MY OLD IMPRESSIONS ABOUT LISBON
I went to Portugal once before. I visited northern parts of the country in September 2005, also with my Italian friends. That particular trip started in Spain, in Santiago de Compostela. From there, we went to Porto, Braga, Coimbra, Leiria, Fatima and we finished in Lisbon.
I remember that I was very impressed with the Portuguese capital. I certainly did not expect to see such a magnificent city, although that was my fault. While Portugal may seem like a small country, especially if compared to bigger European and world countries, its history is rich and impressive. In fact, it was only when I saw Lisbon that I fully comprehended that Portugal used to be a big colonial power in the past. In other words, to build a city like Lisbon, they had to have a lot of money which they obviously extracted from their colonies. Only rich countries could afford to construct such monumental buildings and squares, churches and monasteries.
I also remember that 15 years ago Lisbon looked slightly rough around the edges. It reminded me of Belgrade, with its many dark and crumbling facades, although Lisbon is a much more beautiful city than Belgrade.
Finally, it was a relatively tranquil place. I remember not seeing many tourists around and that was an aspect that I particularly liked about Lisbon. It seemed authentic, there were mostly local people going about their daily lives.
MY NEW IMPRESSIONS
This time, Lisbon was even more beautiful. Clearly, the authorities have invested a lot of effort in the maintenance of the city. Many facades have been restored and brought to their former glory. The city or at least its most central part did not seem neglected like 15 years ago. Lisbon certainly deserves such care.
But, the most obvious thing was that it was full of tourists. They were everywhere and in huge numbers. As per current statistics, approximately 4.5 million tourists visit Lisbon annually. That’s a lot of people for what in reality is not a very big city. There were long queues of tourists everywhere we went, waiting to enter various sites and attractions. Perhaps, that a was a particularly busy week. Although, I was in Lisbon at almost the exact same time 15 years ago, but back then there were hardly any tourists around.
Unfortunately, it was an aspect that I didn’t like. I appreciate that people want to travel and visit beautiful places. At the same time, those beautiful places become victims of their own popularity.
So, the prevailing impression that I had was that there were far too many tourists everywhere. Normally, I try to avoid such places. I’m aware that sometimes I don’t have a choice, if I want to visit a historic place that is at the same time visited by many other people.
TOUR AROUND LISBON
There is a lot to see in Lisbon. Unfortunately neither the last time, nor now, I stayed in Lisbon for long enough, to discover the city properly. We wanted to see as much as possible in two days. The city centre is not very big and that is a sufficient time to get a good overall impression. But, that’s not enough time to visit museums, for example. More importantly, that’s not enough time to observe and absorb the city and connect to its vibe.
We stayed in an apartment, just outside of the historical Bairro Alto. That part of Lisbon is particularly beautiful. It’s also where numerous restaurants, bars and clubs are.
CONVENT OF SÃO PEDRO DE ALCÂNTARA
The first day, we came across the Capuchin Franciscan Convent of São Pedro de Alcântara. In 1665, the first Marquis of Marialva, the Count of Cantanhede, made a vow on the eve of the battle of Montes Claros, during the Restoration War, to erect this convent if the Portuguese won this battle. The royal consent was given in 1670.
But, this is no longer a monastery. In 1833, the monastery was given to Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa, a charitable organisation that looks after the old, the sick and the abandoned or orphaned children.
We could only enter the church. I’ve been to many churches in my life, but I was considerably taken aback when I entered this church. But, let me explain. Prior to coming to Portugal, I spent five weeks in Turkey, where I visited numerous mosques. In Islam, the Qur’an does not permit idolatry. Images of people or animals are forbidden, as distraction. Mosques are mostly decorated with calligraphy and other geometric images. Additionally, ceramic tiles feature prominently as an integral decorative element, especially in Ottoman era mosques.
But in Christianity, it’s a different story. The image of Jesus Christ takes a prominent place in every church, together with many other scenes from the Bible.
This particular church is very beautiful, especially its azulejos tiles that adorn the walls of the church. Various images narrate different stories, most likely related to the local history. I don’t know whether it’s possible to find out the precise story behind every image, although perhaps that’s not necessary. Rather, it is sufficient to simply enjoy in the beauty of this place.
We continued our tour of Lisbon, all the time coming across the typical and unique features of the city. A tram that you can see in the photo below – Glória Funicular – is not the most famous one. That one is in a different part of the city.
CHURCH OF SÃO ROQUE
The Church of São Roque, built in 1619, was the first Jesuit church in Portugal and one of the first in the world. In 1759, King José I’s prime minister, Marqis de Pombal, expelled Jesuits from Portugal because of their involvement in a revolt against the King. Subsequently, the King assigned the church to Santa Casa da Misericórdia de Lisboa.
From the church, we continued our tour down Rua da Misericórdia.
It’s a beautiful street, adorned by buildings made in a typical Lisbon architecture. It reminded me of Madrid, although the main difference is that a lot of facades in Lisbon are covered in tiles. That’s not a feature that you can see in Spanish contemporary architecture.
