Lisbon (Mar 21-24)

Our next extended trip started with… Lisbon! I didn’t know much about the city, so my first impression was of the weather – warm, but wet; a theme which continued throughout our visit. The flight with BA from Heathrow was perfectly pleasant, and we arrived on time albeit fairly late. We took the metro from the airport to our hotel, the Altis Avenida which was pretty centrally located. I was nervous when I realised that our room had a view of the major plaza and road system next to the hotel, but we were reasonably high up with good double glazing so it wasn’t noisy at all.

Our first proper day began with a trip up the Santa Justa lift. Lisbon is very hilly and has this lift and various funiculars to overcome this. The lift was built in 1900 in cast iron to join the upper and lower parts of the city. Two old fashioned wooden cabins taking up to 29 (up, only 24 down) passengers travel up and down the tower which exits at the top via a cast iron walkway into the upper city. There is a viewing platform above the lifts as the machinery is actually located in the tower base. From the lift we walked to the excellent MUDE fashion museum. The most noteworthy aspect of the museum was it’s location, in an old bank building. This was exploited in a wonderful way by the museum as the setting for some of it’s exhibits. In particular the bank vault in the basement currently houses the ceramic exhibit. The result is very unusual and stunning – pieces of fabulous ceramics placed in perspex security deposit boxes inside a huge vault to reach which requires you to go through three extraordinarily thick security doors (proper “Chubb” bank vault doors); a unique and spectacular setting.

After the museum we caught a tram out to an area called Belém. The tram turned out to be modern and impressive, albeit not quite as much as Zagreb. Our first destination was Jerónimos Monastery, a large building which dated back to 1459, becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. We were particularly taken by the large and wonderfully ornate cloisters, with fantastically detailed carvings and designs in the Manueline style. In the corridors were the doors that the monks used to enter the confessionals, allowing them to hear confessions without really leaving the monastery. Those confessing would enter the confessional from a corresponding door in the Church of Santa Maria. The monastery has dedicated one room, previously the monastery library, to a housing visual and narrative history. It was very well done and ran around in a large circle within the room (English on the outside, Portuguese on the inside) and had three time tracks relating to events in the monastery itself, in the city of Lisbon and in Portugal, all dating back to the 15th century and proving very informative. The west wing, previously used by visiting members of the Royal family now houses the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia (National Archaeological Museum) and the Museu da Marinha (Maritime Museum).

After the monastery we grabbed a nice but simple lunch in a local café and trekked off to our next stop of Belém Tower, via Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries). The tower is a small but historically significant tower on the river with a rich history, and has been used as a fort to control the river traffic (along with a fort on the opposite bank). It also had incarnations as a state prison, a customs post, a beacon and a telegraph service. The tower’s commander was a royal appointment and considered a very influential post. We left Belém Tower and headed back towards where we’d had lunch. Just up the hill was a tropical garden known as the Jardim do Ultramar that we explored at the sun set. It was an eclectic place, with few other visitors this close to closing time. We enjoyed our wander, and in particular the unexpected Japanese themed area we stumbed across almost by accident.

Finally we travelled back to main Lisbon center and our hotel. One quick change later we headed out to a restaurant at which Greg had arranged for the hotel staff to book us dinner. It was called Restaurante Pharmacia, and turned out to be housed in an interesting building atop a hill within Lisbon. The building also houses the Associação Nacional das Farmácias
(National Association of Pharmacies) and the Pharmacy Museum, hence the name and theme of the restaurant. Said theme made this a very different meal – to begin with the main room was decorated with medical paraphanalia which gave it an interesting atmosphere. The water bottle was an old fashioned ether bottle, and as we ate the various courses came on interesting plates – such as the soup served in a measuring cylinder and bread in a medical specimen dish. The menu was also interesting, in that we opted for the ‘surprise’ menu and were presented with a sequence of interesting dishes forming a small tasting menu. The food was excellent quality, and all in all it was a great evening.

The next day we visited Castelo de São Jorge (St Georges Castle), which sits in a commanding location on a hill in central Lisbon. We took an enjoyable walk up to the entrance, passing through quiet streets along the way. The immediate locale of the castle was busier with other visitors and as we entered the sun came out and rewarded us with a beautiful sunny day. We explored the grounds of the old castle and palace, now mostly ruined. The view of Lisbon from this vantage point was excellent, and it was interesting wandering around the old walls and absorbing some of the atmosphere. In the oldest area of the site there are 7th century ruins and the outlines of Moorish courtyard based dwellings dating back to the 11th century. After exploring the castle for a while we headed down back into the city via a deliberately circuitous route – Greg had a walking tour around the old quarter (Alfama) which consisted of a maze of old streets and buildings on the hillside. In amongst the local interest that we passed by were three elderly woman who looked like they were having a happy gossip by someone’s house; we finally understood why people used doors which open separately at the bottom and top halves.

