Lisbon: Day One

View of Downtown Lisbon from Elevador de Santa Justa

Fibre glass art on display

25 April Birdge

Downtown Lisbon

Today, Lisbon is a small European capital of a small country. But it was not always so. Once upon a time it was a grand city, counting among the finest in Europe, and presiding over an empire that spread thousands of miles across the oceans. In fact, at one point of time it dwarfed even Madrid and the joint Royal court of Spain and Portugal was moved to Lisbon. However, over the centuries the internecine royal conflicts, a declining overseas empire and rivalry with other European powers led to its gradual decline. The Earthquake of 1755 finally destroyed much of the ancient city. It was rapidly rebuilt and with the latest technology of the time to withstand further such shocks. The Independence of Brazil in 1822 routed the Portuguese empire completely. Much like the Indian Independence routed the British empire a century later. It clung on to tiny bits of colonies across Africa, India and China, but the golden age of Portuguese exploration was long past. Its alliance with the Britishers managed to keep the empire alive for another century and a half. Portugal survived the massive destruction of the World Wars by staying neutral. After the overthrow of the monarchy it clung to a tenuous right wing dictatorship that believed in status quo. This meant that till the 1960s Portugal was one of the poorest countries in western Europe and lacked modernization. All that changed in 1974 with the advent of Carnation Revolution and restoration of the monarchy. Since, then Portugal has made rapid strides in economy, health and modernization. Yet, it remains the backbencher among western European countries. So, as one strolls the cobblestoned streets of downtown Lisbon, one might wonder at the decay but the grandeur of one of the largest empires ever built is still present. Small it might be, but not insignificant.
Royalty of Portugal

Torre de Belem

Painting on the coaches: details

Tile depicting Flowers at Jeronimos Monastry

We had allotted precious three days for Lisbon. In an effort to seamlessly see its wonders, I had invested in the pricey “Lisboa Card”. It entitled me to limitless travel on all forms of public transport, and preferential entry to most of the monuments and sights of the Lisbon. While one has to do a phenomenal amount of sightseeing to recover the cost of the “Lisbon Card”, the real benefit is in the time it saves by cutting the queues on the major attractions! Unfortunately, the collection of the card itself from the Visit Portugal office at Praca de Comercio is a time taking task. Once the card is collected, we make our way to the Belem district. It houses several landmarks within a walkable distance. The Jeronimos Monastry and the Church are the first site of Lisbon that any tourist website mentions. The entry to the Church is free. It houses among other things, the final resting place of Vasco da Gama. One is indeed reminded of the vast Churches and covenants of Old Goa as one enters this crowded church where the remains of Vasco da Gama are preserved. One tends to contrast it with the staid and simple St Francis Church in Cochin where he remained buried for fourteen years before his remains were transferred to the Jeronimos Church. The adjoining Monastry is massive and is much stiffly ticketed. Thanks to the Lisboa Card we have a hassle free entry. The massive arched corridors, ornately carved pillars, huge murals and the atmosphere is truly humbling. It is curious that such a grand place was the residence of monks of the the Order of Saint Jerome. The adjoining Museum of Anthropology is housed in another grand building. Photography is not permitted. For me the best exhibit was a Egyptian sarcophagus. There are several others depicting the history of Portugal from the ancient times.
Torre De Belem

Miniature Coach at Museum at Coaches

Jeronimos Monastry

Ceiling of Jeronimos Monastry

A 15 minute walk takes us to Torre de Belem. It used to be the residence of governor of Lisbon and provided a vantage point for observing all the ships from lands as far away as Brazil, Mozambique and Macao, coming up the Tagus River. Again the Lisboa Card rescues us from the serpentine queue. The tower itself is very plain but does have stupendous views from the top. But it requires climbing a claustrophobic vertiginous staircase which has a tightly controlled access to avoid any stampede. It is afternoon and the bright May sun is shining mercilessly. Yet we trudge nearly a kilometer and half away to our next destination the Museum of Coaches. It has several well preserved coaches from the Portuguese and Spanish royalty. The intricate art and the upholstery of the coach used to reflect the social status of the individual. The art varied from Greek and Roman mythology to landscape paintings. There were coaches for the children, for wives, concubines and even illegitimate children of the Kings! The Museum also hosts a gallery of caricatures of all the Kings of Portugal (including three of Spain who were also Kings of Portugal). It’s a humorous take on perhaps one of the sternest royalties of its time.
Ancient Red Tram of Lisbon

Remains of Vasco da Gama

Jeronimo Monastry

Our next stop is the Pilar 7. It is a pillar rising 26 stories high and overlooks the April 25th Bridge over the River Tagus. The bridge was built in the Salazar era and used to bear his name. After the Carnation Revolution, it was renamed 25th April bridge to commemorate the day of the revolution. One can only marvel at the engineering from such height. The views are commanding and a glass bottomed perch literally gives one a feeling of walking on air!
We find an Indian restaurant and eat anoverpriced Chicken Biryani but it does taste authentic. A short commuter train ride takes us back to the Praca de Comercio.  Here we manage to take a red colored historic tram of the picturesque Alfama district. Alfama reminds one of the brightly colored massive houses of Altinho in Panjim. The tourist tram is sort of a scam. Lisbon was one of the earliest cities in the world to install trams. Modern trams go the same way as the brightly painted Red, Yellow or Green historic ones and at a fraction of a price. Nevertheless, since one is a tourist, the ultimate “been there – done that” entices one to shell out the 50 Euros for the hour long ride. Of course, there is a commentary in English which one strains to hear over the cluck and cackle of the Tram. Some of the sections are very steep. The tram drops some sand over the tracks for additional traction as it passes over these sections.
Jeronimos Monastry ceiling

Lisbon has several “Lifts” or Elevadors that take one several stories up for a birds eye view of the city. The city is spread over several hills and like other European capitals does not have many skyscrapers. Hence, the ancient Elevadors have their charm. Only thing, that there are dozens of tourists waiting for the experience. And this time the Lisboa Card doesn’t cut the queue. We make our way to the Elevador de Santa Justa. After waiting for an excruciating 45 minutes between two groups of Chinese tourists it is our turn finally! The view is worth the wait. The lights of downtown Lisbon glow like jewels. And it indeed looks like a charming medieval city! After nearly 10 hours of continuous sight seeing and walking nearly 12 kilometres we head back to our hotel and slump in our beds. Tommorrow is another day!

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Sonalika kar said…
Nice read along with great pics!!
Unknown said…
Absorbing. A virtual tour with the pictures.
Dishki said…
The pictures are beautiful and give a glimpse of glorious past. The Lifts to give the birds eye view of the ancient city must have been one of a kind experience.
ED said…
Splendiferous !
Shashank said…
Great place and equally good pictures. Epic description by you. Truly impressive

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