16 February 2011

Obrigado Lisboa

Terreiro do Paco, Lisbon
Portugal was one of the last remaining territories in Western Europe that I'd not yet visited, but now I've finally corrected that long-standing error.  I can report that the corner of Portugal that I visited at the start of February was a real treat, and I can highly recommend taking a look yourself if you have the opportunity.  I confined my visit to a long weekend in Lisbon, seeking out closer-to-the-equator winter warmth  and hoping for plentiful doses of history and culture.  I was not to be disappointed.

Sexta-feira (Friday)

As I was flying on Easyjet to keep the costs down, the £83 return fare was very reasonable.  My outbound flight was from Luton, and I made my way by coach from Victoria to avoid the expensive train journey.  A couple of Portuguese girls, one with a heavy head cold, sat nearby and babbled and/or sniffed noisily en route, so I was able to pick up a little of the Portuguese accent, which is quite distinct from Castilian Spanish.  Sort of Russian-sounding influences in there somewhere.  The flight to Lisbon was a little over two hours, and crossed over the clear-skied north of Spain and the pretty wind turbine-flecked hills of Portugal on the way into the pretty capital.

At Customs the border officer was impressed with my new passport, showing off the hologram to her colleague.  I whisked through and out to the airport bus, which drops you in town in under half an hour for €3.50.  It was only the briefest of walks from the bus stop in Rossio square to my place of residence for the next three nights, the Lisbon Lounge Hostel, which is located in the heart of Lisbon's downtown Baixa district. 

Baixa - pronounced 'Bye-sha' - lies on the flat terrain between two proud hills, and is the site most strongly identified with the reconstruction of Lisbon following the calamitous earthquake of 1755.  A highly organised grid network of streets named after traditional professions was laid out, and the ruins replaced with a beautiful array of 18th century buildings linked with grand straight avenues.  The Lisbon Lounge Hostel is notable for regularly featuring in lists of Europe's top hostels.  It's in a great location and is very nicely kitted out, with numerous living areas to escape the crowds and plenty of comfy beanbags from which to admire the lively pop-art murals decorating the common areas.  And there was free internet and wi-fi, which I endeavoured to avoid during prime sight-seeing daylight hours!  
Lisbon Lounge Hostel mural
By the time I'd sorted out a bed (nodding approvingly at the individual lockers and handy pouch strapped to each bunk, so my glasses, mobile and water bottle could be close at hand despite having a top bunk), wandered around the waterfront as the sun set and eaten dinner, it was dark.  There was time for a further exploratory stroll, so I ventured along the Av. da Liberdade, a main shopping thoroughfare.  Small carts selling roasted nuts sent clouds of aromatic smoke billowing amongst pedestrians on their way home from the working week.  A surprising number of optometrists' shops indicated that Portuguese people must have rather poor eyesight or just be quite particular about their glasses.

On my patrol I had a peculiar little encounter.  A woman asked me the time, and turned out to be a South African traveller in apparent distress.  Spinning a tale of lost bags and no money that seemed convincing enough, she was fretting about getting her luggage from Air France at the airport.  Naturally I was a little wary, but I decided on balance that her story could be true and that I could afford to take the chance that she was genuinely in need.  I offered her the princely sum of €5 to get her out to the airport.  She said she'd drop the money off at the hostel over the weekend, but naturally this didn't happen.  I hate to think I'm a soft touch, but I think on balance it was a small enough sum to warrant giving her the benefit of the doubt.  I know that if I was in trouble in a strange city I'd welcome the assistance of a fellow traveller.
R. Augusta, Baixa

Sábado (Saturday)

After taking breakfast in the hostel kitchen, I set out for a busy day of sightseeing in Lisbon.  The day started out grey, with a silty layer of cloud obscuring the sun, but by 9.30am the sun had burned off the mist and the rest of the day was bathed in warm light under perfect blue skies.  My mission for the day was to check out the cluster of historic sites around the riverside district of Belem, some six kilometres downriver from the centre of Lisbon.  As it was a nice day I decided to walk, to check out the sights en route  My first stop, which was just down the road from the hostel, was the broad expanses of the Praca do Comercio, surrounded on three sides by the former palace of the Portuguese royal family and on the fourth by the Rio Tejo.  A grand triumphal arch acts as the gateway to Baixa and the focal point of the square.

Praca do Comercio

The Ascension, c.1515
Halfway to Belem I paused for an hour at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, the national art gallery.  Its exhibits were a mix of classical religious paintings and church artworks, with plenty of Jesuses and Marys in every shape and form.  In one painting of the ascension from 1515 that was obviously intended to be hung high on a wall and viewed from below, the only sight of Jesus is his flapping robes and bare heels as he's whisked into the scrubbed-clean clouds.  In another work he emerges hale and hearty from the cave in which he had been entombed, brandishing a natty staff with a prominent cross atop, while all around Roman soldiers dressed in 16th century armour doze fitfully, apart from one alert fellow who rushes off into the distance to spread the unlikely news.

