April 9, 2015. Easter week is a big deal in Norway. Oddly, folks don’t seem to acknowledge Ash Wednesday, but they do commemorate Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Easter Monday (which I’ve never even heard of but have been told it’s the day that the resurrected Jesus first appeared to the disciples.) Regardless, with all these back-to-back religious observances, Norway gives the whole week off as a holiday. Everyone heads to their hytte (mountain cabins) to read crime novels (no joke — I have no idea why this is a tradition), and civilization as we know it here in Oslo pretty much shuts down.
Matthew and I had been advised to vacate the country in search of livelier ways to celebrate the season, so our chosen destination was Portugal. We’d wanted to travel here for years, specifically in search of beautiful architecture and gorgeous beaches, so our plan was to hit Lisbon (Age-of-Discovery history), then Evora (Neolithic, Roman, and Moorish architecture), and finally the Algarve (beaches). So we hastily planned our trip, booked our rooms, and packed our bags, hoping for a little warmth and sunshine as a remedy for the rainy, chilly spring that Oslo has offered so far.
We arrived late in the evening and headed straight to Hotel Portugal, a last-minute find we’d selected because it was reasonably priced and in the heart of the city. Wow, were we in for a surprise. Hands down, it’s the swankiest hotel we’ve ever stayed in. Completely new and modern, yet tastefully gilded and glammed up like old Hollywood, it came complete with a TV in the mirror and a marbled, bidet-equipped bathroom. I felt a bit like I’d stumbled into someone else’s fab life and would soon be ferreted out as an impostor. But the staff was welcoming and friendly, not snooty at all, and the breakfasts were delicious — amazing what $125/night will get you in Portugal versus Norway.
The Hotel Portugal lobby, courtesy of Trip Advisor. (I forgot to take my own photo.)
Our plushy room.
A bed fit for a king and queen.
Note the TV in the mirror.
Yep, a bidet in the bathroom.
After thoroughly video-taping our sumptuous surroundings, we decided to scamper out for a quick nighttime tour of the city. And I have to say our first taste was a bit of an eye-opener. Just a block away, in one of the main tourist squares, we were accosted every few steps by shady characters elbowing us with offers of “Hashish? Cocaine?” and open handfuls of samples. I started to wonder if we were in a rough neighborhood, and the sight of several tumble-down buildings nearby made me seriously question our vacation choice.
But in the light of day, after logging several miles on trolleys and our feet, I began to get a better handle on the city’s vibe. It reminds me a bit of New Orleans or Nice: lovingly restored mansions rub shoulders with ramshackle shanties; pristine shops spill their luxury labels onto grimy, trash-strewn streets; stately baroque cathedrals proudly weather the years next door to ruined edifices encrusted in graffiti. It’s a city of stark contrasts that has obviously seen better times and greater wealth, but it still manages to retain its dignity and beauty despite the hardships.
While Lisbon has fantastic historic sites (a few of which I touch on below), I advise wandering aimlessly through the city’s streets to savor its eccentric atmosphere. My favorite moments?
Top Memory #1:
Donning sunglasses to shade ourselves from the blindingly white brilliance of the Manueline confection that is the Monestery of Jerónimos, paying our respects at the tomb of Vasco de Gama, then ambling across the street to take in the monolithic “Monument to the Discoveries” while munching on Portuguese hotdogs (the Funyon strings are a condiment must!)
The tomb of Vasco da Gama — remember him, the first guy to find a water route around Africa to India? The monastery is situated on the site of the old church where da Gama prayed for God’s blessing the night before setting sail on his historic journey of discovery.
The palm-tree-like columns allow the space to be airy and light.
The Manueline Tower of Belém (1515-20) once acted as the fortified gateway to Lisbon’s harbor. Looks too pretty to be truly defensive, doesn’t it? Note the incredibly long line to get inside.
The name “Manueline” comes from King Manuel I, who ruled Portugal from 1495 to 1521.