Next stop was the Ajuda National Palace, which was about 20 minutes away by bus. It was remarkably quiet to visit, and for several rooms we were the only visitors; in fact even the staff were rather sparse! In the end we passed about 10 other people during our tour – very few for such a location. Following an earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 Joseph, the then King became concerned about the safety of the then Royal Palace and refused to live in a masonry building, so a wooden palace was built in Belém.  Following the death of the king, the wooden palace was destroyed by fire while his successor was in residence in the Palace at Queluz.  In 1795 work began on what was planned to be a grand Royal palace (in masonry) on the site.  A combination of many changes in architect, disagreements between architects and contractors, war and financial difficulties meant that designs for the palace were changed many times and the Royal family moved in when only a small portion of it had been built.  Eventually all work ceased in 1910 when the monarchy fell and was replaced by a republic with less than a third of the originally planned building completed.  It fell into ruin thereafter, followed by various attempts at restoration, including one which resulted in the North wing being burned down (including the painting gallery and the priceless artwork within it). Via use as the Ministry for Culture it has become a museum while elaborate plans to complete the building have never come to fruition.

Towards the end of our tour the final member of staff mentioned that a music recital was just about to start in a room down the corridor. It was apparently free, and she suggested we put our heads round the corner to take a look. When we did so an enthusic attendant thrust a programme into our hands and ushered us to a seat. The recital was attended by several parents with children, and turned out to be an end-of-term show by the Lisbon Academy of Music. At a guess the performers were between 8 and 16 and were all of a very high standard. The 3 soloists were particularly impressive; especially given the youngest looked around 8! The programme lasted for about an hour and was a wonderful surprise treat for us. Following the recital we wandered down to the botanical gardens, which were once the Palace gardens. We didn’t have long here, but enjoyed half an hour in the evening sun amongst the plant life. There weren’t many other visitors, but we did see some kids (we assume staying at what appeared to be a hostel) who appeared to be rehearsing for a play.

Dinner that night was at an Argentinian themed restaurant, Carvoaria Jacto.  It is a fantastic backstreet restaurant, favoured by locals and you would never find it if you didn’t know it was there.  It was fully booked, but fortunately as we very early they squeezed us in as we promised to eat and leave in just over an hour.  We chose some veal with king prawns, which was served hung on skewers, and some steak, which we shared. Both were good with the steak being particularly excellent and properly rare, with a final bill that was surprisingly good value.

Our last day in Lisbon was a trip to Parque das Nações, the sea-front area. This area had been recently developed over the last decade or so, particularly as part of Expo 98. It’s got some really interesting architecture, and on a nice day is a splendid place to wander around; fortunately we visited on a great day with bright sunshine and clear blue skies. Our first stop was the well regarded Oceanário de Lisboa (Lisbon Oceanarium), which we enjoyed for a good couple of hours. It is the largest indoor aquarium in Europe including an outstanding main central tank.  Standing two stories high, with huge picture windows that you can walk round, it contains around 5 million litres of water and more than 20 thousand fish and sea mammals.  It’s got a good range of other tanks and species, and we particularly enjoyed one of the corner areas which housed a couple of sea otters. They’d recently been provided with a container full of ice cubes, which they were clearly having a lot of fun with. One otter would tackle the container to scoop out some cubes, and he’d then swim around on his back playing with the cube and sometimes passing it off to his partner, which was very charming to watch.

After the Oceanarium we took a cable car ride to the far end of the waterfront area, and walked back to where we’d started. There was a great view from the cable car, and it gave us an interesting new visual perspective on the area. We were then able to revisit places we’d seen from above during our walk back. In particular it was nice to stroll through various small gardens which had been created by the side of a tree-lined path, and given that the sun was now pretty hot we enjoyed the shade of these varied creations. Lunch was in the local shopping mall, and much more interesting than that sounds. I had some squid cooked in the local fashion, although I almost chose some chargrilled steak; not quite the kind of mall food we are used to back home!

We left Lisbon by train, and headed to our next destination of… Sintra! (despite my claim to Greg that, without knowing where our next city was, it was must be east from Lisbon… Sintra is however to the west!)

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