Another highlight was the splendidly detailed triptych The Temptations of St Anthony (c.1500) by the superbly imaginative Dutch fantasist Hieronymus Bosch, in which a grotesque revelry of sinners and misshapen alien nightmare creatures swirls around Anthony, testing his faith to the utmost.  As with many of Bosch's works, it's the bizarre creations from the artist's psyche that really stand out, like the scythe-beaked bird on iceskates bearing a letter in its pointed beak, or the terrifying torso-less figure that sits expiring from the wound delivered by a cruel sword embedded in its featureless face.

Continuing my journey, and rapidly shedding layers as the temperature climbed, I walked under the towering Ponte 25 de Abril, the bridge that was originally named for Portugal's dictator Salazar, but was later renamed for the date on which he was deposed.  Soon I reached Belem itself.  From here in 1497 Vasco da Gama departed for his historic expedition to find the sea route to India, and following his successful return from the east Belem became the site of a superb monastery designed to show off the magnificence of Portugal in its heyday.  Construction of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos began in 1502 and took 50 years to complete.  Its status today as one of Portugal's finest buildings is thanks to its unlikely survival of the 1755 earthquake that destroyed so many other buildings.  Now it stands like a gleaming ivory palace beside the Rio Tejo, a testament to wealth once found and now mostly lost.
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Before I entered the monastery I wandered along the waterfront to get a closer look at the jutting form of the Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), a 52 metre monolithic concrete tower carved into the shape of a ship's prow, and displaying statues of many of the great figures of the Portuguese age of discovery, including Henry the Navigator.  The monument was erected by the Salazar regime in 1960, and definitely has an air of fascist or communist grandiloquence about it.

After this brief detour I returned to the western end of the monastery and entered the maritime museum contained therein.  While its collections pertaining to the great age of Portuguese discovery were rather more limited than I expected, I did enjoy inspecting a fragile wooden statue of the archangel Rafael that journeyed to India on da Gama's 1497 expedition and two follow-up trips.  And out the back of the museum a large modern hangar had been added to house a collection of royal barges and trio of historic seaplanes, including the vintage Fairey III-D open-cockpit seaplane named 'Santa Cruz', which completed the first aerial crossing of the South Atlantic in 1922.  But due to breakdowns the journey actually took 79 days and the Santa Cruz was actually the third aircraft to attempt the journey, so it was hardly an unalloyed triumph.

Seaplane 'Santa Cruz'

My next stop was the national archaeological museum.  No photos were permitted inside, but it turned out that this was no major impediment because the collections weren't particularly riveting - a selection of Roman-era pottery fragments and gravestones, plus a few Egyptian antiquities.

Da Gama's tomb
Then I entered the main body of the monastery church, and was impressed by the calm, cool atmosphere amidst the clean-lined pillars.  On either side of the entrance sit the boxy tombs of two famous sons of Portugal.  I might not have heard of the poet Luis de Camoes, the author of the Portuguese national epic, but across from him is the tomb of Vasco da Gama himself, who died as the governor of Portuguese India in 1524.

A short walk along the river front later, I admired the splendid castellated Torre de Belem, a tower built in 1515-20 to defend the mouth of the river.  Modern city dwellers can now admire the tower from encircling riverside stairs and the adjacent park, just as sailors returning from South America or the Orient once admired it from the sea.

Torre de Belem

My last stop in Belem was the splendid Museu dos Coches, which is perhaps Europe's finest collection of historic coaches from the 16th to the 19th century.  The oldest one in the collection belonged to King Felipe III of Spain, who used it when he visited Portugal in 1619, at which time the Spanish crown also ruled Portugal.  There's also the sombre sight of the bullet holes in the door of a black landau that was carrying the King, Queen and the two princely heirs to the throne on 1 February 1908, when two assassins fired a fusillade of bullets into the carriage.  The King was killed instantly and the crown prince died shortly afterwards.  Ultimately this brought about the demise of the Portuguese monarchy - a republic was declared in 1910 after months of instability, and the last king (the second son, who became Manuel II) went into suburban exile in Twickenham in London.

