Portugal: Peeps at Many Lands - Edith A. Browne

Country Ways and Country Folk (Continued)

Next we pass a string of heavily-laden mules, and now a farm-cart drawn by big, sleepy-looking oxen. The Portuguese have seen no reason to change the build of their farm-carts since the old days of the Roman occupation. The wheels have no spokes, they are almost solid, and instead of turning round on the axle as ours do, the axle is fixed in and revolves with them. The body of the cart is just a flat board with upright sticks round the edge, against which side planks can be propped if required. When first you see these odd-looking carts, they strike you as having come out of some prehistoric picture-book.

Away on the right a field is being ploughed, and the plough, like the cart, is of the same pattern as those used by the Romans—a very primitive affair. Just a wooden spike shod with iron, which scratches shallow furrows in the earth. It is being drawn by a great big ox and a very small donkey. The ploughman has a little boy to help him, who carries a long pole with which to clear away the earth that clogs the plough. Man and boy have been at work since very early morning, and they will go on till six or seven in the evening. All day long, hour after hour, they sing a monotonous kind of chant in a minor key, only about two lines, repeated over and over again, and it sounds as though there were no real words to it. It is just such a tune, or want of tune, as may be heard any day on the east coast of Africa, sung by native boat-boys.

The farm cart of the country.


It is a legacy from the early days when the country was held by the Moors. The Southern Portuguese more especially have retained many Moorish customs, and the peasants have a very distinctly Moorish type of face, with the inscrutable expression which may so often be seen among Eastern peoples.

There are many Arab wells or shadufs  in the country. A beam is placed horizontally between two pillars, and on this is balanced a long pole, to one end of which a weight (very often a large stone) is attached, and to the other, by means of a rope, a bucket. A pull on the rope lets the bucket down into the well; when full the rope is let go, and the weight at the other end raises the water.

With a few exceptions, in some of the larger towns, nearly all the shops are Eastern-looking. They have no smart plate-glass windows in which to show off their pretty merchandise; often they have hardly any window at all, but just a big doorway, through which you look into a dark passage, where the various goods for sale hang on the walls and from the ceiling.

The Portuguese have many other Eastern ways: for instance, if they wish to send you farther from them, they make a sign with the hand which we should take to be beckoning you nearer, and if they want you to approach, they would seem to be motioning you away—both of which signs are entirely Eastern.

They have also retained from the Moors a love of coloured tiles for decorating their houses, and even their churches, both inside and out. There are many factories at Lisbon and Oporto where these tiles are made, but they never now attain the beauty of the old Moorish ones, which are still to be seen here and there throughout the country. It is a lost art.

But we have left our plough far behind, and are coming to a few cottages and a small wayside inn. A bush hangs over the door to show that wine is sold, the time-honoured sign which was used long ago in England, and from which the saying comes, "Good wine needs no bush."

Outside, tied to rings fastened in the wall, stand two or three donkeys, a pony, and a mule, all very tired and dejected-looking, while lolling in the doorway, or sitting on a bench inside, are their masters, drinking the good red wine of the country, of which they can buy a large bottle for the modest sum of forty ries, or about twopence.

They are fond of a glass of wine, but you will see little or no drunkenness, except occasionally on a Sunday. Close to the inn is the old stone watering-place, the fonte, as it is called, whence, out of the mouth of a quaintly-carved stone head, a fresh stream of water, cool and clear from the mountains, is ever flowing. All over the country, wherever there are a few houses together, and at the street corners in the towns, may be seen these stone watering-places and fountains, where the brightly-dressed peasant-women fill their large earthenware jars, carrying them away balanced on their heads, where the lads and maidens wrangle good-humouredly over whose turn it is next, where the children play and dabble in the water, and the gossips meet to talk over the latest scandal.

A gossip at the fountain.


There is a small boy running about on sturdy, bare brown legs, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his ragged and patched little breeches, which are kept up by the usual sash, worn by men and boys alike, and wound round and round the waist. His shirt is open at the neck, and on his head he wears the cap of the country, a long worsted bag, drawn well over the ears, and hanging almost to the shoulder.

These caps are always either black, or bright green with a scarlet stripe round the opening, and, as we are soon to realize, serve many useful purposes, as well as that of covering the head.

The little urchin, seeing we are strangers, comes up to have a good look at us, and out of idle curiosity we tisk his name. He gives us a string of them, which sounds fitting for a young prince—Henriques Quintino Rodrigues de Monserrate, the latter being probably the name of the village he lives in. Finding us less interesting than he had hoped, our small friend proceeds to remove his cap and to play with something at the bottom of it, which he exhibits with great pride to another child who has come out of one of the cottages. He eventually pulls it out, and we see that it is a very large black beetle! His hand goes in again and draws out another, and yet another, and his three treasures are put down to crawl about on the steps leading up to the watering-place. At last, tired even of this engrossing amusement, he grabs hold of them again, and drops them one by one into the recesses of the cap, which he then proceeds to replace upon his head. When remonstrated with, he quite fails to catch our point, and assures us that there could be no safer place for carrying black beetles.

We have lingered enough, and must be going on our way. The whole valley seems transfigured, and all things loom fairylike through a golden haze as we look towards the setting sun. We wander on through an orchard of orange and lemon trees, with their wealth of golden fruit and tender white blossom, the fallen fruit lying beneath the trees, as do the apples in an orchard at home when shaken by the winds of autumn. We meet an old priest, in wide-brimmed hat and long soutane, who smiles benignly on us. He passes on, and the sound of a church bell, calling to prayer, floats softly up the valley.