Travel Tales: Paradise Lost
No one tells you the road to hell is paved with orange groves.
But the trek to the Pego de Inferno, a storied and mystical watering hole in the south of Portugal, was just that; a dirt passage surrounded by trees hung heavy with ripe, sweet fruit.
I picked a couple citrus from the branch closest to me, shoved one deep into my bag and started to peel the other.
With my beach equipment in a bag on my shoulder and my sandals strapped tight to my feet, I took turns with my best friend Carrie trekking up the many stairs between us and paradise.
We got on this trail for a story, and to be more specific, a love story. We were collectors of stories, and the temptation to walk the trail of this legend was too strong to pass up.
Told to us one night over a couple of caipirinhas at a small, nondescript bar in Faro, the Pego de Inferno waterfall and it’s cavernous pool beneath began like any old story ought to…many, many years before.
Once, the small stream and rocky cliff of the Pego was the dividing line of property between two rich men, who, among other things, were known around the countryside for the most delicious oranges in Portugal.
And like all rich men in Europe it seems, one had a daughter, and the other, a son.
The family feud began over who exactly owned the waterfall and it’s pool; with the stream as the border between their two lands, each thought it belonged to them, and for many years, each man had their armed men walk the stream, guarding against the other from trying to take the water. For the farmers, it was more than just a question of property, but also one of livelihood, for the water that feed the pool was cool and sweet, straight from the mountains.
On one fateful night, the two men, unbeknownst to the other, planned a surprise attack to take the stream and begin building a fence through the night. With an ambush just after dusk, the two sides lobbied bullet after bullet over the stream after one another, making their way from the wooden crossing bridge to the waterfall.
Unlike many waterfalls, the Pego had very little sound and the rocky fall from the cliff face into the deep pool beneath was not as easy to spot, especially in the dark. After some time, the fight became more violent, and with it, each planned a strategy to cross the river after the enemy. There was a small rock face just south of the falls, where the stream narrowed before falling 50 feet down into the pool, that was perfect for stepping to cross the stream.
Each team of men made their way to what they thought was the crossing, and sent their bravest men to the front line. Misjudging the place where the water thinned, the first man jumped, the younger brother of the man who owned the land to the south of the river, and instead of making it safely to the other side, there was a yell, a splash, and then nothing more.
The two men called off their men for respite, planning to each search the area first thing the next morning for the sign of the fallen brother. And even though they searched long and hard, diving as deep into the pool as any man could hold his breath for, no one found the bottom and no one found the brother.
Instead of growing a bond and mutual understanding to not claim the Pego ever again, the two men argued, each saying they deserved the stream; the man to the south saying he deserved it in memory of his lost brother, the man to the north saying he deserved it for the attempt of being unlawfully attacked. Fuming, and going their separate ways, the two men deserted the pool, vowing never to return or speak again.
However, when the two men welcomed their children into the world everything changed. Sneaking out into the orange groves on either side to play, the children met one another day after day, and swam in the pool on lazy, summer afternoons. Year after year, the two grew fonder and fonder of one another until the inevitable happened; they fell in love.
By now, the young couple thought their fathers could forget the past, and as future in-laws, share the stream as their lands would become one. But the two patriarchs were not phased by their children’s news, rather very upset, and they forbade their children from meeting ever again.
Sneaking out not on the first, or on the second, but on the third night of his forced exile, the groom-to-be stumbled into his barn with a desperate plan; if he couldn’t be with his love on their own land, he thought, they’d travel by carriage until they found a place where they could be.
Strapping two horses to the open-air hay cart and throwing in all the valuables he could smuggle from the house, the boy crept from the manor yard and went the long way to his bride’s house, crossing the stream at the wooden bridge.
The girl, sitting at the window mourning the loss of her love, saw the carriage riding up her road, recognized her betrothed, and began to pack. Quietly running down the front staircase of her father’s house, the bride dropped one of her shoes from the pack in her hands, where it clattered to the floor. Instead of pausing to pick it up, she left it, and the noise, on the steps as she ran off into the night.
Hearing the clatter of his daughter’s shoe, the man woke from his sleep and grabbed his lantern to investigate. Unfortunately, at the house across the stream, the barn door had swung open and the boy’s father also woke, grabbed his lantern, and made out into the night.
It didn’t take long for the girl to reach her groom and set off, but neither did it take long for their fathers to realize they had gone and what they were planning to do. Soon, both had themselves and their men horsed, ready to gallop into the night in search of the runaways.
Being chased into the dark, the boy and his bride kept up a relentless pace on the road, but soon they noticed the lights of the horses behind them would at one point meet the lights on the horses in front of them, and they pulled off the road, unleashed one of the steeds, and rode bareback together through the brush.
Not being able to see where they were going all that well, the two galloped toward the stream, fleeing as fast as their horse would carry them. All of a sudden the horse stopped, stomped and whinnied, refusing to go any further. Unsure whether it was spooked or stubborn, the boy lead the the horse back a few steps, and then in a circle to check the surroundings. When he found nothing, and still could hear the sounds of his father, and his bride’s father, soon approaching, he guided the horse forward again, and did not stop for it’s protests.
Taking one giant leap into the air, the horse jumped across what its riders thought was the small stream, but just like many years before, it was over the cavernous pool and they fell past the falls and into the water, never to be seen again.
When their two fathers finally caught up, there was no repeat of the previous disparity—there was too much sadness for their loss. Camping out all night, in hopes that they would witness a miracle, the two men shared stories of their son and daughter, laughing, crying, and comforting one another until the night ended with a bright sunrise. It wasn’t until the light glinted off of their orange groves that the men realized their tremendous mistake many years ago, and the lives that had been paid to discover it.
For the men there was no miracle that morning, for the couple never rose out of the pool again, and after days of searching, no one could find their bodies either. Downhearted and defeated, the two men went home and made to sell their lands, so that they never had to look again on the Pego. But before leaving one last time, they went together to post a wooden sign for passerbys, trespassers, and any who walked there.
“Aqui nós perdemos nossos corações no pego de inferno” it read. “Here we lost our hearts on the path to hell.”
And for a while after, the villagers and any who walked there, told the story of the beautiful waterfall, lined with orange groves, and it’s haunted, bottomless pool, that touched all the way to hell.
But not long after, the story was forgotten by many as the town shrank due to the fall of prosperity in the farming lands surrounding it, and all the villagers who knew the tale either moved away or died out. And many years before we made it, the sign had rotted away and nothing was left of the legend but the orange groves lining the steep steps up to the rock face.
With kids along it’s pebble shore and a rope swing tied to one of the nearby trees, there was still no sign of a bottom, but the Pego de Inferno, from my eyes, had become a watering hole visited by resident and travelling families alike, with brightly colored beach towels and foldaway lounge chairs littered all around. There was no mention of the story in the conversations I overheard; perhaps we had met the last known teller the night before, and nothing sinister haunted the turquoise pool and it’s craggy rocks. In fact, nothing of tragedy seemed to live there at all, and it was hard to picture that anything bad could possibly have happened in a place so beautiful. So we set down our bags and made for the water.
But it was true, as I gazed at the glistening waters before me, the ripe citrus that dripped down my chin as I bit into the first wedge, was the sweetest orange I ever did taste. And not even the cool water in the pool, once we finally reached it, was sweeter.