hill and there they are: two stone walls, 8 feet high or more, parallel and far apart, leading away from me. I approach one wall to examine the fit of stones, each of which balances against the others without mortar. Within any gaps, shards of smaller stones snugly, perfectly fit, and I gasp at the enormous care behind this construction. It reminds me of a passage in one of Torga’s stories describing villagers who, “inured to long slow hours, are as patient as watchmakers, and full of ponderous scheming. As in the planted fields, where for long weeks one can stare into the same motionless meditative enigmatic corn stalks, secretly ripening, so in the dullest slowest stodgiest most placid and silent men there lives, at times, a secret determination to create and ripen.”
I continue along the wall, see how it eventually turns down a gully and narrows the gap between the second wall, the two finally leading to a deep stone pit that poses the final trap. The pit below is overgrown with weeds, and I can understand such neglect—who would easily venture down there among the souls of so many angry wolves?
I wonder how our friend Sónia—a biologist who studies with great compassion the last remaining wolves in Portugal—would react to this place, and again I’m thinking of Torga’s stories, where farmers know their sheep individually, “as if they were people,” and when a priest’s homily berates his backward congregation, claiming that come Judgment Day they’ll all be sent to hell and only the sheep will be spared, the villagers weep—not for themselves but at the thought of their flocks left behind with no one to defend them from preying wolves. This fojo de lobo goes beyond some elaborate architectural exercise. It’s personal.
Then I remember that Alma and Hannah are still back at the car. I flip open my cell phone and call. “You and Hannah just have to see this,” I say, though I doubt I’ll get much traction. For my wife, a child’s sleep is the Fountain of Youth, El Dorado, and the Promised Land all rolled into one, so I’m shocked when she agrees to wake Hannah. I hurry back down the gentle slope of the hill to make sure they take the right path through the sparse trees, and as I lead them back a bell goes off inside me. The first time I saw these walls, I was impressed mainly by their construction, but now, this second time around, I see why someone, long ago, carefully picked this particular terrain to build a fojo do lobo. I see the cunning of the walls’ placement.
I’m no expert on wolves, like Sónia is, but standing here I can imagine a long-ago drama, imagine that barking dogs and shouting men behind the fleeing wolf are just noise to him because he hasn’t begun to break a sweat—he can go on for miles. So he barely notices the stone wall, parallel to his running and far to his right, which disappears over the horizon of this hill he’s climbing, and he barely perceives the wall far to his left, which seems to end abruptly at the hilltop’s distant curve. Instead, he keeps his eyes on the promising view before him, of the forested mountains beyond, where he can escape, until he returns one day for another sheep.
So the wolf continues dashing up this hill, unconcerned, until he reaches the crest, when he finally sees what he couldn’t see before. That wall on his right takes a sharp turn to the left, cutting him off from the mountains; it’s a tall barrier that continues along the downward slope of the hill. But the second wall, on his left, has apparently ended, so he runs in that direction, only to discover again what had been just out of his sight: that it, too, has veered sharply to the left, also down the slope. Racing back and forth, he discovers that each high wall resists his leaping, while the howls of the dogs and the shouts of their masters draw closer.
He can only try to escape to where the walls on each side slowly narrow his possible path until they appear to leave an opening he can fit past. Yet, when the wolf rushes through, there’s nothing beneath his feet except a fall into a deep pit lined with stones, nothing left for him to do but circle restlessly and wait for the arrival of the howling dogs and the now silent men.
Alma snaps as many pictures as she can, ooohing and aaahing, but Hannah, still sleepy-faced, just wants to return to her back-seat nap, so after a few minutes we leave. Walking back to the car, I can’t help thinking that this wolf trap is an espectáculo cruél as fixed as the bullfight I saw in Santarém a few days ago. Maybe, for the farm families I sat among, that bullfight mirrored the cruél but daily work necessary for a profitable farm, with just the right dab of danger to serve as a reminder of distant days when the beasties threatened your life and livelihood. Sure, the odds may be unfair, but that’s how evolution works for the clever hungry ones at the top of the heap.
I can appreciate that. Alma and I have lived in small villages in Africa where the slope up to the food chain’s tip is still slippery: spiders stretch wider than the span of a hand and scorpions bulk up to the size of lobsters, snakes subscribe to every poisonous persuasion and malaria can pack a fatal wallop, and the long white wire of a guinea worm will swell your leg to a log, while relentless rows of army ants march with their own collective ideas of what’s what.
As we weave through Fafião on our way back home, Alma notices that some of these ancient stone houses have roofs that sport satellite dishes. I wouldn’t mind parking and wandering about this village, but we have a long drive ahead of us, back to Viana do Castelo, where we’ve been indulging ourselves at a fancy quinta—country estate—that’s perched on a steep hill.
The sun has worked its way down a good stretch of the sky by the time I steer past the estate’s mansion and park in front of our stone-walled bungalow rental. Hannah, back from dreamland, feels refreshed enough for a romp in the outdoor pool, and within minutes we march, appropriately bathing-suited, through the manicured grounds. I can’t help admiring how well this quinta is organized: above us, a series of terraces carved into the hill are laced with grape vines; one terraced level below, there’s a grove for peacocks; and then we pass an enclosed pond with languidly circling swans. Stone steps lead us to a little plateau of a lawn, lined with rows of white-blossomed hydrangeas, and from there we can see the city below, clustered about the mouth of the Lima River as it meets the Atlantic Ocean, the Portuguese coastline curving into the hazy distance.
Alma decides the water in the pool is too cold, but Hannah and I judge it warm enough to plunge into. I shake off a shiver or two, then balance on one leg and lift the foot of the other just above the water—my version of a shark fin—and, hopping toward Hannah, I dumdumdum the music from Jaws until I’m splashed to defeat. Then we paddle toward the pool’s far end, which has no raised concrete lip, so by keeping our heads at water level we prolong the thrilling illusion that we’re floating toward the edge of a waterfall. Eventually, Hannah swims in her own circles, Alma pulls a lawn chair to poolside and pages through a book, and I float on my back, basking in the last of the day’s sun. All those hours of driving melt away as, eyes closed, I let my thoughts wander, first over the trim surrounding lawn and the flower beds framing that spectacular view, then through the cloistered grounds for swans and peacocks, along the winding trails of cool stone steps, past the trellised grapevines, to our own cozy bungalow—so many examples of the cleverness of the human mind.
Quotations from the work of Miguel Torga are from Tales and More Tales From the Mountains, translated by Ivana Rangel-Carlsen (Carcanet Press).