The resilient beauty of Lisbon

On November 1, 1755, Lisbon woke up with the rumble of a devastating earthquake. By the end of the day the city was covered with ashes and rubble, stripped of its magnificent buildings and opulent commerce.

What was left? In the words of Alfredo Mesquita: “There was still the Tagus river, blue and bewitching, cloaked in velvet by the crystal clear sky which is studded with stars by night and gilded with sunlight by day. And the noble, melancholic majesty with which the city reclines, its feet bathing in the waters, elegant and regal, on the throne of its seven hills.”

Alfredo Mesquita, Lisboa, Empreza da História de Portugal, Livraria Moderna, 1903.

The Portuguese oranges of Louis XIV

As laranjas Portuguesas de Luis XIV, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2012.

“Portugal,” “Portugal,” cried the street vendors in 17th century Paris. They were selling a novelty fruit: sweet oranges from Portugal. European oranges were bitter, good only to make marmalade.  That all changed when the Portuguese brought sweet-orange trees from India and China. These trees produced the most fashionable fruit in Europe. Portuguese oranges were so expensive, that Moliére used them in his play The Miser to signify extravagance. Louis XIV, who thought that sweet oranges looked like the sun, adopted them as his personal symbol and did not rest until he had his own “orangerie.”

If you visit Portugal, order a freshly squeezed orange juice in an outdoors café in an old neighborhood. Imagine yourself in the 17th century. Enjoy this luxurious drink that only kings and nobles can afford. Doesn’t it taste sweet?

In love with Lisbon

Panoramic views of Lisbon, Luis Pavão, chromogenic prints, 1990.

In 1581 a Spaniard came to Lisbon and fell madly in love with a Portuguese woman. There is nothing unusual about this incident; it happens all the time. What is uncommon, is that this Spaniard was also a great writer: his name is Miguel Cervantes. Here’s how Cervantes describes Lisbon in his novel, The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda:

“Here love and honesty go hand in hand, courtesy never lets arrogance swagger, and bravery keeps frailty away. Its residents are pleasant, polite and discrete in matters of love. This is Europe’s largest city, the gateway to the treasures of the Orient, which from here flow to the world. Its busy harbor accommodates countless vessels and an undulating forest of ship masts. The beauty of the women enchants and arouses, the bravery of the men astonishes. In sum, this is the land that offers the most copious and holy tribute to heaven.’’

We do not have a portrait of the Portuguese woman who enchanted Cervantes, but the photos above show the splendor of the city that so impressed him (if you click on the images, you’ll see them on a larger scale).  Luis Pavão, a wonderful Portuguese photographer, created these panoramic views without any digital gimmickry. He took these photos with a camera that he built using a design proposed by the Lumiére brothers in 1901 .

This is Europe at its best: a place where a Portuguese photographer uses the forgotten plans of two French dreamers to illuminate the words of a Spanish writer who fell in love with Lisbon at first sight.

Click here to see more work by Luis Pavão on his website. You can see a photo of his panoramic camera on the top left side of his homepage.

The tower of Belém

The Belém tower, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2011.

Many guidebooks describe the tower of Belém as a chess piece forgotten on the Tagus river. The poet Fernando Pessoa thought that there is much more to the tower than this first impression. In 1925, he wrote an English-language guide to Lisbon, titled “What the Tourist Should See.” This book, discovered only in 1988, was meant to restore Lisbon to its rightful place as one of the great European cities. Here’s what Pessoa writes about the tower of Belém:

“This marvel of oriental architecture was erected in the Restelo beach, famous as the point from which the ships sailed forth for the Great Discoveries, and was meant for the defense of the river and of the Portuguese capital. It was King Manuel I who ordered its erection; its was built within the river, and the project is due to the great master of “laced” architecture, Francisco de Arruda. It was begun in 1515 and completed six years afterwards. Later the river sank away, from that point, leaving the Tower definitely connected with the shore. […]

The Tower of Belem, seen from the outside, is a magnificent stone-jewel, and it is with astonishment and a growing appreciation that the stranger beholds its peculiar beauty. It is lace, and fine lace at that, in its delicate stonework which glimmers white afar, striking at once the sight of those on board ships entering the river. It is no less beautiful inside; and from its balconies and terraces there is a view of the river and of the sea beyond, which is not easily forgotten.”

