My first impression of Portugal was a whirl of cars snaking along roads lambent with sunshine, and paintings of tigers and elephants on pillars next to the Sete Rios train station. I had landed at Lisbon airport with only 20 minutes to catch the bus to Estremoz, where I would be spending the next two weeks in a writing residency. I managed to catch the bus, and we crossed the river Tagus, heading towards the region of Alentejo, which appropriately translates to “beyond the Tagus”, and Estremoz.
The sunshine that had seemed direct in Lisbon was fiery in the rural landscape — with herds of pigs and sheep in farms — turning the omnipresent sheaves of grass into a golden carpet, dotted with olive trees. Ruling over everything were the gnarled branches of cork trees — their dark-green leaves contrasting sharply with the blood-red trunks. The red, I found out, was because of the cork having been stripped from the bark of the trees.
This graphic representation of man’s exploitation of nature made me resolve not to buy anything made from cork, although it was sometimes hard to resist. The weekly Saturday market, held at the Estremoz’s “lower town” Rossio Marquês de Pombal, popularly known as the “O Rossio” square, had cork magnets, ties, figurines, and even postcards. But, there were plenty of other things to see and buy. One side of the square was occupied by stalls of fresh produce, ranging from honey and jams to vegetables, fruits, and cheese. Across the square, right in front of the parking lot, stalls were set up with “antiques” — Portuguese tiles, posters, furniture, paintings, copper vessels, ceramic figurines and crockery sets, and even musical instruments, ranging in prices from a few to hundreds of Euros.
The weekly market was the meeting point for many families, and the air was punctuated with greetings, kisses on the cheeks, and cooing over babies. People sat in cafés, enjoying their coffees and pastel de nata (the custardy egg tarts famous in this area), surrounded with shopping bags. Others walked around sampling locally-produced wine, from the pop-up booths, or farturas (a combination of funnel cake and churros dipped in sugar) at the stalls. Grabbing one of the farturas, and feeling energised, I decided to walk to the old town and to the castle looming over the market.
As I walked through the narrow streets to the castle, I felt I was witnessing a moving reel of history. At the base of the “new town” was the market square, a lake, and a memorial to World War I soldiers. Slightly uphill were cobbled streets, houses with traditional terracotta roofs, and a marble pillory from the 16th century. Finally, I walked through one of the stone entrances, and was inside the castle. It had been built in the 13th century when King Alfonso III gave a charter to the then Celtic residents after the Moors had been driven out the second time (the first time was a century earlier, but the Moors had reconquered the area). The next ruler, King Dinis, rebuilt it as a palace and his queen, Isabel of Aragon, lived and died here. Walking into the castle, her statue at the centre commands attention, and, it is no surprise to read that she was and is still worshipped for her piety. The royal chapel has white-and-blue tiles and majestic oil paintings depicting her acts of charity, and the square windows frame the countryside around. At a distance, I could see vineyards and the beige rocks of marble quarries.
Our host and resident expert explained to us that marble from this region has been exported since the Roman times, and its quality makes it as expensive as gold. Driving down to one of the quarries, we look down into a valley between mountains of marble blocks and ant-like humans working near the river bed. I had always associated marble as white or off-white, but here, the colours range from grey to green, ochre and pink. Marble is so abundant here that the nearby places have their pavements, train-station benches, and even porches lined with them. In recent years, though, the exports have gone down, and some quarries have been abandoned. Olives and cork farms are more important than ever now, and a good harvest, therefore, means a time for celebration in this area.
One Saturday evening, we learn that the village of Evoramonte is celebrating the cork harvest with a fiesta. We left the house around 9 pm and reached the village to see freshly whitewashed walls and families sitting together enjoying their grilled meat and wine, at tables joined under a gazebo-like structure. A stage is set up at the centre of the square but empty at the moment. Children run excitedly towards a small enclosure and we follow them. A lottery is on: at the centre, a table is heaped with “gifts” — hair bands, necklaces, coasters, small figurines, and two bottles of port. Eyeing the bottles, I invest in the lottery for the grand sum of one Euro, and receive from one of the three moderators — two young women and one young man — a heap of twisted paper ties. Each paper tie has to be unrolled, and the ones with numbers on the corners get a prize, each number represents a prize that the moderators tick off and hand over from a list. I have no numbers, despite painstakingly unrolling each tie. My gambling spirit is activated by now, especially as I see others getting prizes, and I put in another Euro! This time I win five prizes — two coasters, a lanyard, a beer mug, and an espresso cup, but alas, no port bottles.
Happy with my winnings, I saunter back towards the stage, and see that a band had arrived. The lead singer, a Phil Collins-lookalike, starts the set with the Pink Floyd song Another brick in the wall. The crowd is not amused, and the audience, comprising mostly elderly couples, sit impassively. Then, the band started to sing Portuguese songs, the front part of the stage separated on levers and rose up in the air, with the lead singer precariously balanced on it! Whether it was his adventurous spirit, or the subsequent aerobic dancing and fireworks and even another singer rising in the air in a harness, or the shift to Portuguese, the band suddenly clicks with the audience. First, one, then two, and all of a sudden, more than 50 couples are dancing on the floor, with new people joining in and moving across the square in a sedate version of the salsa. The music is foot-tappingly infectious, and when one of the locals, who is also a neighbour of our host, is introduced to me and asks me to dance, I agree. I step on his toes and bump into the neighbours, but my dance partner beams enthusiastically, announcing at the end, “You are a very good dancer!”, much to the hilarity of others around us.
I go back to the house, awash in the haze that only good food, fresh air, and dancing can bring about, and sit for a while under the stars. The night is clear, the Milky Way can be seen right above me, and though I keep a lookout, I don’t catch sight of any shooting stars. I realise, at that moment, all my wishes have been granted.
Jonaki Ray is a Delhi-based poet and writer, whose poetry collection, Memory Talkies (Dhauli Books), will be published in 2020. This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Life is Beautiful’