Museu dos Coches
Once I'd returned to the centre of town and secured myself a meal, I wandered downtown exploring new areas, spotting for the first time the traditional ginjinha booths, the tiny cupboard-sized public bars where a couple of flat-capped and elderly male patrons sup the local sour cherry liqueur.  Soon enough I encountered one of the idiosyncrasies my cousin David, who visited Lisbon in 1994, had warned me about - a grandfatherly-looking gent sidled up in a public square and asked hurriedly if I wanted to buy some hash.  Nope, I said, and moved on, thinking little of it.  It turned out to be something of a local tradition: in my short stay in Lisbon I was offered drugs three times, including one highly dubious chap who even upped the offer to cocaine; I wondered if that one was actually an undercover cop.  An odd experience!

Domingo (Sunday)

Rembrant's Portrait of an Old Man
The main mission for Sunday was to visit the pride of Lisbon's galleries, the world-class collections of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian.  This private collection was bequeathed by the fabulously wealthy oil baron of the same name, who chose Lisbon as his home for the last years of his life.  After his death in 1955 a splendid modern gallery was constructed to hold many of his greatest treasures.  And the treasures on offer are indisputably plentiful: Egyptian and Roman antiquities, sumptuous Chinese porcelain, and a prestigious selection of fine European art.  Highlights are too numerous to mention (check the website for a sample) but I was particularly impressed with the gravitas of Rembrandt's 1645 portrait of an old man, gazing passively into the light while his graceful hands caress his walking stick, and the intricate detailing of René Lalique's famous Dragonfly Woman corsage ornament from the 1890s impressed even someone as generally disinterested in jewellery as me.
Lalique's Dragonfly Woman

Rui Chafes, Durante o Sono
Located adjacent to the Gulbenkian was the associated modern art gallery, and before I headed back to town on Lisbon's modern and inexpensive metro system I spent an hour or so checking out the work on display.  I enjoyed the modern Portuguese paintings, which were generally vibrant and lively, but the remainder of the exhibitions tended towards the pretentious end of the art spectrum.  One exhibit bore the promisingly direct title Don't Trust Architects but spoiled the effect by waffling on in a pseudish style: 'The title of the exhibition is arguably provocative, but it is also an invitation to its antithesis'.  But I was impressed with Rui Chafes' wrought iron sphere Durante o Sono ('During sleep'), which supports itself on curiously slender tentacles.  

I rode the metro to its final stop at Santa Apolonia station on the waterfront, where I emerged into the sunshine and spent another hour visiting the nearby military museum.  No photos allowed inside, but I enjoyed the old-fashionedness of its collections, which focused on Portugal's role in World War I and also on the remnants of the nation's military heritage of the previous five centuries.  Plenty of cannons, breastplates, cavalry sabres and arquebuses to admire.  In the basement there was also the mammoth cart used to haul the enormous stones used to construct the city's triumphal arch in the 18th century; its rear wheels are at least ten feet high and it's as long as a city bus.

Then I climbed the hill through the oldest part of Lisbon - Alfama, the site of the city's pre-Christian Moorish settlement.  Lisbon's tiny old trams lumber and screech up the steep streets but I preferred to walk as it was such a nice day.  First stop was the city's old cathedral, the - which was founded on the site of the city's old mosque in 1150, shortly after the Christian reconquest.  

After an exploratory and semi-lost wander around the crest of the hill I made my way to the summit to explore the Castelo, which is ancient but heavily restored.  The city views from its ramparts are absolutely spectacular, and I loved the fact that the modern understanding of health and safety in tourist attractions clearly didn't apply in medieval castle building methods, because virtually every battlement or staircase featured ample opportunities for visitors to plummet to dramatic and smashy deaths on the decidely unyielding paving stones below.  There was also a good opportunity to fit in my all-important cat photos, because a small tribe of wiry felines were sunning themselves and keeping a wary eye on the tourists.  

View from the battlements of the Castelo

The only other notable incident of the day occurred when I was walking back down to the centre of town.  I was photographing an apartment building silhouetted against the dusk sky when a girl of about eight years of age, who appeared to be out walking with her grandmother, sternly advised me 'no foto!'  Using sign language I pointed out that I was photographing the building, not her and her grandmother.  They didn't appear to live in the building in question, as they kept on walking away from town, and I headed in the opposite direction.  As I descended the concrete stairs back to sea level the little sod threw a can in my direction.  Such friendliness!  I don't know what brought that on, but perhaps tourist photographers are a pain in the busy summer months.  I can assure you that everyone else I encountered during my stay in Lisbon was much more welcoming.  Hell, even the drug dealers.

Segunda-feira (Monday)

My last day in Lisbon involved a field trip to the outskirts of town, to the mountain retreat of Sintra, 45 minutes to the northwest by train.  Famed for its beautiful royal palaces, Sintra is a world heritage site, and February was a perfect time to visit.  In summertime it must be rammed solid with visitors, but when I arrived shortly before 10 o'clock there were few others around.  My Rough Guide quoted the words of Lord Byron, who was deeply impressed with Sintra when he stayed here in 1809:

[Sintra is] perhaps in every respect the most delightful in Europe; it contains beauties of every description natural and artificial.  Palaces and gardens rising in the midst of rocks, cataracts and precipices, convents on stupendous heights, a distant view of the town and the Tagus ... it unites in itself all the wildness of the Western Highlands with the verdure of the south of France.