LUÍS DE CAMÕES SQUARE
At the end of this street, we arrived to Luís de Camões Square. A monument in the centre of the square is of Luís de Camões. He was Portugal’s greatest 16th century poet. Obviously, it’s a very beautiful square, additionally adorned with two baroque churches: Loreto and Encarnação. But, you can’t see them in this photo, because I took it from where these two churches are. However, this square was also where I noticed a huge number of tourists and it really went downhill from there.
The elegant Baixa Pombalina is Lisbon’s most central area. It is the heart of the city and rightly so. In 1755, a powerful earthquake destroyed approximately 85% of the city. Marquis of Pombal took charge of rebuilding the city. He opted for the grid pattern for this particular area. Before the earthquake, there was an organic street plan, similar to what you can see in other neighbourhoods, such as Alfama and Bairro Alto.
The most important street is Rua Augusta. Baixa Pombalina is the area that surrounds this street. At one end of the street is Praça do Comércio. At the other end you will find Praça do Rossio. All of this is what you would inevitably want to see in Lisbon.
However, the same as in other popular touristic cities, while very beautiful, Rua Augusta is completely soulless and probably the least interesting of everything that you can see in Lisbon. You will find the ubiquitous chains, exactly the same as in all other Western European cities. There are also some restaurants and bars, but all very touristic. Perhaps, if you ignore the grotesquely touristic aspect of this street, you may enjoy in its architecture and in typical Portuguese facade ornaments.
PRAÇA DO COMÉRCIO
I remember, it was when I saw Praça do Comércio for the first time, that I fully comprehended that Portugal used to be a huge colonial empire. How else would they’ve managed to build such a magnificent square after the 1755 earthquake, if not with wealth extracted from colonies? The square is glorious, together with its monumental Arco Triunfal de Rua Augusto.
Before the earthquake, this area housed the Royal Ribeira Palace. However, after the earthquake, instead of rebuilding the palace, they built Praça do Comércio. A monument in the middle of the square is to King José I, who ruled between 1750 and 1777.
PRAÇA DA FIGUEIRA
From Praça do Comércio, we went back to see two squares built after the earthquake, at the other end of Rua Augusta. We arrived to Praça da Figueira. Before the earthquake, in the area where the square is today, there used to be a hospital. A monument in the square is to King João I de Portugal, who reigned between 1385 and 1433. Interestingly, the monument was originally in the middle of the square, but it was moved to the corner with Rua da Prata, so that it can be seen from Praça do Comércio.
The next area of Lisbon that we visited was Alfama. It’s an old part of Lisbon that did not get very damaged in the 1755 earthquake. It’s an authentic part of the city, with many beautiful historic structures everywhere. We first went to the São Jorge Castle. But when we arrived there, many tourists were waiting to enter, so we decided to skip this castle and we went to Miradouro das Portas do Sol. It’s a point from where there are spectacular views of Lisbon. You can see the magnificent Monastery of São Vicente de Fora below.
On the other side, there are beautiful views of the River Tagus.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t really enjoy the magical side of this historical area of Lisbon. There were simply far too many tourists everywhere. Frankly speaking, it was becoming ridiculous. Just as an example, you can see a tram full of tourists in a photo below, going nowhere. Although, it’s probably a good sight-seeing tour.
We ended the tour of Alfama by visiting the 12th century Sé de Lisboa, which is the Lisbon Cathedral.
To get back home, we walked all the way to the Bica Funicular. This tram is the most famous one and it is one of Lisbon’s symbols. We took it in Rua de S. Paulo and got off in Largo Calhariz. Apart from being a useful transport mean, it is also a tourist attraction. There were a lot of people in the queue when we arrived, so we had to wait for approximately half an hour for our ride up the hill.
Away from the city centre, Belém is what everyone coming to Lisbon should see. It’s a touristic area with some of the most famous Manueline constructions that survived the 1755 earthquake. But, to get there you have to use some mean of transportation. It’s too far away from the centre and it would take too long to walk. We had a car, so the following day we went to see this area and historic structures.
Probably, the Belém Tower is the most recognisable symbol of Lisbon. It used to be a military outpost, constructed in 1519. Together with the Monastery of the Hieronymites, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
MONUMENT TO THE COMBATANTS OF THE PORTUGUESE COLONIAL WAR
Immediately next to the tower, you can see the Monument to the Combatants of the Portuguese Colonial War. In former colonies, this was the War of Liberation. I don’t really know very much about this part of the Portuguese history. However, the monument tells us that this war is historically significant for Portugal.
MONUMENT OF THE DISCOVERIES
On the other side and also in vicinity of the Belém Tower, you will find the Monument of the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos). It celebrates the Portuguese golden Age of Discovery, in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Construction of the monument was finished in 1960. The third person that you can see in a photo below, after Prince Henry the Navigator and King Alfonso I, is Vasco da Gama.
In my opinion, the Jerónimos Monastery is probably the most beautiful structure that you can see in Lisbon. Built in 1495, it is the most scintillating example of the late Gothic Manueline architectural style.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS
I am happy that I visited the Portuguese capital city again. But, the same as the first time when I was there in 2005, I feel that I rushed through. To see and to explore the city properly, I would have to go back and stay there for at least a week, perhaps longer. The city is rich in history and there is so much to see.
But if I ever go back, I would like to choose a period with fewer tourists. One other point to consider is the cost. Because of its huge popularity, I felt that it was rather poor value for money. Our apartment was far too expensive for what it was. