Lisbon, Portugal: The Art of Living

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There are metropolises such as Lisbon—genteel, regal, urbane, and refined—where seasoned travelers such as I not only want to visit, but also stay for long and even live in. Here, I came not to conquer but to be wooed and enchanted. At Lisbon, art is not just displayed behind a velvet rope or placed upon a pedestal; here it is lived, savored, and held close to the heart.

Harlequin-colored Renaissance tiles decorate the facades of quaint and charming homes. Antiquated trams of wood and brass slowly wind their way through the medieval cobblestone streets. People nonchalantly savor their coffee with confectionaries made with secret, centuries-old recipes. Moorish castle turrets perch on the hilltop. The plaintive singing of Fado, the old country’s music, mingles with the sounds of jazz, classical music, and bossa nova performed on the streets. Even its alluring women are works of art. I could see myself living here for the rest of my life.

An explorer’s home

Lisbon has long attracted and nurtured the world’s greatest adventurers. Natives of the city trace their ancestry to the Celts, the indigenous people whose ancestors wandered much of Europe and settled as far as Ireland. Phoenicians, ancient mariners from Lebanon who gave the world the modern alphabet, established and named this port city Allis Ubbo, meaning “safe harbor,” from which its modern name evolved. Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, and Moors have all claimed this land as part of their empires because of Lisbon’s ideal location at the confluence of the Tagus River and the Atlantic Ocean on the western face of the Iberian Peninsula. After Crusaders forcibly returned the city to Christian rule during the Reconquista, the Portuguese kingdom arose, setting the stage for great explorers such as Vasco de Gama, the first European to sail to India, to venture from Lisbon’s ports and colonize the far reaches of the globe. Even Ferdinand Magellan, the explorer whose expedition first circumnavigated the Earth for the Spanish crown, was Portuguese. At the height of its power, the Portuguese empire spanned as far as Brazil, Timor, Mozambique, Angola, Goa (India), Macau (China), and Malacca (Malaysia). Going to Portugal for the first time, I felt I was retracing the steps of Magellan, whose life ended when he dared attempt to conquer my country, the Philippines.

On my plane flight, I had my first pleasant brush with Portuguese hospitality. Seat mates Raul Perestrelo and Louise Allison, residents of the Portuguese wine-growing island of Madeira, enthusiastically revealed to me a few attractions not on any of the travel articles I had read. They also confirmed the soundness of my itinerary and importance of the sites I planned to visit.

I observed that most of Lisbon’s clustered in two areas: the waterfront parish of Santa Maria de Belém (Mother Mary of Bethlehem) and the area in and around downtown Baixa Pombalina.

Santa Maria de Belém

I made an effort to ride one of the antiquated trams at least once to get to Belem. With nautical-like brass helms and levers as well as lacquered wooden floors and panels, these tramways have been in service since 1901.

First stop was the Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Coach Museum), where the royal carriages of Portugal’s monarchy were  kept in resplendent glory. This was the most must-see among Lisbon’s many historical museums, according to Raul and Louise. Gilded cherubs erupted from ornate filigree. Every detail, including stirrups and spurs, was rendered floridly. The museum itself, once the Royal Horse Riding Arena, still possessed the original trompe l’oeil décor on its ceilings and walls that gave it the illusion of depth and detail.

Next door was the Palácio Nacional de Belém (Belem Palace), once the royal residence of the king and now the office of the president. A set of five pink buildings atop a small hill that overlooks the rest of Belem, the presidential palace is open to visitors only on weekends. I was told that the solemn changing of the honor guards in full regalia, which includes the world’s only mounted cavalry marching band that performs while galloping, was held every third Sunday of each month at 11am. Sadly, my stay did not coincide with either this grand pageantry or the palace’s opening. Fronting the palácio is the Praça Afonso de Albuquerque (Afonso de Albuquerque Square)—a small French-style garden, at the center of which is a pedestal with a statue on top dedicated to the “conqueror of India” for whom the park is named after.

