An ancient esplanade

Being a tourist in Alfama, the neighborhood of St. Jorge’s castle in Lisbon, can be exhausting. After a few hours of walking up and down the narrow streets, we deserve to stop for a refreshment. There’s no better place to enjoy a cold, draft beer than the esplanade at Cerca Moura. That’s the name of the defensive wall first built by the Visigoths and then rebuilt by the Moors. Here you have the same same view of the river Tagus that was once enjoyed by Romans, Moors, Suevi, and Visigoths. But, unlike them, you don’t have to be on the lookout for hoards of invaders.

Cerca Moura, Largo das Portas do Sol 4, Lisbon, tel. 21-887-4859.

A medieval battle

Batalha, Maria Rebelo, digital print image, 2012.

When King Ferdinand died, his daughter Beatriz, wife of the king of Castille, inherited the Portuguese throne. The people rebelled at the prospect of Castillian domination and proclaimed John, half brother of Ferdinand, king of Portugal.

In 1385, a Castillian army with 31,000 men marched towards Lisbon to enforce the rights of Queen Beatriz. A Portuguese army with 6,500 men marched to their encounter. The battle, one of the most important in medieval warfare, took place in Aljubarrota, near the town of Leiria. The Portuguese chose their positions carefully, digging ditches that prevented the Castilian cavalry from advancing. Against all odds, Portugal emerged victorious.

King John went on to marry Philippa of Lancaster and have seven children who brought Portugal great glory. One of them is Henry the Navigator.

To express his gratitude for the miraculous victory at Aljubarrota, King John built the Monastery of Batalha. If you’re traveling in the center of Portugal, don’t miss the chance to visit this beautiful monument that marks the beginning of Portugal’s golden age.

Rossio’s wild memories

Rossio, Maria José Rebelo, digital print image, 2012.

Rossio, one of Lisbon’s main plazas, is an aristocratic lady who has seen it all: prosperity, peace, poverty, and bloodshed. She also remembers crazy times, when bullfights were staged in the middle of the plaza. And that day in 1515! King Manuel had arranged a duel in Terreiro do Paço between an elephant and a rhinoceros. When the elephant saw the other beast, it broke its cage and fled to Rossio!

She remembers the story of the statue of D. Pedro IV, King of Portugal and Emperor of Brazil. His daughter, D. Maria II, inaugurated a monument that remained unfinished for 14 years. Finally, in 1867, a high column was built and a regal statue placed on top. A statue of emperor Maximilian was in Lisbon in transit to Mexico, when news arrived that Maximilian had been shot. Rumor has it that the statue was bought at a discount and used in Rossio. It was a fine way to save money, since all emperors look alike atop a high column.

But all that is the past. What matters is that every day Rossio is full of young people, and that their dreams can fill the future.

Portugal’s navigators

The centerpiece of the 1940 Portuguese World Fair was a large plaster sculpture celebrating Portugal’s age of discovery. Two decades later, this sculpture was rebuilt in cement and stone. It has a terrace on top that you can reach by elevator. It is well worth the climb to enjoy the magnificent view of Lisbon.

The monument is shaped like a ship prowl. Both sides are crowded with statues of monarchs, sailors, scientists, missionaries, writers, and artists. They’re all jostling for a good position on the narrow decks, thinking that, if they’re going to stand still until the end of time, they might as well get a nice view of the Tagus river.

Prince Henry the Navigator secured the prime spot. He stands right in front of the monument with a stern look on his face. Some say that he’s thinking about the perils that Portuguese explorers had to endure. But a more popular theory is that he’s simply afraid of being pushed into the river. Despite his nautical fame, Prince Henry never learned to swim.

The cape at the end of the world

When the Greek geographer Ptolomeu mapped the world in 2 A.C., Cabo da Roca, Europe’s most western point, was the end of the world. Today we know that the world does not end here. But the cape, located 42 km northwest of Lisbon, is still very much worth visiting. It is a place of stunning beauty created by the warmth of the sun, the power of the wind, and the vastness of the ocean.

