It’s been a month and three days since we landed in Portugal. The first two weeks, we lodged in the little hotel in Lisbon. The previous posts in this blog were all written in longhand into a notebook while sitting on a park bench between there and the river. If the next few entries are a bit too travelogy, it’s because there’s some catching up to do.
The hotel in Belem stands between the aforementioned Palace of the President on one side and the enormous 16th century Jeronimo Monastery on the other. The monastery is in what they call the Manueline style, combining Gothic and Moorish elements. The church there has a ceiling of vaulted arches about ten stories high, and there’s a massive three story courtyard around which monks and nobles and knights used to promenade. The place invites quiet contemplation as every sound is amplified dozens of times over in that space. If you’re going to negotiate alliances and plot invasions and assassinations here, you want to do it in whispers.
The monastery is large enough (stretching the equivalent of three city blocks) to also one museum containing artifacts from the ancient Roman occupation and another celebrating Portugal’s maritime history, including a vast warehouse of beautifully preserved wooden sailing vessels.
Lisbon is full of such sights, as well as mazes of narrow winding streets lined with tiny cafes and shops. As in all the great cities of Europe, they don’t tear down old buildings around here. A feature particular to Portugal is the walls covered with beautiful hand baked tiles depicting Biblical scenes, battles and landscapes. In the alley behind our hotel – the alley, mind you – one whole tile wall was a picture of a chicken.
With such structures, the exterior walls are left standing while the interiors are gutted and rebuilt as modern office buildings. We don’t do that in the US, but then we don’t have many walls that have stood for 1300 years.
Lisbon is in population and area actually a little smaller than Denver, but it seems much denser because of all those narrow winding streets. In an attempt to explore the city, Barbara and I bought a three-day pass on one of those hop-on-hop-off bus services. It turned out to be not such a good deal because every time we hopped off the bus, we got lost and ended up wandering the streets for hours until we finally found our way back. We can get lost on our own; we don’t need to pay a bus service for that.
We rode a ferry from the dock in Belem up the Tagus River to the main terminal in the central city, passing under a bridge modeled on the Golden Gate in San Francisco and a statue of Christ on the cliffs overlooking the opposite shore, replicating the one that looks out from Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro.
We rode rickety old trolley cars that seemed always on the verge of toppling over on tracks laid over the cobbled streets of the Alfama, the oldest district in Lisbon. The Alfama sprawls on the side of a mountain and there’s the original royal castle on top. It’s full of streets about eight feet wide, not alleys but actual city street with names and everything. There’s also the remains of the old Jewish quarter, one of those notorious medieval ghettos.
The castle is where Portuguese kings held off attacks from Moors and Spaniards. Unfortunately, we never made it to the castle. It seems the tram line up to it was closed for repairs, perhaps because the thing did topple over; and when we tried to get up the mountain to it on foot, sure enough, we got lost.
Lisbon in some ways is reminiscent of San Francisco, as Portugal’s geography is of California. The city is made up of steep hills accessed by tram car, and there’s that replica Golden Gate Bridge. Lisbon was also destroyed by an earthquake like San Francisco, albeit this one in 1755. Of course, San Francisco doesn’t have a medieval castle at the top, but it does have Alcatraz.
On the Sunday before we left, there was a festival in Belem, with a military band in white uniforms playing a concert in the Maritime Museum, and an outdoor concert in the botanic gardens up the hill from out hotel of Fado music, the unique Portuguese type of folk music; and all the museums were free. In addition to those I’ve mentioned, we were particularly impressed by the Contemporary Art Museum, containing works by most of the great artists of the 20th century, from Cubists to Dadaists to Abstract Expressionists to Pop Art.
It was a good way to say goodbye to the city – or “Âte logo”, meaning “See you later.” In a few days, we were picked up our hotel by the leasing agent for our apartment, Paula, and her husband Mario, and driven the 40 kilometers to the city of Setúbal, which sits on another river, the Sado, where we would go from being tourists to residents for the next six months.