Worshiping the sun in Belém

MAAT Composit

If you’re visiting Lisbon, we recommend spending an afternoon in the Belém neighborhood. We like to start by sitting at one of the tables of the old Confeitaria de Belém to enjoy an espresso with a warm pastel de Belém. We eat the pastry slowly, taking small bites while the aroma of cinnamon and vanilla surround us and the taste of cream, eggs and sugar melts in our mouth.

We are then ready to stroll by the river to the Belém tower. Before the 1755 earthquake, the tower was close to the middle of the river. It was equipped with cannons meant to protect the city from pirates. But instead of scaring marauders, the beautiful tower made Lisbon more alluring and desirable.

Our next stop is the Monument to the Discoveries. It marks the point of departure of the caravels that sailed into the unknown seas to discover new lands.  From there, we cross the garden surrounded by olive trees to visit the Jerónimos Monastery. It is a majestic monument that celebrates the age of discovery in a gothic style that makes exuberant use of maritime motifs.

After spending much of the afternoon visiting the past, it’s time to look at the future. We like to arrive 45 minutes before sunset to the next destination: the new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, known as MAAT. Designed by British architect Amanda Levet, the sensuous building looks like a ship that could sail into space. Its roof has become a favorite destination for sun worshipers. Standing there, we see the Tagus river change into orange vests to praise the star that divides night and day while the white museum glows in the golden light. Five centuries after the construction of the Belém tower the MAAT makes Lisbon feel young and desirable again.

The MAAT is located at Av. Brasília, Central Tejo in Belém, Lisbon. Click here for the MAAT’s website. 

 

 

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A Portuguese chair

Composit Chairs

Late in the afternoon, groups of friends gather in cafés and esplanades all over Portugal to enjoy the last rays of sun and talk about their lives. They seat on metal chairs painted in bright colors that create a festive atmosphere.

These chairs were designed half a century ago by a craftsman called Gonçalo Rodrigues dos Santos. They are elegant but sturdy and can be stacked for storage. These virtues make them perfect pieces of urban furniture for enjoying leisure and celebrating friendships. If you visit Portugal be sure to try them!

The Gonçalo chair is produced by Arcalo. Click here for their web site.

Lisbon wakes up

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Rossio, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, December 2016.

We envy the early risers. They see Lisbon wake up, dress in pale blue light, put on a cinnamon fragrance and get ready to enchant its visitors.

 

 

We’re often asked about the drawings used on our blog. They’re the work of architect Rui Barreiros Duarte. For the first time, he’s selling a few original drawings like the one on this post. The sizes are around 60 cm x 40 cm and the prices around 200 euros. If you’re interested, email apprbd@gmail.com .

Portuguese pousadas

composit-pousadas

It was so hard to travel in old times! There were no hotels or restaurants. Some towns had modest inns where guests could rest and eat a simple meal. But on many nights, travelers slept under the stars hoping they would find a village in the morning where they could buy some food.

The only way to travel in style was to be a member of the royal family or high nobility. You would then have access to an informal network of palaces, castles, and convents that took great pride in their hospitality. The arrival of an illustrious guest was a cause for celebration. A banquet would be prepared and the best wine brought out of the cold cellars and warmed by the fireplace.

The meals ended with elaborate desserts which William Beckford, a well-traveled English nobleman, described as “an admirable dish of miracles, well seasoned with the devil and prettily garnished with angels and moonbeams.”

This informal network of convents and palaces worked well in Portugal until the 19th century. But after the monastic orders were abolished in 1834, convents felt into disrepair. In 1910, the monarchy was abolished and many noble families could no longer maintain their palaces.

The tradition of hospitality was never lost, because it is an integral part of the Portuguese character. But the beautiful buildings and the recipes perfected for centuries in their kitchens seemed condemned to oblivion.

In the 1940s, the Portuguese government started buying old palaces, castles and monasteries to convert them into historical hotels called pousadas. Vintage furniture was restored. Old recipe books were dusted and their secrets put back into use.

With their fairy-tale locations, these hotels offer unforgettable experiences. You’ll find great food and wine, the best dessert tables in the country, and a staff that treats every guest as an opportunity to celebrate the traditions of Portugal.

Here’s a link to the pousadas’ website. You can find a large collection of photos of the pousadas at www.mariarebelophotography.com.

 

The Guimarães pousada

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The narrow, meandering road that leads to the Guimarães pousada is good at keeping secrets; it gave us no glimpse of what this historical hotel looks like. When we arrived late in the afternoon, we were stunned to see the imposing granite facade of the church adjacent to the monastery bathed in golden light. Did the architects position the church to benefit from the sun’s exposure or did the sun move so it can shine on the magnificent building?

The origin of this monastery is intertwined with the early days of Portugal as a nation. It was built in the 12th century in fulfillment of a promise. Dona Mafalda, the wife of the first king of Portugal, vowed to fund the construction of a monastery for the order of Saint Augustine if she gave birth without complications. The monastery was named after the patron saint of expectant mothers, Santa Marinha.

In the 16th century, the monastery was transferred to the order of Saint Jerome. The monks offered university degrees in the arts and the humanities that attracted students from the royalty and nobility.  It was during this time that the chapter room, the place where monks read chapters of the bible, and the famous Saint Jerome terrace, an outdoors meditation space, were built.

In 1834, when the state abolished the religious orders, the monastery was sold and became a private residence. In the 1950s, a fire destroyed part of the building and turned it into a ruin.

In the 1970s, the Portuguese government bought the monastery and hired architect Fernando Távora to convert it into an historical hotel. Távora did a masterful job of restoring the old and integrating it with the new.

Every morning we took a walk in the romantic woods that surround the pousada. It is a place with no traces of modern civilization, where damsels in silk dresses and knights in shining armor would not be out of place. We returned to the pousada summed by the chanting of the waters that flow from the fountain in the Saint Jerome terrace. Every minute spent in this terrace was a moment of zen.

The pousada has a proud gastronomic tradition. Its kitchen staff has accompanied the president on foreign diplomatic visits to showcase Portugal’s culinary heritage. The restaurant, decorated with elegant blue tile panels, occupies the space that was once the cellar. We tried two delicious entrées: baby goat rice and roasted black-pork shoulder. They were followed by an artisanal ice cream based on a traditional dessert from Guimarães: toucinho do céu. It is the kind of divine treat you would expect from a convent.

The Guimarães pousada is a history lesson, a gourmet destination, and the perfect place to rest and recharge.

The Guimarães Pousada is located at Largo Domingos Leite de Castro, Lugar da Costa, Guimarães tel. 351 253-5112-49. Click here for the pousadas’ website.

 

A school lunch

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In 1940, the Portuguese government announced its “centennial plan,” a program to build a large number of primary schools. The schools in the north of the country, designed by Rogério de Azevedo, look austere with their granite and schist exteriors. The schools in the south, designed by Raul Lino, have graceful arches and whitewashed walls. Both designs used elements of the vernacular architecture and became integral parts of the Portuguese landscape.

With the number of children in decline, some of these schools have been closing. The school in the village of Cachopos near Comporta in Alentejo closed in the late 1990s but found new life as a restaurant appropriately called A Escola (the school).

The building is located in a beautiful woodland. Our arrival was greeted by the chirping of birds and perfumed by the scent of eucalyptus.

As we sat at the table remembering learning the three Rs, a plate of marinated rabbit and a carrot salad arrived. The menu has lots of great offerings, including cuttlefish rice with shrimp, fried eels, pasta with sea bass, stewed partridge, and rabbit pie with pine nut rice. The portions are generous and the food is delicious. A Escola is a great place to enjoy the simple, hearty cuisine of Alentejo.

On the school wall there’s an old map of the Portuguese empire. Those vast possessions of land and sea are long gone. But the empire of the senses–Portugal’s wonderful culinary tradition–continues to thrive.

A Escola is located at Estrada Nacional 253, Cachopos, Alcácer do Sal, tel. 265 612 816.

 

Bolo Bolacha

Bolo de bolacha

Plato thought that the circle was a symbol of the divine. Alberti, an Italian architect, considered it the perfect shape. But no one was more obsessed with the circle than Guarino Guarini, a brilliant Baroque architect. His buildings are made of concave and convex spaces delineated by circles. One of his most important works, the church of Santa Maria da Divina Providência in Lisbon, was famous for its undulating facade. Sadly, the church was destroyed by the 1755 earthquake.

By happenstance, the circular shapes included in Guarini’s treatise, Architettura Civile, resurfaced in Portugal in the 20th century in the design of the popular bolo bolacha (biscuit cake). This cake is made with the circular Maria biscuits invented in 1874 by an English baker to celebrate the marriage of the Duke of Edinburgh with the Russian Duchess Maria Alexandrovna. To make the cake, the biscuits are dipped in strong coffee, layered with buttercream and then assembled according to designs that would make Guarini proud.

If you see bolo bolacha on a restaurant menu, give it a try. Like the circle, it is simple, but divine.