A trip for two days and five centuries into Sortelha, the Historical Village of the medieval period, where the houses and kisses are as immortal as the stones that frame the landscape
The way to Sortelha is on foot. The parked car stayed behind. The path is definitely on foot, but the climb is made under the scolding hot sun of the first day of June. At the top, within the walls, the “Eternal Kiss” is being celebrated, from the initiative “12 in Network – Festive Villages.”
With one foot behind the other, I remember the words of José Saramago in his work Journey to Portugal (Editorial Caminho, 1981). “The medieval character of this agglomeration is the enormity of the walls that surround it. Their thickness, and also the hardness of the road, the steep streets perched on top of gigantic stones, the citadel, the last refuge for the besieged, final and perhaps useless hope. If someone beat formidable walls from outside, there is no way to surrender to this little castle that looks like a toy.”
I also resist and finally reach the walls from within. The gates of the village form. They separate the inside and the outside. The old dog went on with his life. And I hear the first voices. There is a party in the village. Even before entering, I rest my eyes upon the horizon to my left. As if suspended by the climb to the small castle, two gigantic stones kiss for the last time, the kiss that immortalized the legend. A tragedy of love and curses, narrated from generation to generation over the years.
The Moor and the Christian
Legend has it that a Christian alcalde lived in the castle of Sortelha and was married to a woman who practiced witchcraft. The couple had a daughter, who happened to be the prettiest woman throughout the entire region. Courted by everyone, the youth was, however, betrothed to an alcalde with attractive businesses. The damsel was not very keen on the allure of the arrangement as her heart beat hard for someone outside of the walls. And no other than for the leader of the Moors, who, unfortunately, were on their way to surround the castle for takeover. It seems as though the prince was handsome and that the young lady spent her life perched on the walls exchanging glances with the enemy. Resorting to favors from people here and there, the two sent gifts to each other, encouraging this long-distance love. Until the day they decided to meet each other. A tremendous mistake, especially when one has a mother with magical gifts. The “old woman,” as she remained in history, followed her daughter and found her daughter kissing the Moor. With one rigorous gesture impregnated with hate, she made the passionate youths disappear, transforming them into two boulders.
Without their prince, the Moors retreated, but the alcalde, loathsome due to his daughter’s disappearance, also decided to abandon the castle and founded a new village with his people at the bottom of the valley. No one knows if the “old woman” accompanied him. Her head in granite rock is also very visible, as if watching who arrives into Sortelha. “Around the Eternal Kiss/In the Castle of Sortelha/Christians and Moors kiss/by the old woman’s spells,” they say around here.
The excitement is great within the walls. Little tents with local products are savored by the guests. Many tourists. On the wall of one of the houses, the “Couples of Sortelha” exhibit gathers a collection of wedding photos from the village. Some are older; others are more recent. But all are subjects in the public’s attentive eye. But, gradually, the people in the central plaza of the village, even next to the stage, begin to gather around a large table. It won’t be long until dinner is served. For those who made a reservation.
Which wasn’t my case, so I had decided to wing it and look for a restaurant. I would soon return to the show. I start to go down the stone road. The descent is made by going down, I’ll take advantage of that, I think. But the walk was soon interrupted. A man with an open smile and a friendly word appears before me. Carlos Alberto Correia da Cunha. Just like that, the full name. A face sculpted by 71 winters, which are really rigorous around here, and a native of Sortelha, which I discover upon closure of this day.
“So, did you conduct your business?” he asks.
“I am not sure what my business is. I’m a journalist, and I was going to try to have dinner,” I respond.
“Ah, you’ll only be able to do that down below in Celta.”
“I figured.” I had passed by that place when I arrived.
“But I have wine and cheese at home. If you would like…”
“I am no man to refuse. And tell me your story, Mr. Carlos?” I ask.
And he did. And my time will come to tell it. For now, it is enough to say that Mr. Carlos traveled the world as a guard to the general Ramalho Eanes, with whom he maintained a friendship forever. Although he had gotten him drunk one day.
“It was just two glasses, but it was enough,” he recognizes.
He now treats alcohol wisely. And produces his own wine. He has three categories of red wine. One for each level of drinker. Corresponding to the quality of whoever joins him in a glass. I raise my glass for a toast and I cannot help asking myself about what would my level would be. Although I have lived in many countries, from Macau to Guinea-Bissau and India, Mr. Carlos never admitted to being from any place other than Sortelha. He built his life around here. And three houses, all with his own hands. I eat the cheese, drink the wine, and return to the center of the village with the promise to return the following day to continue the conversation.
As I step within the walls, I am greeted by a group of witches offering glasses of white wine to the people. I accept a glass even before realizing that the staged visit through the streets of the village had already begun. A sort of modernized version of the legend of the Eternal Kiss, where local actors make use of all the nooks to tell the story of the lost loves of Antoninho, a young man of the village, and Isaura, a stunning, hardworking, and energetic woman. Betrothed by their respective mothers, there they were. But Antoninho was not the romantic type. He was more concerned with not going to war and there being enough bread for when his stomach began to growl. He was not, therefore, the flame that ignited Isaura.
She continued to dream about Gervásio, the strong “foreign” soldier from the other village who had stolen her heart. And who now returns to Sortelha to reconquer it. Successfully, we might add. The lovers even managed to run away by motorcycle, as these are other times, but they made the mistake of stopping for one last kiss in the village. A grave mistake since Isaura’s mother, Dona Conceição, practiced witchcraft. With a gesture of her arm, the legend came true, and the two youths were transformed into stones, before applause from the witches and everyone present.
Not for long, in the back, one hears the coarse voice of Ruy de Carvalho and his son João de Carvalho, sons adopted by the region (the latter has a house a few kilometers away in Caria), in the play “Poesias do Beijo: Trovas & Canções” (Poetries of the Kiss: Tropes & Songs). Both in white scarves, as it had gotten colder, they hammer words into the night. While one recites poetry, the other closes his eyes perhaps in order to see better.
A stone witness
On the following day, the festivities begin earlier. The little tents continue to receive people from every angle. People like Ms. Júlia and her daughter. They went to all of them. Quickly they try a typical product, how they are recreated through the art of weaving. Small workshops make use of traditional knowledge to show the best of Sortelha, this historical village, a small arm of Sabugal.
In one of these “educational programs,” we learn how to make sponge cake. “Cada cor o seu paladar” (A palate for each color), the name of the workshop. And round here, art resides in not letting it turn into granite. Everything around us is enough.
But the most anticipated moment of the afternoon was the picnic, affectionately named “Guardado está o bocado para quem o há de comer” (The appetizer is saved for anyone who eats it). A traditional offering, among numerous majestic stones, each one with its own form, each one seeming to tell its own legend.
With the day ending, I look for Mr. Carlos Alberto Correia da Cunha, as we had arranged, to finish the story. And to ask him what my category was as a wine drinker. But he wasn’t home. Not at any of the three houses. On the stage, I am left with the song by Joaõ Só, “the good rebel,” in his play, “O amor é um som que se reclama só” (Love is a sound that complains alone). Nothing more appropriate than hearing this upon departure, with the Serra da Estrela right next to me echoing the music twice.