The 16th-century monastery of Jerónimos.
The Monument to the Discoveries, erected in 1960, commemorates the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. He was the first European to explore Western Africa and the islands of the Atlantic. That’s him, leading the charge at the front of the Portuguese caravel sailing ship.
King Manuel built the monastery (with money made from his pepper trade) to thank God for the many successful Portuguese explorations.
The frilly, wedding-cake ornamentation is characteristic of Manueline style. The more restrained geometric detail at the top is Renaissance.
Top Memory #2:
Working up my nerve to tiptoe across the filigree bridge of the Eiffel-inspired Elevador de Santa Justa and climb its spiral stairs to the viewing platform, then taking “baby steps” to reach the railing for a bird’s-eye view of the city, and finally …. holding my breath while descending creakily to ground level via a 113-year-old iron elevator.
The lacy bridge to the Elevador de Santa Justa.
The 150-foot-tall elevator was designed in 1902 by a student of Gustave Eiffel, who designed Paris’s Eiffel Tower.
Gulping as I prepare to climb the spiral stairs to the top viewing platform.
Did I mention I hate heights?
I look thrilled with the view, don’t I? Note my death grip on the railing.
Matthew took this shot down the shaft — I’d never attempt it.
The street below.
A view across Lisbon from the viewing platform.
The right-angled orderliness of the Baixa District, built after the disastrous 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of the city.
Top Memory #3:
Perching high above the city in a plateaued park, where we sipped our Sagres on draft and reclined in old-fashioned canvas lawn chairs next to a Victorian gazebo — all while being entertained by a pierced-and-tatooed guy from the Netherlands who juggled fire batons for spare coins.
The park has outstanding views over the city.
The peaceful São Pedro de Alcantára Park.
And it has a great little Victorian cafe for coffee, beer, and snacks…the best spot to chill out on a hot day.
Top Memory #4:
Ducking into countless Baroque churches with sedate exteriors that disguised an internal riot of Rococo ornamentation, all encrusted in gold and gems beyond dreams of avarice, but made macabre by the dusty fingers, skulls, and other boney bits of long-forgotten saints.
São Roque Church has a fantastically painted wooden ceiling, complete with false barrel vaults and dome.
Most churches in Lisbon have fairly modest, unassuming exteriors.
But the interiors are gussied up with trompe l’oeil paintings and gilded altars.
São Roque’s Chapel of the Most Holy Sacrament contains the gold-barnacled and bedecked Our Lady of the Assumption.
São Roque’s sacristy houses a creepy cool series of 17th-century paintings about the life of St. Xavier.
In the Church of St. Anthony rests the body of St. Justina, although I think the head might be papier-mâché, since she was beheaded.
Called the “most costly chapel in Portugal,” the Chapel of St. John the Baptist contains marble and lapis lazuli mosaics made in Rome.
Most Portuguese churches have huge repositories of saints’ relics, including gross oddities like eyeballs, fingernails, and tongues.
Top Memory #5:
Careening through the streets aboard historic, San-Francisco-like cable cars for a kaleidescopic tour of the town’s neighborhoods, nightlife, and graffiti art, then settling our stomachs with about 20 pastéis de nata (custard-filled pastries) and tiny cups of bica (espresso) and cafécom leite (espresso with a smidge of milk).
Antique trolleys from the 1920s provide transportation to all the historic districts.
The driver uses both old and “modern” technologies.
Need I say more?
Mmmm, pastéis de nata, originally made by monks from the egg yolks left over after the nuns used the whites for starching laundry.
Many of the trolleys just repeatedly go up and back down a single, steep hill.
The best view of street life — and the best breezes — are to be had from the trolleys.
Graffiti of a famous fado singer.
More cool graffiti.
Top Memory #6:
Cataloging the myriad designs of marbled mosaic sidewalks and Moorish tilework that liberally coat Lisbon’s streets and buildings, giving the impression that the entire city is made of ceramic.
