Monday, January 7, 2008


We spent two of our four days in Portugal in Lisbon, the first exploring the Baixa and the last walking through the Alfama and the Castelo de Sao Jorge.

The Baixa is the part of Lisbon that was rebuilt in the 18th century after an earthquake destroyed most of what was then Lisbon’s main center. It’s an area beautifully laid out with mosaic pavements and classical buildings of no more than five stories (so that they could withstand any future earthquakes) whose storefronts contained international brand shops and pavement cafes and have beautiful tiled facades. We entered it through the Praça do Comercio, a large square right on the waterfront. There are two important pieces of architecture—a statue of Dom Jose in them idle of the praça and a triumphal arch as you enter the Baixa’s main streets. On the Rua Augusta, no vehicles are allowed so street musicians, craftsfolk, and artists set up to show their work as you walk along the way. Becca was enthralled by the combination of places to shop and craftspeople. She bought jewelry from vendors, shopped for a pair of flats in one of the shoe stores,

and had her caricature done by one of the street artists. We sauntered through the streets, seeing the Elevador de Santa Justa,

resting for a while near Robert Indiana’s well-known Love sculptures that decorate Rossio Square, and getting our first glimpse of the Castelo de Sao Jorge from the Praça da Figueira, which was itself filled with what looked like a large indoor (roller or ice?) skating rink and some kind of XBox 360 game tent.

We circled back toward the Praça do Comercio. By then all the Christmas decorations in the area had been lit u p. Becca shopped a little more. We ate traditional pastries and then later that evening dinner at the Restaurante Martinho da Arcada, one of Lisbon’s most famous literary landmarks that has been open since 1782. There it is said that Fernando Pessoa (who Harold Bloom calls the most representative poet of the twentieth century and who has become something of an icon in Lisbon) wrote his epic “Mensagem”. And two other Portuguese literary legends, Almeida Garret and novelist Jose Eça de Queirós also used to hang out at this café. Once dinner hour arrived (7:30 is the earliest restaurants open for dinner in Portugal) the place filled up quickly. Our meals—we each had a different kind of fish—was very good, though by the end of the meal I was exhausted from the long day and was more than ready to get in a taxi and head back to the hotel.

On our last day in Portugal, we again headed back to Lisbon. We did a quick tram tour of the older areas of the city, then walked off in the direction of the Alfama. We made into several different churches, none of which struck as as amazing inside. But we spent a while at the tiny church of Santa Luzia. On its walls are panels made of 18th-century azulejos (the traditional blue and white tiles), one of which showed what the Praça do Comercio looked like before the 18th century earthquake and the other showed the siege of Lisbon (and especially the Castelo de Sao Jorge) in 1147. From the church’s gardened terrace are also great views of the Alfama and the Tagus River. We continued up hill a short while to the Miradouro das Portas del Sol, where a street musician was playing fado music on his guitar.

From its balcony there were even more stunning views of the Tagus and the old city of Lisbon as well as a statue of Saint Vincent de Fora (who is Lisbon’s patron saint) holding two ravens (the best-known symbols of Lisbon). Urged on by Kathy’s continual “It’s only three more blocks” (said after every three or four blocks we’d walked) we continued our walk up to Saint George’s Castle, stopping briefly to look at some ancient tiles and later to watch an artist actually making new tiles.

The Castelo de Sao Jorge was very busy on New Year’s Eve as people gathered to celebrate the end of 2007. We walked through the castle’s gardens and courtyards, enjoying glimpses of a different part of Lisbon (including many of the private home gardens) from its heights, and then entered the castle itself. I climbed one of the walls up to what the view from the turrets would be like but it wasn’t much better than from the garden below.

Later, to prove she could do it despite her dislike of heights, Becca also went up on one of the walls.

By then it was beginning to get dark, so we left the castle and headed back down through the Alfama toward the Baixa, stopping at one point to watch swarms of tiny birds (I’d guess a good 200 or so flying together) make unusual shapes in the sky as they rode the currents coming off the Tagus. By the time we arrived back in the Praça do Comercio, lots of people were gathered to hear the performing bands and await the fireworks that would go off nearby over the river at the strike of midnight as people prepared to ring in 2008.

1 comment:

MR said...

Too bad Pestana Palace didn't seem to live up to your expectations. I have heard great things about this hotel, but I'll be sure to stay away from their salted cod if I ever stay there :-)
But Lisbon is great, and if you ever return, be sure to visit Sintra!