Of course, it's not a uniquely Iberian thing, there clearly seems to be an ongoing obsession with the fine art of campanology all over the European continent, not least of all in France. However, the Iberian variety do seem to be unusually bold - as in LOUD!
These great clappering rogues have often brought me (the typically unwary visitor) many a rude awakening at secluded Portuguese Praças. Just as, perhaps, I might have embarrassed myself by rudely dozing off mid-coffee-break on a sultry summer's afternoon, "BONG!-BONG!!" go those bells. Yes, no fewer than two obligatory (extra loud) "BONGS!" that might put Big Ben to shame when experienced at such close proximity. For some reason, church clocks in Portugal often chime twice at the top of each hour, as if there was even the remotest possibility that anyone who isn't absolutely stony deaf could have missed the first almighty CLANG!
Even English cities with their vast, grey (Coronation Street) chimney-scapes are endlessly filled with often repetitive bell chimes which grate through mist and murk bearing the unmistakable wafts of coal smoke and kerosene; tainting the chill Autumnal twilight.
In Ireland, at 6pm sharp, Irish TV dedicates a whole minute of its daily programme schedule to the monotones of an "Angelus" bell which routinely rings out before Radio Telefis Éireann's main evening news bulletin. This is an Irish broadcasting tradition that predates television in Éire, hailing all the way back to Radio Éireann days which broadcast from studios located at the historic An Post (GPO) building in O'Connell Street during the 1950's.
Frankly, I've always been slightly unnerved by the sound of even the most distant church bells. Having been brought up in a tiny Welsh community where, if my childhood recollections serve me correctly, chiming church bells always seemed to hold somewhat funereal undertones. In later life, whilst visiting large English towns and cities, weekend mornings often commenced far earlier than originally anticipated because the dreaded chain-ringers commenced their high-decibel rehearsal routines bright and early. Seemingly endless renditions that prematurely led me (bleary eyed) to the nearest coffee shop. I remember feeling distinctly unnerved by those ecclisiastical renditions because they evoked such somber childhood flashbacks; of days spent whispering behind respectfully drawn curtains.
I guess the abundance of ancient (yet still highly efficient bells) are to be expected in any great European city where there are bound to be an abundance of churches and cathedrals all merrily tinkling, bonging and jangling especially on the Sabbath and during religious festivals. Festivals that often hold particular reverence in certain regions. For instance, the run up to Easter is particularly well marked in Sevilla where the incessant chimes of carillons resonate across this beautiful city, seemingly at all hours. Just as you might find yourself settling down after a prolonged recital, glass in hand with some reading material firmly grasped in the other, another jubilant high decibel rendition shatters that transient moment of relative tranquility. The likes of me, so verily spoilt by the blessings of a quiet rural upbringing, begin to pine for long lost days when our village church bells only soberly chimed the passing of the dear-departed or proudly proclaimed the occasion of a joyful summer wedding. Yin & Yan, in perfect harmony.
Whilst there are church clocks in Portugal that routinely strike the hour twice, there are some that do so half-hourly or even every fifteen minutes. How many of us have, in perfectly good faith, booked our Airbnb hostelries in some remote Alentejo town only to discover the floodlit church clock (just across a picturesque alleyway) obligingly reminds everyone of the time every 15 minutes without fail. What will not have been noted in all the Airbnb bumph is that this happens all night long.
By now, you might well be forgiven for thinking that this article may be looking increasingly like the sorry diatribe of a helpless insomniac. However, I will defend my abject moaning by again declaring that those bells do tend to be uncannily loud! I didn't miss the opportunity to tentatively point out this minor omission to our charming Airbnb host, politely declaring that the relentless tolling was certainly never mentioned in any of their bumph. However, I was gazed at curiously by all and sundry because I'm sure that fatigue, by this juncture, was quite likely to be making me come over all Quasimodo as I gormlessly protested about "THE BELLS!... THE BELLS!!" - that most apocryphal snippet from the Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
At the very least, I can console myself with this thought. I've taken to obsessing about a matter that might one day generate a vaguely constructive outcome for all the world's light sleepers and those of us who might require a little bit of hush in order to think? My deep-seated fascination with "ACME NOISE GENERATORS" stemmed from what's been little more than a pet gripe? Perhaps if I protest with suitably weighted gusto, I can create for myself a semi-ambassadorial role for the long-lost luxury of undisturbed (bell-free) slumber? I may even aspire to liberate entire conurbations from a key element of maddening noise pollution? There are, surely, numerous less honorable aspirations doing the rounds? Hardly Bond Villain territory really.
Realistically, perhaps it's just a state of outrageous grumpiness that has finally riled my once contented soul? It must be. Because these days, should I happen to be dining solo, I often catch myself peering irritably over my spectacles like some excessively bumptious headmaster; cynically scanning and cunningly observing the folks sitting at the next table. Will they or will they not stoop to annoyingly photographing their platters of food? By this juncture, my own dinner (however excellent) has sunk into the realms of a secondary (unphotographed) consideration. The wait to find out whether the culinary delights destined for the next table pass as being Instagrammable will be brutal. I will have already bet with myself that if I call it correctly and they DO go into snap-happy mode, I won't have to leave double the usual tip. Serious stuff indeed!
As if by magic (Mr. Benn style) the waiter arrives, bearing epicurean delights in all their freshly-plated glories. Amid the obligatory "obrigados," "de nadas" and all the usual assorted pleasantries, there comes a general consensus that everything looks perfectly delicious. So out come the cutlery, pure white napkins are carefully unfolded and it's now just a case of will it be eyes-down for a full tummy or will the ever roving lens of ubiquitous mobile phone-cams momentarily trump all?
My people-watching tendencies often continue well past the hour when the last of the busy swallows return to their nests. Waiters will be stacking away the outside chairs and tables whilst the last desultory murmurings of mirth, merriment and gossip ebb away along with the last drops of the evening's fine wines. Suddenly "BONG!" - the bell of the nearby church declares it's midnight with the usual jarring reverbs. Yep. It's going to be another long night!
Le campane del Portogallo
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