The black-and-while cobblestoned sidewalks are called “calçada.”
In 1503, King Manuel I ushered in the tile trend by bringing back glazed tiles called azulejos from Spain.
Made of limestone and basalt, these cobbles were first laid in the 19th century by prisoners.
Albarradas — vases of flowers flanked by birds, putti, or dolphins — became popular in the 17th century.
After the earthquake of 1755 that killed 100,000 people, folks began placing small devotional azulejos in the walls of buildings to ward off disaster.
Allegorical figures from the Bible or Greek mythology were also en vogue. I kinda love the graffiti artist’s “modernization” of this tile.
The city is considering tearing out the cobbles because they’re so slippery. (I myself almost wiped out more than once, but I’d hate to see them go.)
At first, only the interior of houses were tiled. Brazilians were the first to discover that tiling a house on the outside cuts down on humidity.
Patterns are still chosen from a book of acceptable designs.
These seem Escher-esque to me.
The earliest tiles were Moorish-styled mosaics, with each color being represented by a single glazed piece inserted into an intricate pattern.
Later tiles were made of glazed and fired majolica ceramics.
A simple “coat-of-arms” pattern.
During the early 1700s, the first ‘invitation figures’ appeared in entrances, stairwells, or patios of palaces. Intended to welcome visitors, these life-sized depictions of footmen or elegantly dressed lords and ladies can be found only in Portugal.
Elaborate borders around a central field.
Many houses have been restored, while others have lost their tiles due to time (or to collectors.)
Transfer-ware patterns became popular in the early 1800s.
Top Memory #7:
Meandering through the winding alleys of the Alfama district and São Jorge Castle, where we were alternately serenaded by a beggar with a voice like Pavarotti, shrieked at by a flock of preening peacocks, then lulled to sleep in the ruins of a Medieval-age village by two locals playing classical Spanish guitar.
A peek down from the castle walls reveals views into the neighboring gardens and back yards.
São Jorge Castle sits above the Medieval Alfama district.
The Moors built São Jorge Castle in the 11th century, but portions of the settlement go back to the 7th century B.C.
Peacocks were originally brought back as trophies from exotic lands by Portuguese explorers.
In the courtyard that once housed simple wooden huts, you can still spot stones laid by the Romans, Visigoths, and Moors.
Getting bitten by one of the toothy dolphin fountains.
Remnants of the old village outside the castle walls.
A view of Lisbon from a guard tower.
The winding streets of the Alfama district.
After Afonso Henriques claimed the castle for Portugal in 1147, Portuguese kings and queens lived here until the 16th century.
Top Memory #8:
Making a pilgrimage alongside hundreds of other Portuguese to witness the Good Friday Procissão do Senhor Morto (Procession of the Dead Lord) — accompanied by a brass-band funeral dirge, showered by confetti and flowers tossed from balconies above, and engulfed in the smoke from incense burners and thousands of candles held by the penitent.
The Good Friday Procession of the Dead Lord winds its way through the twelve stations of the cross.
A mournful drumbeat — occasionally punctuated by a brass band and a singing crowd — keeps time for the marchers.
Flower-bedecked figures of Christ, Mary, and various saints at the crucifixion are carried through the streets.
The crowd and deacons from the church chant during the procession.
A sliver from the “actual cross” is carried by priests and sheltered beneath a royal canopy.
The procession ends at the cathedral, where a Mass is held.
More followers continue to join the crowd as the procession moves through the city.
After three days in Lisbon, I’d like to say that it’s one of the prettiest cities I’ve visited, but “pretty” is a trite word. “Lovely” and “beautiful” are too weak, also. They’re words you use to describe the untried, insipid looks of an adolescent girl. Lisbon has the rugged handsomeness of a grand dame who has been loved by many, endured much, and survived to reinvent herself and bask in the sun again.