A few steps further along Rua de Belem is the original Pastéis de Belém, a pastry shop famous for its pastel de nata or egg tart. A seemingly humble confectionary, the egg tart has been perfected and elevated by Pastéis de Belém into a heavenly yet orgiastic experience. With even my most gentle nibble, the crisp delicate glaze gave way to a sumptuous creamy center. No other egg tart in the world, not even in Portugal or Lisbon itself, has thus far compared with those eaten fresh at the original Pastéis de Belém. I couldn’t help consuming four in one sitting with my coffee.

The pastry owed its origin to a 19th century revolution that ousted not only the king from the palace but also the monks from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Heironymite Monastery) next door. Legend has it that someone, in order to save the monastery from financial ruin, thought of putting to good use the Brazilian sugar cane that arrived at the waterfront and was processed at a refinery next door to create the now-famous egg tarts. To this day, Pastéis de Belém’s recipe remains a secret. The pastry shop, itself a landmark worthy of attention, is decorated in tiles glazed with cobalt blue illustrations that harken to the gentility and pomp of the royal court.

The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is the grandest piece of architectural art in Lisbon. Its height rises above all other buildings in Belem and its length spans beyond the entire Praça do Império (Empire Square) adjacent to its south. Built in the 14th century, it was crafted in the unique ornate Gothic style known as Manueline. Named after King Manuel I under whose reign the style flourished, Manueline possesses a seemingly whimsical flair—the very opposite of Gothic architecture elsewhere in Europe with their dour saints, haunting gargoyles, and barbed buttresses. The monastery derived its name from the monastic Order of Saint Jerome. Inside laid the tomb of Vasco de Gama and other great men of Lisbon.

Curiously, above the grand south portal was the cross of the feared Ordem Militar de Cristo (Military Order of Christ), borne of the remnants of the Knights Templar after they were massacred on orders by Pope Clement V and King Philip IV of France who both coveted the Templar’s great wealth. (The Templars invented credit banking.) Protected by the Portuguese crown for their alliance during the Reconquista that freed this land from the Moors, the Order of Christ possessed many of the treasures and secrets of the Templars. Among the Order’s members was Vasco de Gama, notorious for his cruelty against Muslims as well as for his fearlessness and audacity in the high seas.

Acclaimed as a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO,) the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos now houses the Museu Nacional de Arqueologia (National Archaeological Museum) and the Museu da Marinha (Maritime Museum.)

Another beloved World Heritage Site was the Torre de Belém that stood by the Tagus River. It possessed the same Manueline architecture as the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, only more whimsical. In contrast to the massive monastery, the tower seemed small and toy-like. Even its brass canons seemed puny. Pom-pom like spheres dotted its spiralled spires, evoking the carnival gaiety of a harlequin’s hat. The tower’s gnarled white limestone, same as those used on the monastery, gave an impression of softness, as if the entire structure was wrought of sugar.

On the way to the Torre de Belém from the Mosteiro dos Jerónimo, I encountered the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries.) A modern angular edifice rising at the very edge of the waterfront and pointed at the Atlantic Ocean, the monument paid tribute to the fearless Portuguese seafarers who opened the world for Europe during the Age of Exploration. Framing it in the background was the Ponte 25 de Abril (April 25th Bridge.) Once known as Ponte Salazar, it was renamed after the date of the 1974 peaceful Carnation Revolution that returned Portugal to democracy. The longest suspension bridge in Europe, it was identical to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, even possessing the same ochre color. In contrast, the most important cultural attraction in all of Belem was thoroughly modern. Among the essential art destinations of the world, one must include Lisbon’s Museu Colecção Berardo (Berardo Collection Museum), the latest addition to the Centro Cultural de Belém (Cultural Center of Belem). The cultural center’s plain marble exterior gives no hint of the great artworks contained within.

Inside, were masterpieces of contemporary art by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, and Salvador Dalí, to name a few. From abstract expressionism to surrealism, from pop art to minimalism, the collection represented many of the most important artists of these modern movements. Named after the business magnate best known for his Madeira wines, the privately-owned Berardo Collection was made public in 2007.