Dreaming of Sintra

Sintra is a village near Lisbon where Portuguese monarchs used to seek respite from the Summer heat. It is a place like no other, with its lush vegetation and fairy-tale palaces. The National Palace (shown above) is the oldest and most historically significant. It was remodeled so many times that it looks like a visual dictionary of Gothic, Manueline and Moorish styles. The Pena Palace is the newest and most romantic. Built in the 19th century, it sits on top of a hill where, in ancient times, the Romans worshiped the moon.

On the way to Pena you can visit a 9th century Moorish castle with wonderful views to the surrounding region. From here you can get a glimpse of other palaces, Monserrate, Seteais (an 18th century palace converted into a luxury hotel), and Quinta da Regaleira. They are all worth visiting.

Staying in Sintra is a privilege. In the morning, you can see Pena while the fog hides the modern world and brings back the 19th century. And at night, you can walk to Seteais to see the moon paint the hill with silver light, waiting to be worshiped.

Tram number 28

One of Lisbon’s hallmarks are the “eléctricos,” the yellow trams that have helped residents negotiate the city’s narrow streets and steep hills since 1901. A very popular way to see Lisbon is to board tram number 28.

You can make Campo de Ourique your first stop and have a wonderful lunch at Tasca da Esquina. Save some room for dessert because, around the corner, you can eat a slice of life-changing chocolate cake. Don’t drink coffee yet; the tram takes you to Chiado where you can have an espresso at Brasileira, one of poet Fernando Pessoa’s favorite cafés.

Next, the 28 goes downtown. You can stroll in Rossio and sit in the esplanade of Café Nicola, enjoying the views and drinking another cup of coffee. Then, walk to Terreiro do Paço through Rua do Ouro (goldsmith street) or Rua da Prata (silversmith street). In Terreiro do Paço you can contemplate the Tagus river and have yet another coffee at Martinho da Arcada, another Fernando Pessoa favorite.

Now that you are fully caffeinated, board the 28 to go uphill to Alfama, the only neighborhood that survived the 1755 earthquake. You can walk to St. Jorge’s castle and enjoy the sunset views. Then, back to Chiado, where you can have a great dinner at Cantinho do Avilez, followed by some ice cream at Santini. As the day ends,  you’ll realize that the tram 28 is much more fun than the Orient Express.

The Berlenga island

The Berlenga is one of the crown jewels of the Atlantic Ocean. It is surrounded by small, diamond-shaped islands, adorned by emerald waters, and decorated with sparkling crystal caves. It is a place loved by birds of all stripes. Not just sparrows, crows, pidgeons, seagulls, woodcocks, and turtledoves, but also rare birds with unpronounceable Latin names, like ruticcilia tithys and puffinus kuhlii.

The island is close enough to be visible from the coast, but far enough to be shrouded in mystery.  Fishermen attribute to it all sorts of mystical powers. “Expect good weather if there’s fog on the island and rain if it’s clear,” they say.  But ask a fisherman whether the Berlenga inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds, and he will shrug his shoulders. The island does not need another legend. It is a place where, throughout the centuries, treasures were buried, pirates conspired, and lives were lost in harrowing shipwrecks.

In the Summer, there is a regular ferry between Peniche and the Berlenga. You can visit the 17th century fort (shown in the photo), bathe on white sand beaches with crystalline water, and chart a boat to go around the island. It is a grand adventure.

You can catch amazing sea bass in Berlenga’s waters, but you have to know where to cast your line. Ask a fisherman for the best place to fish for sea bass, and he will quickly change the subject, perhaps by asking you: “Did you know that the Berlenga inspired Hitchcock’s famous movie, The Birds?”

Click here for the schedule of boats from Peniche to Berlengas. Boats depart from the port of Peniche.

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.”

Portuguese cobblestones

Calçada Portuguesa (Portuguese cobblestone) is a mosaic pavement built with cubes made of limestone and basalt.  Each stone is carefully cut and laid by hand by a master “calceteiro.” It takes months, sometimes years to build these majestic pavements. So, if you visit Portugal, by all means, look up to see the cerulean blue sky, the castles on hilltops, the seagulls gliding on the wind. But do not miss the beauty beneath your feet.

Beneath your feet, Maria Rebelo, gelatin silver print, 2003.