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Portugal: Alvor, Cascais, Faro, Lisbon, Sintra
Lisbon, Portugal: Charming ups and charming downs
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Lisbon is indeed one of Europe's most soulful, captivating and picturesque capitals, built on a series of hills with scenic vistas from every angle. It's every up and every down is bound to mesmerise the traveler. The city is Europe's second-oldest capital (after Athens) and home to the world's greatest explorers like Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Prince Henry the Navigator. It was the capital of an empire spreading over all continents, from South America (Brazil) to Asia (Macao, China and Goa, India).
I was on a two-week holiday to Portugal and Spain. Accompanying me was my wife Vrunda and a cousin of mine Ujwal with his wife Jaya. Since we were four, it made practical sense to hire a private car for intercity transfers. And for long distance we had the options of fast trains. Of course, we thought of hiring a car, but unfortunately a big car / van was not available that could fit us all with our baggage.
Our first port of call was Lisbon. Our flight from Mumbai, India was via Paris. The total journey time was about 16 hours that included a 5-hour wait at Paris airport. By the time we landed in Lisbon it was 2 in the afternoon. A private limousine was waiting for us to take us to our hotel – Porto Bay Liberdade just off the Liberdade Avenue – the most important avenue of Lisbon. It takes around 30-minutes from the airport to the city centre. Vrunda and I would be in Lisbon for 3 nights. Jaya and Ujwal would join us the next day.
A little rest and after freshening up, we were ready to walk the streets of Lisbon that evening. The plan was to explore the old town for a few hours before calling it a day. Whilst walking one cannot miss appreciating the creative & beautiful footpaths elaborately laid out using pieces of ceramic tiles. In fact, I would say, Lisbon is home to use of ceramic to decorate streets and facades and surely is a Portuguese hallmark. You can see the same in Macau and also in Goa.
A 15-minute walk down the Liberdade Avenue brought us to the imposing Rossio Train Station, the Praca D Pedro IV and Praca Da Figueira. From here we walked all the way down to Praca Do Comercio that sits on the banks of River Tagus. On our way back we negotiated Rua Augusta, its Arch and the very happening district of Baixa.
Rossio Square is the popular name of the Pedro IV Square. It is located in the Pombaline Downtown of Lisbon and has been one of its main squares since the Middle Ages. It has been the setting of popular revolts and celebrations, bullfights and executions, and is now a preferred meeting place of Lisbon natives and tourists alike. The current name of the Rossio pays homage to Pedro IV, King of Portugal. The Column of Pedro IV is in the middle of the square.
The Praça da Figueira (Square of the Fig Tree) is a large square adjacent to the Rossio. It is part of the Baixa Pombalina, the area of the city reurbanised after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. In 1971 a bronze equestrian statue representing King John I (1357-1433), by sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida, was inaugurated in the square. The monument also carries medallions with the effigies of Nuno Álvares Pereira and Joao das Regras, two key characters in the 1385 Revolution that brought John I to power. The Praça da Figueira has a very uniform profile, with four-storey buildings dating from the rebuilding of the Baixa Pombalina. The buildings are occupied by hotels, cafés, and several shops. It is also an important traffic hub, with bus and metro stops.
The Praça do Comercio (English: Commerce Square) is situated near the Tagus river. The square is still commonly known as Terreiro do Paço (English: Palace Yard), because it was the location of the Paços da Ribeira (Royal Ribeira Palace) until it was destroyed by the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake. After the earthquake, the square was completely remodelled as part of the rebuilding of the Pombaline Downtown, ordered by Sebastiao Jose de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal, who was the Minister of the Kingdom of Portugal from 1750 to 1777, during the reign of Dom Jose I, King of Portugal.
The square was named Praça do Comercio, the Square of Commerce, to indicate its new function in the economy of Lisbon. The symmetrical buildings of the square were filled with government bureau regulating customs and port activities. The highlight of the ensemble was the equestrian statue of King Jose I, inaugurated in 1775 in the centre of the square. This bronze statue, the first monumental statue dedicated to a King in Lisbon, was designed by Joaquim Machado de Castro, Portugal's foremost sculptor of the time. The Praça do Comercio is one of the finest sections of the capital and indicates the power and influence Portugal once commanded.
