Childe Harold is the subject of one of Byron’s most famous poems. His pilgrimage of self-discovery commenced when he first saw a distant view of Lisbon from the River Tagus. He goes onto articulate 162 lines of vivid poetic imagery describing Portugal. It is a remarkable achievement since Byron only visited the country for a mere 16 days.
He was on a Grand Tour of Europe but, after visiting the famous Portuguese basilica at Mafra, he was ready to leave for Spain. His three servants and the luggage were sent on ahead by packet ship to Gibraltar. Despite having a deformed right foot, Byron was an accomplished horseback rider and looked forward to the overland journey. He was accompanied by his travelling companion John Hobhouse and a paid guide, Sanguinetti.
Covering a distance of 250kms to reach the Spanish border at Badajoz, Byron uses Harold’s voice in the poem to describe the scenery:
O’er vales that teem with fruit, romantic hills
When growing closer to the Spanish border, he explains:
And, less luxuriant, smoother vales extend;
Immense horizon-bounded plains succeed.
The journey must have been hot and arduous with several stops along the way including Arraiolos, a walled town famed at the time for making carpets, a traditional craft that carries on today. They travelled onwards to the hill-slope town of Estremoz, finally reaching the Aqueduct of Amoreira just outside the gates of Elvas on a moonlit night. Writing to his mother, Byron remarked:
The very grand aqueduct struck us very much indeed.
He had every reason to be impressed by this towering structure transporting spring water a distance of 7kms. This massive building project began in the 16th century with a design drawn up by the architect Francisco de Arruda, the creator of Lisbon’s Torre de Belém.
Due to the travelling party’s late arrival, the town gates were about to close and their passports had to be shown to the Governor before they gained admission. It was an anxious time as the country was under threat from Napoleon’s troops who could, at any moment, sweep across the border.
Eight thousand Portuguese soldiers were garrisoned in Elvas, the country’s most heavily fortified town. They waited apprehensively for their future involvement in the Peninsular War.
Three months later, Elvas would become General Wellington’s headquarters whilst secret defensive plans were put into action to create the Lines of Torres Vedras.
According to Byron writing home the town had little to recommend it. Today it is a World Heritage site but Byron made no mention of its magnificent Islamic and Medieval walls its castle, cathedral, churches, individual forts and extraordinary ornate Manueline pillory. Instead he complained that their accommodation was very bad and also very expensive. Dinner that night was, as usual, spoilt by people using ‘stinking oil and salt butter’. The guide’s conversations with Byron and his friend Hobhouse confirmed their prejudices about the Portuguese. In his diary, Hobhouse wrote:
… everyone wears a knife – Sanguinetti saw a man killed by a boy of thirteen, in a chandler’s shop. Boys well-dressed attend the lobbies of the theatres for the purpose of ‘branler le pique aux gens polis’. Sanguinetti told us he had seen the thing done in the streets!
Standards of behaviour that would be unacceptable in England were commonplace in Portugal. Despite having a rather superior attitude towards the Portuguese, it did not stop Byron from buying favours from the opposite sex. Inevitably in a town containing so many soldiers, prostitution was rampant but – unlike his over-priced accommodation – Byron found himself a bargain. As Hobhouse euphemistically put it, he:
Kissed a saint for sixpence
It was an encounter that the young Lord was later to regret. The following day – although he did not know it – when they crossed the border into Spain he was taking with him an unwelcome souvenir, a Portuguese STD! It was Sunday, July 23, 1809 when his brief but eventful visit reached an ignominious end.
A Series by Carolyn Kain