We are in the south of Portugal, staying with Rob, whom persistent readers have met before, Ines his wife and Joca, his dog, who kills snakes. It is the fourteenth anniversary of the fortuitous but well-starred day when the better half and I first met in New York. Furthermore, this morning (as I write but not, in the absence of WiFi, post) the preservation of the Union was announced, a matter greeted here with quiet satisfaction. The first dog’s ashes are scattered on Dornoch Firth, the better half has a plan to scatter mine there too in the fullness of time and it would have been distressing for her to have had to submit the little urn to the scrutiny of sneering border thugs, booted and kilted.
The better half is shouting over the telephone at some dozy apparatchik in the office of an aspiring English public school. The reasons are too complicated to relate. She expresses the view that doziness might be acceptable in one of the ancient public schools but less so in one hoping to join their ranks one day and in the meantime clinging on to such reputation as it has by its rouble-buffed finger nails.
Some of the figs that Rob grew during the summer are drying on a wall. During the night it rained heavily, the heavens matching sympathetically (or as it might be imagined sympathetically) the coursing of tears down the Salmondian cheeks. When this happens he dries them (the figs not the cheeks) individually, singing to himself a song from the ‘Canterbury Sound’ of the late nineteen sixties or seventies. They then become ‘twice-dried figs’ (the Portuguese phrase escapes me) which are a considerable delicacy here.
Life is as it should be on holiday.
We took the Eurotunnel and drove down. We spent nights at Deauville, Biarritz and Salamanca. Biarritz we thought would have an understated elegance redolent of the Edwardian era. However that turned out to be Deauville: Biarritz was full of surfers and young people asserting their right to boogie.
Deauville did have understated elegance. They were having a festival of American Film. There were posters for it everywhere; unrecognised starlets posed for photographs on the beach. It was remarkable that none of the posters referred to any individual film or even star. It was American Film pour soi and en soi that was to be celebrated. How French, we thought, smugly. Because it was a minor festival, unlike, say, that at Cannes, there was only one hooker to go round, but she was a game one, with her little shorts and her shirt unbuttoned to the waist, parading up and down with a man who may have been her pimp: equally he may just have been a friend.
A century and a half ago Deauville was painted extensively by Eugene Boudin, its beaches crowded with ladies in crinolines and little tents with bright flags. Boudin is one of my favourite minor painters and the only one named after a blood-based culinary product.
In France Bella was welcomed in hotels and restaurants. When we arrived at the latter we would be ushered to a table, inside or outside as we preferred, and the waiter would bring her a bowl of water together with the menu. The further south we got the more that changed. In Spain she was regarded with obvious reservations and in Portugal with undisguised hatred. The Portuguese word for ‘dog’ is ‘cow’ (no doubt it is spelled differently) and cows are not welcome where people go.
Salamanca, apart from its frosty way with dogs, was special. It is the fourth oldest university in Europe, after the Sorbonne, Oxford and Bologna. Cambridge, The University of the South Bank and the others came rather later. The university buildings are of honey-coloured stone, just like Oxford but not crumbly. In the bright light of the Central Iberian Plain they look like Renaissance paintings, or stage sets. Salamanca is also the world centre (if one rejects the claims of Burgos, an hour or so up the road) for the imaginative treatment of parts of the pig otherwise thought inedible. I read that it is protected by UNESCO, but whether that is for the honey-coloured buildings or the black pudding I couldn’t establish. We ate morcilla and pig’s cheek for breakfast, lunch and dinner and decided that the better half’s strange regime involving uncooked vegetables could have a short moratorium.
There are if I got it right two cathedrals there, and I went into one and hired the audio-commentary. The best bit was El Cid’s chapel, where the faithful can gaze on the great man’s crucifix. When he went into battle against the Moors he would wave this in the hand that didn’t wield the sword, presumably directing his horse with well-practised knees. El Cid had a tame bishop and confessor called Geronimo, who would ride into battle just behind him. Geronimo also had a crucifix, which you can see today. After El Cid met his sad end, famously appearing one last time dead and strapped to the horse so as to inspire his troops to courage and the enemy to despair, Geronimo cut a deal with the Moors, who allowed him to go on being a bishop so long as he didn’t say anything beastly about Muslims.
The Portuguese may not like Bella but her El Cid-like courage has inspired unwilling respect. She has taken to engaging with the great Atlantic breakers. She swims out into the surf and waits for the big one. For a moment she sinks from sight, then there she is to be seen again, ears first, being borne triumphantly onshore, riding the wave and sleek from the foam. The Portuguese stand around in groups and mutter. I imagine that they are saying, ‘Ah [or some more demotic ejaculation]! There is a dog!’
Of course it might be: ‘Surely there is something in the new EU Health & Safety Regs about foreign cows in our, Portuguese, ocean.’