SI Vault
Jack Olsen
November 08, 1965
Isolated from Portugal by eight miles of rough seas, the 400-year-old fortress (left), built to protect shipping from pirates, is now protecting anglers from the sanity of the mainland
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November 08, 1965

An Island Asylum For Mad Fishermen

Isolated from Portugal by eight miles of rough seas, the 400-year-old fortress (left), built to protect shipping from pirates, is now protecting anglers from the sanity of the mainland

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I have been back from my Portuguese fishing trip for some time, and the doctor says I will recover my wits any day now, "just as soon as we stop hallucinating about taking dogs to dinner and swordfish chasing us," as he put it in his usual first-person medical. He wouldn't be so flip about my mental condition if he had met Senhor Parreira or that Frenchman we called "The Body Beautiful" or the Swiss countess with the brassiere problem. Or if he ever got the evil eye from an Atlantic cutlass fish. Or ate mussels.

It started innocently enough. There is this old fortress on the mile-long island of Berlenga, see, about eight miles off the mainland of Portugal, and the government has made it into a fishing lodge where you can catch fish till your arms are ready to fall off, and you can stoke up on ragout, bouillabaisse, lobster, oysters, curry, rabbit, lamb, green wine and 92-year-old brandy. Altogether, a week on Berlenga is guaranteed to put 10 pounds on you. And you can sleep in quaint rooms with 30-foot ceilings and pirate ghosts and native atmosphere, including the fact that there is no hot water, which is a little more native atmosphere than I usually would go all the way to Portugal to seek.

Photographer Jerry Cooke and I assembled in Lisbon, rented a taxi and buzzed up the coast to the jumping-off town of Peniche, a fishing community where women walk around with boxes of fish balanced on their heads, grown men actually sit in the square mending fishing nets, and boats loaded with tuna and mackerel come into the harbor under sail while wives and children run down to embrace their loved ones back safely from the deeps. As we lolled around Peniche for half a day, waiting for the boat that would take us out to Berlenga, I kept having a repetitive fantasy: this colorful native scene was being staged for our eyes only, and the minute we got out of sight over the horizon somebody would jump on a box, shout "Cut!" through a megaphone, and all the extras would go home till the next journalists appeared.

I felt much the same about our luncheon scene, acted out on a restaurant balcony overlooking the harbor of Peniche. We vanquished successive courses of leek soup, tomato salad, homemade bread, creamy butter, boiled potatoes, zucchini, baked sea bass with a light-green sauce, milk, coffee, cr�me caramel and two bottles of vinho verde—the bubbly green wine of northern Portugal. The total bill for the two of us was 40 escudos, or $1.40. "Forty escudos!" exclaimed the inevitable American expatriate who manages to be around whenever I approach a cash register abroad. "Boy, they must of seen you coming!" I wondered how much Central Casting was paying him.

On the way to Berlenga, across a wild reach of white-capped ocean which we renamed Dramamine Strait, a friendly crew member answered our preliminary questions, the first of which turned out to be a trifle undiplomatic. "What is that beautiful castle overlooking the harbor of Peniche?" I asked.

"Ees political prison."

"What do you do to get thrown in there?"

"Say wrong thing, and zeeeeep!"

"Do people discuss politics much in Portugal?"

"Ees no politics in Portugal."

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