The Queen who got down and dirty

There is a queen from way back in Portuguese history who I suspect would have been good fun to meet at a party. From what I have read recently Queen Leonor was not afraid to get down and dirty with the peasants when the occasion demanded it. The story goes that she was travelling from her castle in Óbidos to Batalha when the royal convoy passed a group of peasants wallowing in a stinking pool of mud on the side of the road. She asked what they were doing and was told the mud was considered good for a whole bunch of ailments. Instead of holding a scented handkerchief to her nose and waving the convoy onwards, Queen Leonor decided to have a go for herself. The story does not say whether the peasants were removed first but you’ve got to admire her anyway. She sounds like the kind of woman who would try anything once – definitely my kind of royal party girl. I can’t imagine many modern royals slathering themselves with mud on the side of the road, no matter how rubbish they felt that day.

When Leonor discovered that the mud did indeed make her feel a whole lot better, and even cured her of some mysterious affliction whose details are lost in history, she ordered a hospital built over the mud pool so that others could enjoy the benefits of the miracle mud. This was over 500 years ago and people are still coming to Caldas da Rainha (hot waters of the queen) on Portugal’s Silver Coast to find cures at the hospital she founded. The Hospital Termal Rainha D. Leonor is the oldest one of its type in the world. Its hot springs are described as sulphurous sodium chlorinated which sounds deeply dangerous to me but is apparently very good for treating rheumatism, musculo-skeletal disorders and respiratory diseases. I haven’t been inside because places like this terrify me. Not only is it a hospital but it also almost certainly has the medical equivalent of public swimming baths somewhere deep in its bowels. My desire to have anything to do with public pools began and ended as a young child when an instructor from the hard knocks school of swimming tuition came to teach me how to swim. His technique was simple if a little lazy and he did it fully dressed. He threw me into the deep end, sat back on a bench with a bar of chocolate and watched me drown. I’m ok about chocolates now but the sound of voices bouncing off tiled swimming pool enclosures still chills me to the bone. But I did have a look around the back of the thermal hospital, and there the air is tinged with the smell of sulphur and a low thrumming of pumps and machinery that sounds as if it comes from caverns buried deep in the ground. Through an open door I saw row upon row of thick steel pipes running down a corridor and disappearing into the darkness of the interior. It was like glimpsing one small part of a vast machine of health. I think this must be a fascinating place – I imagine rooms filled with groaning pipes and pumps, steam and smoke rising into the air and people being lowered into great bubbling sulphurous pools. But I won’t be trying out the mud anytime soon. Leonor would be very disappointed in me.

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