Byron had a bit more time at his disposal; as for me, there was just time to visit the three key sites of Sintra: the Palacio Nacional in the town itself, and the Palacio da Pena and the Castelo dos Mouros, the Moorish castle whose crenellated walls grace the mountaintop of Santa Eufemia overlooking the town.

The Palacio Nacional's prominent and unusual twin conical whitewashed chimneys are visible through the whole town, and draw many thousands of visitors every year.  (It turns out they also make a great echo chamber, because they're hollow and you can stand underneath them, clapping away to your heart's content until people look at you funny).  The 15th century architecture features grand dining chambers and audience rooms with distinctive ceiling paintings, like the graceful swans adorning the Sala dos Cisnes and the cheeky flock of magpies on the ceiling of the Sala das Pegas, which were supposedly painted because the King was fed up with the gossiping of the ladies at court.  So magpies are gossipy?  The palace also contains the bedchamber in which the deposed and reputedly insane King Afonso VI was imprisoned for nine years until his death in 1683.  Plenty of room for frenzied pacing, luckily.

Sala dos Cisnes

Sala das Pegas

Sala dos Brasoes

Afonso VI's bedchamber

As I was feeling energetic I decided to walk to my next stop, the Palacio da Pena, thinking that it wasn't far from Sintra.  That just goes to show that a guidebook is only as good as the person who doesn't read it, because it turned out that the route I took was five kilometres long and involved a strenuous hike up steep and winding mountain roads.  I guess I was lucky that it wasn't summertime, because I probably wouldn't have been able to cope with the heat.  As it was I was rather shattered by the time I reached the pinnacle of Santa Eufemia some 50 minutes later.

The climb was definitely worth it, because the Palacio da Pena is a remarkable concoction: a fantasy mountaintop castle in the league of Prince Ludwig's extraordinary Neuschwanstein.  The palace is on a smaller scale than its German compatriot due to its smaller size and its combination of styles and vibrant colour scheme contrasts with the Bavarian castle, but both were built for German royalty.  The Palacio da Pena was constructed in the 1840s for Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the husband of Portugal's Queen Maria II.  Inside, the palace is a jumble of styles and densely populated with the clutter of Victorian-era royalty, because it has been left in the state in which it was outfitted when the royal family fled to England in 1910.  No photos were permitted inside, but the vibrant colours and fanciful design of the exterior were enough for me.  The amazing views across the surrounding terrain were also impressive, and I even experienced the pangs of vertigo clambering around a lofty but decidedly open-air battlement with a huge, plummeting drop below.  (My toes are itching even now as I write this).

Palacio da Pena

A triton guards the gateway

My last stop for the day in Sintra was the nearby Castelo dos Mouros, the ninth century Moorish castle overlooking the town.  It was captured by the Christians in 1147 and fell into disrepair until the castle walls were restored in the mid-19th century on the orders of the monarch.  Like the Castelo in Lisbon, the walls of Sintra's castle offer splendid panoramic views, and also like its Lisbon equivalent, they offer plenty of opportunity to accidentally fling oneself to certain doom.  There is a very real sense of being in a 'proper' castle as you clamber up the steep steps to the high towers and peer down the mountainside at the town below, and wonder how on earth the castle's defences would have been breached in the 12th century if the defenders hadn't surrendered.

It was finally time to head back to Lisbon after a great afternoon.  I walked down the steep and winding path through the mountain greenery back to Sintra, and took the train back to the city along with young mothers gabbling on their mobiles while their freshly-scrubbed babies goggled at the passing suburban scenery.  I collected my bag from the hostel and loaded the princely sum of €0.90 (NZ$1.60) onto my natty cardboard Lisbon metro card, and boarded a city bus to take me directly to the airport in under half an hour.  I needn't have rushed though, because the return Easyjet flight to Gatwick was nearly an hour late.  This meant over an hour standing in line at the boarding gate, because the seating isn't assigned and once a queue forms no-one wants to lose their place!  

It was a great long weekend in Lisbon, and I highly recommend a visit if you haven't been before.  There's plenty to do and see, the prices are low, the weather is great (at least while I was there), and the people are friendly with a good command of tourist English.  What more could you want?  And as for my map of Western Europe, now all that remains is Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and San Marino, but I wouldn't hold your breath for reports of a long weekend in any of those destinations any time soon...
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