In the late spring of 2014, we were stuck in a traffic jam passing through Verona, Italy. It was pouring down rain and it soon became evident that the back-up was caused by tour busses on their way to see Juliet’s Balcony. Wait, what? Verona was the setting for Shakespeare’s play but Romeo and Juliet were fictional characters in a play.
The famous duo may have been inspired by the lives of real people, as many fictional characters are, but that has not been proven although you wouldn’t know it walking through Verona. There are statues of star-crossed lovers and signs to Juliet’s tomb. Thankfully the tomb is not creepy because Juliet is not real! Clearly, over time, the lines have blurred because Juliet’s House or Casa di Giulitta is promoted as the place where Juliet lived and where the most romantic exchanges of these two lovers took place. Verona is a very romantic city and steeped in history but this villa’s link to Romeo and Juliet is Much Ado About Nothing.
On Valentine’s Day this past week, we stumbled upon the final chapters of Portugal’s version of Romeo and Juliet, the story of Pedro and Inês. These star-crossed lovers were very real people and played significant roles in the early years of the Portuguese Monarchy. The problem with their story is the opposite of that of the fictitious Romeo and Juliet. Many details have been added to this already traumatic love affair over the years and it is quite hard to know how this very real love, between very public people, actually unfolded.
The story first came to our attention during out exploration of Coimbra. As we stood on the newly constructed Pedro e Inês bridge, the story began. The bridge is divided in two halves that don’t meet, but are joined in the middle on a platform that connects both sides, representing forbidden love.
Inês de Castro came to Portugal to serve as one of Constance of Castile’s ladies-in-waiting. Constance was married to the heir to the Portuguese throne, Prince Pedro, who became Portugal’s King Pedro I. Prince Pedro fell madly in love with his wife’s lady-in-waiting, Inês. King Afonso IV, Prince Pedro’s father, disapproved of Pedro neglecting his wife Constance, as it was not good diplomacy.
Pedro’s wife Constance died young and Pedro declared his love and intention to marry Inês. His father, the King Afonso IV, forbid their union. The King decided that the only way to end his son’s love affair with Inês was to have her murdered, which he did in 1355. In 1357, King Afonso IV died, making Pedro King of Portugal.
It seems that at this point in history, the story which inspired more than twenty operas, and countless poems and stories, gets a little hazy. Some say King Pedro had Inês exhumed from her tomb, and crowned after death. There are countless renditions of the varied ways Pedro hunted and brutally executed those who took the life of his beloved Inês. As we respectfully explored the church that serves as their final resting place, we felt a tranquility wash over us that was in stark contrast to the history before us.
As we stood before the virgin white, intricately carved tombs of these forbidden lovers in the Monastery of Alcobaça, it was clear that something as simple as true love is painfully complex at times. The two tombs Pedro commissioned show he and Inês facing each other so when they rise during final judgment their union will be blessed. We had to restrain ourselves from running our fingers over the the words “Até o fim do mundo…” or “Until the end of the world…” inscribed in marble almost 700 years ago, as Pedro couldn’t bear to say goodbye to Inês even after his death.
From fact to fable and everything in between, there are universal truths that connect us all. In our experience love is the most powerful of all of these truths and Portugal’s largest church couldn’t have been a better setting to remember something so profound and yet so easily forgotten.
As we turned to walk out of the Monastery the crowds parted and we were all alone in this magnificent moment. As the sound of only our footsteps echoed in the cavernous sanctuary, ironically the words of William Shakespeare came rushing back to me…
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh. Eyes, look your last!
Arms, take your last embrace! and, lips, O you
The doors of breath, seal with a righteous kiss
A dateless bargain to engrossing death!
(Romeo and Juliet)