The Rua Augusta Arch is a stone, triumphal arch-like, historical building and visitor attraction on the Praça do Comercio. It was built to commemorate the city's reconstruction after the 1755 earthquake. It has six columns (some 11 m high) and is adorned with statues of various historical figures. Significant height from the arch crown to the cornice imparts an appearance of heaviness to the structure. The associated space is filled with the coat of arms of Portugal. The allegorical group at the top, made by French sculptor Celestin Anatole Calmels, represents Glory rewarding Valor and Genius. Originally designed as a bell tower, the building was ultimately transformed into an elaborate arch after more than a century.
The district of Baixa was completely rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1755 and was the one of the first city centres to be designed around a grid and block layout. The district comprises of grand avenues that connect to magnificent plazas, which celebrate the wealth and importance of 18th century Portugal.
Trams are iconic symbols of Lisbon. Hilly terrain and undulating route, only the classic Remodelado trams, which were originally commissioned in the 1930s, are able to navigate the steep inclines or sharp twists of the tracks. These trams (that would be in a museum in any other city) are an integral part of Lisbon public transport network. A ride on the number 28 tram is a highlight of any trip to Lisbon. The number 28 tram is the longest route in Lisbon, performing a loop in the east of Baixa, Graça and Alfama before heading west to Estrela and Campo de Ourique. This first section is the favourite with most tourists, as the tram screeches through Alfama, passing the Se Cathedral and the Santa Luzia viewpoint. The westward section is equally enjoyable and scenic, by passing through the Estrela district and terminating at the magnificent Estrela Basilica. Be warned about pick-pockets and thieves on these trams (especially No. 28).
It was time to head back to our hotel for a well-deserved rest. But not before tasting a Ginjinha. Nothing helps a long day of sightseeing more than a glass of Ginjinha, a deliciously sweet alcoholic drink. This cherry based liquor is adored by the Portuguese and can be can be served with cherries for an added extra kick. There is no better place to sample Ginjinha than from the traditional home of the drink, the Ginjinha bar - just off Rossio square.
The next morning we had opted for a day trip to Sintra. We would leave at 9AM and be back in town by 6PM. The other couple would be waiting for us at the hotel. In the evening, there was no specific plan but to wander about town. Since Ujwal had missed the walk the previous evening, we repeated the exercise. Dinner that evening was at an Indian restaurant located in Baixa.
We had pre-purchased a day pass of the tourist bus – Citysightseeing Portugal. It allowed 24 hours of unlimited access to their two lines – red and blue. Between these two lines entire ‘seeable’ Lisbon is certainly covered.
The starting point for both the lines is Marques do Pombal Square – just a 10-minute walk from our hotel. From the square begins the Liberdade Avenue.
D. Sebastiao Jose de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal, 1st Count of Oeiras (13 May 1699 – 8 May 1782) was an 18th-century Portuguese statesman. He was Secretary of the State of Internal Affairs of the Kingdom (the equivalent to today's Prime Minister) in the government of Joseph I of Portugal from 1750 to 1777. Undoubtedly the most prominent minister in the government, he is considered today to have been the de facto head of government. Pombal is notable for his swift and competent leadership in the aftermath of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. He implemented sweeping economic policies in Portugal to regulate commercial activity and standardize quality throughout the country. Pombal was instrumental in weakening the grip of the Inquisition. The term Pombaline is used to describe not only his tenure, but also the architectural style which was adopted after the great earthquake.
We first opted to hop on the red line. We would alight at Torre de Belem. Enroute we had the opportunity to see Jardim da Estrela and the modern suspension bridge – Ponte 25 de Abril.
The Torre de Belem (Tower of Belem) is a delightful fortification that once guarded Lisbon and the mouth of the River Tagus. The small Manueline styled tower was first sight of home for returning Portuguese sailors during the 16th century and since then the tower has become the icon of Lisbon.
We spent an hour walking along the beach and the garden that surrounds the tower. Whilst there, do try the freshly squeezed orange juice laced with alcohol. It’s divine. I do have a picture of the smiling vendor.
Back on the bus to get down at Rua do Commercio. Enroute we saw the majestic Mosteiro dos Jeronimos and the Docas.
The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos was originally designed as a modest monastery but the wealth from the spice trade transformed the project into the most extravagant religious building of Portugal. The monastery is a wonder both of engineering and artistic design, with the ornate carved entrance and tall spindly columns that survived the 1755 earthquake. Be prepared for long lines to get in the Monastery. We skipped going in. It was a 2-hour wait to get in. That’s what happens in high-season – tourist floods.