Baixa Pombalina

Baixa, meaning “downtown,” has also been known as Pombalina, after the 1st Marquess of Pombal, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, who rebuilt the area using the world’s first quake-resistant construction methods and standards, known as pombaline, after a catastrophic earthquake devastated much of Baixa in 1755. An extremely hilly yet highly urbane area where grand historical buildings shadowed the narrow cobblestone streets plied by tramcars and funiculars, Baixa came alive with the sound of music students performing jazz and classical music at bookstores and al fresco cafes, shops selling both designer brands and unique artisanal handicrafts found nowhere else, colorful Brazilian expatriates joyously protesting the lavish spending on the Football World Cup and the Olympics back home, and numerous monuments and water fountains and medieval churches waiting to be revealed at every corner and bend.

Baixa is a compact historical area where all the attractions are within walking distance, that is, if one has the legs for it. Just a few strides up Baixa’s steep can leave the less-than-athletic traveler panting. I imagined many people wishing for an elevator that would rise in the middle of the street to take them to the nearby hills that towered just above. And that is just what Elevador de Santa Justa is.

Constructed of riveted wrought iron in the neo-gothic style by French-Portuguese engineer Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard, the Elevador de Santa Justa was reminiscent of another 19th century European landmark, Gustav Eiffel’s Tower in Paris. It rose from the inclined street of Rua de Santa Justa to the cliff side of the Largo do Carmo (Carmo Square) 45 meters above. The wood panelled and tile-floored elevator car carried almost 30 people at a time. The iron structure mimicked the pointed gothic arches and scrolling baroque cornices of more traditional masonry. A spiral staircase at the top led to a view deck with a spectacular panorama of the city. At the top, an iron plank led me past the ruins of the Carmo convent—another casualty during the earthquake of 1755 and today an archaeological museum—to Largo do Carmo. But I didn’t exit just yet. There was the quintessential experience of dining and sipping coffee at this scenic vantage beside the convent at the Bella Lisa Elevador Restaurant, an Italian restaurant at the heart Baixa.

As evening came, the bars and restaurants of downtown lit up. Highly recommended was dinner at Adega Machado, acclaimed for its Fado performances as well as its fine Portuguese cuisine.

Derived from the Latin word for destiny, Fado has long been the anthem of star-crossed lovers and ill-fated romances since it came about in the 19th century. Lute and classical guitar accompanied plaintive singing. These impassioned yet mournful performances demanded solemnity and respect. Lights were dimmed, audiences were hushed, and flash photography and video were forbidden. Tears and rapturous applause, however, could not be helped.

Another must-see was the Pavilh-o Chines or Chinese pavilion, one of the world’s most fantastic bars. More than a drinking place, it was a museum crammed in every nook and cranny with antiques, curios, and artifacts from paintings and busts to toy collections, from Second World War memorabilia to pop culture tidbits. It was authentic, organic, yet fantastic and endlessly intriguing. I found myself starring at the wall and ceilings as I repeatedly wandered through its many rooms with a beer mug in my hand.

One attraction of Lisbon literally towers above all else: the moorish hilltop citadel of Castelo de São Jorge (Castle of Saint George.) From its strategic vantage, one surveys a commanding view of the entire city. According to legend, Martim Moniz, one of the Christian knights besieging the castle during the Reconquista, chanced upon an open door and threw himself into the breach at the cost of his own life to keep it from being shut, allowing his fellow crusaders to successfully storm the castle. Since then the fortress has been named after the legendary saintly knight who slew a dragon to rescue a damsel.

From modern art to medieval bastions, Lisbon generously offered me its rich cultural life. As enthralling as it was experiencing it all, it left me with a heavy heart as the sad melodies of Fado lingered in my ear. Such is the tragedy of love, that a traveler such as I must depart a place such as Lisbon. I promised my love I would be back.

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