Tuesday 2 October 2012

Power play and other disappointments

Borba is a marble town, and I strolled around it early this morning watching the sun warm it up as it rose high enough to shine down into the narrow lanes. It’s not just the churches and statues that are marble: so are the cobbles, the kerbs, door sills, window surrounds… it seems very profligate, but here it’s just the local building material, and it certainly gives the place a glow. It helps that it’s a morning ritual for the women to mop their doorsteps and leave them clean and shiny.

At Evora it’s the same: marble everywhere from the Roman temple to Diana, the ancient churches and cathedral, the palace, the university founded by the Jesuits (16th century lecture rooms with 19th century blackboards, 20th century overhead projectors and 21st century students) down to the patterned cobbles in Giraldo Square. It’s a World Heritage place and if that makes it sound worthy but perhaps a little dull, it’s also a lively town. It's full of course of tourists providing the main industry, but it’s lived-in too, and today the students were making a feature of themselves. It’s the start of the new academic year, and in most of Portugal it’s traditional to begin it with a ritual humiliation of the first-years by the third-years. The seniors are dressed in black suits and ties, with black cloaks trailing behind them, and groups of them take junior classes hostage and parade them around the town, making them chant and sing, hold hands and dress up, and end by ‘baptising’ them in the town fountain. Though some of the groups we saw seemed cheerful, others were not enjoying the experience at all – youngsters away from home for the first time, surrounded by strangers, and then made to do embarrassing things. It wasn’t kind.

Nor, on the face of it, was the chapel lined and decorated with bones and skulls: 5,000 skulls, in fact, and uncountable femurs and other bones, arranged in patterns on the walls and ceiling. It seems so disrespectful to treat human remains as design features, but the idea was apparently to demonstrate to the rich worshippers, who were the only people allowed into churches inside the city wall, that everyone is the same underneath, with the same fate awaiting. Above the door, it read “We bones that are inside, we are waiting for yours.” It’s a novel twist on socialism.

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