Visiting the Middle Ages

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The castle of Almourol was built by the Romans and rebuilt in the 12 century by the Knights Templars. Situated on a small island in the middle of the Tagus river, it was part of the defensive structure set up by Dom Afonso Henriques, the first king of Portugal. The castle quickly lost its strategic importance but retained its romantic appeal. At Almourol time stands still so we can get a glimpse of the Middle Ages.

It is tempting to sit on the river bank, enjoying the view of the castle, dreaming about chivalry and courtly love. But don’t miss the chance to cross the river by boat to visit the castle. You might arrive in time to free a beautiful princess or slay a nefarious dragon.

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.

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 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.”


A letter to Woody Allen

Lisboa, Rui Barreiros Duarte, ink on paper, 2011.

Dear Mr. Allen:

Why don’t you shoot a movie in Lisbon? Lisbon is an ancient city that easily holds its own when compared to Barcelona, Rome, London or Paris.

We wonder whether the Roman name for Lisbon, “Felicitas Julia,” would make a good movie title. Naturally, the title would be up to you, we’re just throwing out ideas.

Lisbon is a city of serious Woody Allen fans. Those who try to live here without studying your movies are ostracized. Eventually, they choose nocturnal jobs or migrate to countries with languages that have no vowels. Just because of you, the clarinet is much more popular than the banjo among Lisbon youths.

The themes of your work are all here. First, beauty. Lisbon has the looks: the Tagus river, the cobblestone streets, the ancient palaces with draperies that could be turned into clothes that would look great on Scarlett Johansson. Second, romance. If this was not a romantic city, why would Ingrid Bergman fly to Lisbon in the last scene of Casablanca? Third, angst. The Portuguese have angst about everything: about the future, about the past, about being invaded by Spain, or worse, losing in soccer to Spain. Fourth, fate. Fado, the word that describes the traditional music of Lisbon, means fate. Which other city sings about fate? Fifth, obsession with fame. We call our periods of occupation by the French the Napoleonic invasions, even though Napoleon was never here. Sixth, mortality. The Portuguese do not recognize the concept of death. We’re still waiting for the return of D. Sebastian, a king who disappeared in the 16th century. We think he is on an extended diplomatic mission.

Lisbon is a movie set that has taken centuries to build and that is ready for you.