Friday finally arrived and my partner in crime Sebastian and I picked up our fellow trippers (Fabienne from Antwerp, Belgium and Jessica from New Haven, Connecticut) in our brand-new mpv. After the all too obvious multi-purpose-vehicle jokes it was time to decide where we’d go. We didn’t have to talk for long about a destination. Of course we would drive off into the sunset, i.e. direction Portugal. The first couple of days were random but very enjoyable. Lots of good food, even more mediocre alcohol, uncalled-for dancing etc... During daytime we didn’t avoid the cultural sights although we probably spent more time at the beaches to shake off our hangovers. The scenery in Portugal was no less than breathtaking. Ironically, the many forest fires seem to have made the Portuguese landscape even more attractive, at least from a distance. The withered trees range in color from gold red to pitch black, contrasting with the bright green of young weeds.
Fall was catching up with us so we turned our back on the beaches and headed inland, towards the mountains. We ended up in the strangest of mountain towns: Bragança. Although not at all a tourist hot spot, Bragança does have an awe-inspiring, 13th century fortress. That’s not why I’ll remember it, though. This town is the spitting image of Royston Vasey, the English village from the comedy series “The League of Gentlemen” where ugly, inbred locals molest and eventually kill innocent passers-by. Obviously it wasn’t that fatal but Bragança did give us a scare.
The first local we saw, we asked for directions to our hostel. A big smile appeared on his face, he opened the door, squeezed his burly body into the back of the car and insisted on showing us the castle first. Scruffy-looking and reeking of liquor, among other things, he introduced himself as Ramiro, owner of the castle. He promised to give us an extraordinary tour. So far, we weren’t alarmed at all and so we decided to go along. The big guy seemed harmless enough; with his placid smile and doglike eyes he almost looked like the village idiot.
Which he apparently wasn’t. When we arrived at the castle Ramiro pulled out a set of keys and opened the gate. No problem, maybe he’s the janitor, we said to ourselves while we set out on our tour. The guy we had figured for a well-intentioned simpleton was now lecturing us on European history, momentarily interrupting his discourse to demonstrate how you wield a 15th century bastard-sword with amazing agility. Maybe it was just the sight of the castle at dusk but all of the sudden Ramiro’s smile didn’t seem so placid anymore... we were all getting a bit spooked.
When our guide, still carrying the huge sword, insisted we’d follow him to the fortress’ dungeons, we simultaneously started muttering protests:
“Desculpe Ramiro, we are all getting really hungry...”
“Besides, we have to arrive at the hostel before eight...”
“Thank you so much for the tour, though.”
“We’ll be back tomorrow, for sure!”
And we practically ran out of the place.
It may have been our heightened self-consciousness but we all felt like the entire village was staring and pointing at us. We did our best to ignore the glares and continued to the only hostel in town, where the weirdness did not cease. By now we were psyched up and seeing ghosts everywhere.
“You are not locals” the clerk stated. Clearly, there was no fooling this guy. We slowly explained him that, not being locals, we had come to this pension looking for a place to stay the night. He nodded understanding. When we offered him our passports, he shook his head and smilingly said:
“Don’t worry about it, I’ll get them later.” I heard Fabienne break into sobbing behind me.
“We are not Americans...” I began in a misguided attempt to relate to the clerk. No reaction.
“Can you recommend a good restaurant?” I tried.
“Yes, we have an excellent restaurant right here” was all he said. Somehow nobody felt like eating at the hostel so Sebastian and I ran out for take-out pizza and Porto while the girls barricaded themselves in the rooms. Seb, as always looking at the bright side of life, laid out the gameplan for the night. After all, the whole thing had provided us with an excellent excuse to keep the girls company at night.
We did feel stupid though, waking up the next morning. No one had been poisoned or stabbed to death. Bragança was no Royston Vasey. Like little kids, we had let ourselves be frightened by some eccentric castle owner. And of course the villagers had been staring; they had just seen four flustered tourists dash out of their castle at nightfall. Word of the weird gringos had probably spread to the pension before we even arrived. You are not locals, indeed.
And so, shamefaced and tired, we got in our car and headed back to Salamanca, contemplating our road trip. On the radio Lynard Skynyrd were giving their best. Sweet home Salamanca!