The dock (Docas) area below 25 de Abril Bridge along the river in Alcantara between Baixa and Belem is one of the city's most pleasant places for a drink in late afternoon and with a lively atmosphere at night. Former warehouses overlooking an attractive yachting marina have been transformed into a multitude of cosmopolitan bars, restaurants, and clubs for all tastes.
From Ruo do Commercio we took the tough decision to walk up all the way through Alfama to the Castle of Saint George. It’s a steep walk, but then that’s the best way to enjoy Alfama. The walk also presents the opportunity to fantastic viewpoints along the way – especially from Miradouro Luzia. Keep aside at least an hour for the uphill trek.
Alfama is the ancient district of Lisbon and is a labyrinth of narrow streets that climb the hill from the Tejo estuary up to the castle. Alfama was traditionally the poorest region of the capital, originally outside the city walls, which developed into a deprived area where sailors and dock workers would live in grim squalor. Today, Alfama has been revitalised and is one of the trendiest and fashionable areas of Lisbon. Hidden in the maze of cobble streets and ancient crumbling buildings, which make up Alfama, are family run cafes, boutique shops and small bars. The roads of Alfama are too small for cars or buses so the only way to explore is on foot. Of course, the trams come in handy if one wants to.
The Castelo de Sao Jorge (Castle of Saint George) stands majestically above central Lisbon and was the ancient seat of power for over 400 years. From the vantage point of the battlements there are wondrous views over central Lisbon, while the ancient fortified citadel is steeped in history and mystery. The fortification built by the Moors in the mid-11th century, was the last defensive stronghold of the elite who resided within the citadel – the Moorish Governor and the elite city administrators whose homes are also visible today. There’s an entry fee to visit the castle. The ramparts of the castle offer excellent views of the city beneath. Red roofs and pastel coloured buildings dot the entire skyline.
We had our lunch at a cozy little street side café – overlooking the castle walls. It’s a great way to witness the life past by with a vino tinto cupped in hands. Post lunch a police officer was kind enough to show us a short route down to reach the Rossio.
A little walk from the square enabled us to board the blue line. The plan was to tour the entire circuit without getting down. The route presented us with the views of the Fado Museum; Oceanario de Lisboa (the aquarium); C C Vasco da Gama (convention centre) and the Torre Vasco da Gama.
The Fado Museum explains the evolution and the passion behind Portugal's famous musical expression with audiovisual presentations, multilingual information panels, and musical archives. It presents the cultural and social influence of Fado since its origins, from its use in cinema through the impact of censorship in the 20th century. It also explains the technical and historical development of the Portuguese guitar and the so-called "Fado Houses."
The Vasco da Gama Tower is a 145-metre lattice tower with skyscraper built over the Tagus river. It is named after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, the first European to arrive in India by sail, in 1498. The architects of the tower were Leonor Janeiro, Nick Jacobs and SOM (Skidmore, Owings and Merrill). The steel structure, representing the sail of a caravel, was assembled by engineering company Martifer. The tower was built in 1998 for the Expo 98 World's Fair. At the 120-metre stage, there was an observation deck and, just below it, a luxury panoramic restaurant. At the base of the tower was a three-story building that served as the European Union Pavilion during the Expo.
We got down at Parque Eduardo VII and walked all the way to our hotel through the majestic gardens and the wide, ceramic-studded foot paths.
After resting a while, we were ready for our evening walks. Good that we were in summers. The sunlight was up until 8 in the evening.
We walked via Rossio to Rua da Santa Justa to visit the Santa Justa Elevator. It is one of the city's best-loved landmarks. Also known as the "Elevator of Carmo," this extraordinary structure was built at the turn of the century by the Portugal-born French architect Raoul de Mesnier du Ponsard (an apprentice of Gustave Eiffel, explaining the structure's similarities to Paris' Eiffel Tower), to connect downtown to Bairro Alto (the lowest and highest points of the city). Originally powered by steam, it is 45 meters high, and remains an interesting example of post-Eiffel iron architecture. The top of the Neo-Gothic tower, reached via a spiral staircase, has a cafe with splendid views of the city, including over Rossio Square, the castle and the river.
At the time of our visit, there’s was a line of 90 minutes. Since we had no other specific schedule on hand, we waited. A Euro 5 fee took us to the top. It would have been worth our while had the lines not been there. So be it.
We had our dinner in one of the restaurants right in the middle of Rua Augusta in Baixa. That completed our Lisbon experience. The next morning a private van will take us to Alvor in the Algarve region.
Lisbon Image Gallery Photo viewer
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