Lisbon – Portugal

The first thing that struck me about Lisbon is the immense width of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River), more like a lake, and how all the downtown buildings are attached to each other like four storied walls with windows. They are all built in a perfect grid, starting at the large Praca do Comercio, the main square at the vast river’s edge. There is no church or cathedral anywhere near the square but a heroic monument in the centre of the Marquis de Pombal, who rebuilt this city after the devastating earth quake of 1755. Pombal, a secular pragmatist, ousted the Jesuits but when Maria I came to the throne, she banned him from Lisbon’s soil, being heavily influenced by the Jesuits herself. Since the word terra means both ‘ground’ and ‘earth’, the story goes that the clever marquis packed a crate of soil from outside the city and put it down to step into it when he came back to Lisbon. (Voltaire Voltaire wrote Candide soon after the Lisbon earthquake and held up, as exhibit #1, the senseless death toll of the innocents in that catastrophe as conclusive proof of the absence of any Divine power, and certainly not any benevolent one.)


The grand square is surrounded by symmetrical four and five storied buildings, built over portals, all painted in ocher yellow, the most common colour of the inner city. A 20 m high limestone arch, topped with marble statues, leads off the square into Rue Augusta, the main road which is a traffic free mall, lined with shops and restaurants. The Marquis of Pombal loathed the church and its power but did allow churches to be built in the new downtown as long as they looked exactly like all the other buildings. They can only be identified by a small cross over the door. No bell tower, no glorious spires or steeples or arched windows.

Lisbon is built around seven hills and its steep streets remind me of San Francisco. All the roads and sidewalks are cobbled with limestone and basalt in varying patterns. Main streets are lit by six sided lamps, squares by eight sided ones and minor streets by 4 sided lanterns. Many buildings have multi coloured tiled facades, a reminder of the Moorish past.


Margerita, our lovely, young multi lingual and talented guide led us from the perfectly aligned inner city, up into narrow, winding streets and alleys into the maze of Alfama, the formerly Moorish quarter claiming to be the birthplace of Fado, the Portuguese blues. Fado is a sad and melancholy lament, soldado as they say, sang by passionate singers and accompanied by the 12 string Portuguese guitar, reminiscent of a mandolin, and one or two Spanish guitars. The most famous singer was Amalia Rodrigues who died at 79 in 1999. The government instantly declared three days of national mourning and she was the first woman to be entombed in the national Pantheon. I didn’t understand a word they sang, but I knew the songs were about poverty, love and betrayal, death, misery, loneliness and loss.  No translation necessary.

Almost everybody in Portugal speaks some English, a good thing, since nobody understands Portuguese. The Portuguese are proud of their country, their independence and their culture and are ready to explain it all. It’s a complicated history of monarchies, explorers, the revolution in 1910 and the fascist dictatorship by Zalazar who ruled for 35 years until 1974. People complain about the government, like everywhere else, and Julia, our guide to the fairy tale Pena Palace in Sintra told us that she cannot afford to have kids and that many young people move to other parts of Europe for a better life. The minimum wage in Portugal is € 650 per month, not enough for rent, food and kids. For the better off class of higher earners, the taxes can be as high a 45 percent as one fellow told us at a beach side restaurant.  ‘It’s a fact of life’, he said with a fatalistic shrug.


The opulent Pena palace and the gigantic gothic cathedral and monastery at Belem, both of them tourist attractions today, are reminders of the royal and religious kleptocracies that have ruled the roost in Portugal. First the church stole and owned everything, then the conquistadores plundered and enslaved half of Africa and Brazil, in the name of the cross and king and then the monarchs eventually disowned the church and stole everything for themselves. Not for the people, not for the common good but for their own self-glorification and aggrandization, hence the lavish palaces. Portugal is awash with massive heaps of stones and rocks, from castles to palaces, churches and aqueducts, fortifications and roads, all hewn and shaped, piled high and wide, built to last. Steeped in history, fiercely proud of their heritage, language and their heroes. Portuguese is a Latin language but heavily influenced by Arabic and even Russian. They claim Christopher Columbus as their own – as do the Italians and Spanish – and they don’t want to talk about Magellan who was Portuguese but couldn’t get a job at home and had to sail for the Spanish crown. Christiana Ronaldo is a revered saint as was Eusebio, who is also entombed at the national pantheon. Football or soccer is on the telly 24 hours a day in every restaurant and bar.

As Raffa, the 25 year old guide, at the Bacalhoa winery told us, the Portuguese drink the most wine of any European country, more than the French, the Italians or, god forbid, the Spanish. Wine is in their blood and the two fortified wines, Port and Moscatel, are grown, crafted, stored and drank mostly right at home. We did our best to keep up and when a bottle of good wine costs below € 10, it’s hard not to indulge. You can buy table wine for as low as € 2 in any corner grocery. That’s for the cork, a label, the shipping, the bottle itself and the juice that’s in it. Oh yeah, cork. The national tree, of the oak family, whose bark can be harvested every 9 years or so and has a myriad of uses besides the cork in the bottle. And no, apparently there is no shortage of cork, but silicon or plastic are cheaper.


In front of the Bacalhoa winery are several cobalt blue statues, amongst them a blue replica of some Terra Cotta soldiers and horses from Qin Shi Huang’s army. (The original 2200 year old burial sites uncovered about 8000 soldiers, 130 chariots with 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses). On the winery grounds are also several ancient olive trees, the oldest of which is 2600 years old and still bearing fruit.

Portugal has fantastic highways; the only drawback is that they are toll roads. To drive the 300 km from Lisbon to the Algarve and back cost us about € 100 in tolls. Tavira was our town of choice in the Algarve, nestled alongside the Gilao river which floods and ebbs twice a day, stranding the small boats in the mud half the time. The river delta is fronted by several long sand banks, which formed in the quake of 1755, and they turn into the Mecca of the sun seekers in the hot summers and are lined with beach front bars and acres of lounge chairs.

The most interesting attraction for me was the Camera Obscura, one of maybe a dozen left in the world. It was built and presented by Clive, a retired observatory scientist. He constructed the camera on top of the old water tower, right next to the castle on the highest point above the town. The camera uses sunlight and won’t work in the rain. It’s a contraption made of mirrors and a lens and with the help of pullies and levers, Clive projects a live vista of the town below onto a concave, 8 feet wide screen. We could watch cars zipping along roads, tourists and locals walking across the Roman bridge, so named after its architect, Roman.

We drove through Faro, the largest town along the southern coast, had a beach side lunch and drove the 300 km back to our friends’ house, south of Lisbon, near the town of Sesimbra on the Atlantic coast.


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