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Following fate in Portugal; My Favorite PlaceBy...


Following fate in Portugal; My Favorite Place

By Jennifer DeRose

Special to the Sun

Portugal's southern coast is packed with resorts popular with sun-starved German and English tourists, but we flew into Oporto, to the north. Touring around in a rental car, we soon felt more like time travelers than tourists. In the Portuguese countryside, peasant women still wear coarse black dresses and head scarves. In the town of Coimbra, university students proudly sport full-length black cloaks indicating their status as scholars.

Although Portugal is part of the European Union, we felt worlds away from the cellular phones, high fashion and bullet trains of France and Italy. We honeymooned in the Old Country.

The concept of fate, fado, is important to Portuguese culture, and we traveled in that spirit, allowing chance to shape our days. Sometimes fate made an excellent tour guide, as when a tiny old woman beckoned to us from a doorway in Amarante. She led us into - of all things - a small museum of Renaissance art from Madeira. Apparently the caretaker, she conducted us through three rooms packed with gleaming, jewel-encrusted chalices and moody Crucifixions.

Each painting and artifact, while ordinary in general, was strangely beautiful in its details. In one painting, an angel, her hair tied up with red ribbons, floats on rose-tinted wings. She offers a delicate crown to a moon-faced Mary, whose skin glows as if painted with pure bronze powder. Mary holds her stiff blue cloak tightly across her shoulders, staring upward in awe. Behind her, an African man in a red robe looks on somberly. We wondered about the people living on that island outpost of the Portuguese empire, hundred of miles from the African mainland. Was it the artists' isolation that inspired such melancholy art?

On another occasion, fate brought more mystery. Searching the hilly neighborhoods of Oporto for the museum of folk culture, we noticed several people heading down a narrow alley. We followed, finding a crowd of perhaps 30 in a cul-de-sac, whispering to one another. The door of a dingy stucco house opened, and two policemen brought out a body on a stretcher, not moving, perhaps dead. The crowd fell quiet. Once the stretcher was gone, the debates resumed, now vigorously. Was it murder? An accident? Illness? As we turned to leave, a man in a blazer and a greasy black fedora looked directly at my husband. He slowly raised his index finger to his face and pulled down one of his lower eyelids, revealing its moist, crimson interior. Lowering his hand, he turned away.

What did it mean? Some have suggested, "Stay alert," others "Beware the evil eye." We never learned for certain.

Our honeymoon was mostly conventional: days spent hiking, evenings dining in fine restaurants, lazy afternoons lingering in cafes. But the times that remain with us most vividly are those when we stepped off the beaten path, and let fate show us how far from home we had come.

Jennifer DeRose lives in Baltimore.

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