Nullum est sine nomine saxum

That’s what the Roman poet Marcus Lucanus wrote about Troy. It means “no stone is without a name.”

Portugal has beautiful scenery, wonderful food, perfect weather. But what makes this country truly unique is its history. Africans, Celts, Jews, Moors, Phoenicians, Romans, Suevi, Visigoths, they all shared this corner of the world. They all left their marks on the Portuguese landscape. Monuments to their triumphs, ruins from their defeats are everywhere. No stone is without a name.


Medieval Arraiolos, Maria Rebelo, gelatin silver print, 2003.

Arraiolos is a picturesque Alentejo village with traditional whitewashed houses and an oval-shaped castle built in 1305.

The town is famous for the production of beautiful needlework rugs. It is also known for the story of an indecisive bride. With her wedding about to start, she could not decide what to wear. She kept hesitating while the guests waited … for two weeks! In the end, she chose to wear only a shepherd’s mantle.

It was well worth the wait to see this Arraiolos bride discover that “less is more” centuries before Mies van der Rohe.

Two Port wine stories

The first story is about the death of Dona Antónia Ferreira’s grandfather. He had a chance encounter with Napoleon’s troops and, eager to show off, addressed the soldiers in impeccable French. The soldiers assumed that he was a deserter from the French army and shot him.

The second story is about Admiral Horatio Nelson. Nelson drank port while he devised his strategy for the battle of Trafalgar. According to legend, he dipped his finger in port wine to draw a map of the fleet positions he later used.

Some might infer from these stories that in times of danger it is a good idea to drink port and a bad idea to speak French. But the lessons from history are always subjective.


Dona Antónia Ferreira lived in turbulent times. She was born in 1811, the year in which Napoleon’s troops finally retreated from Portugal. When she inherited her grandfather’s wine business, another enemy came: the phylloxera epidemic.

Dona Antónia hired thousands of workers to graft her vines into the roots of American vines resistant to the pest. And it worked!

She went on to produce great port wines, plant new vineyards, and make a fortune. She used some of her wealth to endow schools and hospitals, earning the nickname Ferreirinha (little Ferreira) for her generosity.

In 1987, her descendants sold her company to Sogrape, another wine maker. But the brand Casa Ferreirinha endures as a symbol of quality. So, if you see a Ferreirinha bottle in your wine shop, take it home. And make a toast to Dona Antónia who believed that one can plant the seeds of prosperity during hard times.

Quinta das Lágrimas

It’s a plot worthy of Shakespeare. Pedro, the crown prince, falls madly in love with a noble lady called Inês de Castro.  His father, King Afonso IV, opposes this liaison. Pedro ignores the king’s will and has four children with the captivating Inês. In 1355, King Afonso IV orders that Inês be put to death.

According to legend, a fountain sprang from the last tears that Inês shed in Quinta das Lágrimas (the quinta of tears).  In the 18th century an elegant palace was constructed on the quinta. This palace has recently been converted into an exquisite small hotel. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself writing a novel during your stay.

Rua António Augusto Gonçalves, P-3041-901 Coimbra, tel. (239) 802 380, email:, click here for website.

The fate of Portugal

The great poet Luís Vaz de Camões published his masterpiece, the Lusíadas, in 1572. In the first part of this epic ode we learn that the fate of Portugal is being decided in Greece. The Greek gods (called by their Roman names) are divided into two parties. Bacchus is the nemesis of Portugal. With the help of Neptune, he sows unexpected obstacles and unending perils on the path of the Portuguese. But Venus takes up the cause of Portugal. And, with her thoughtful help, the Portuguese show that they can accomplish great things.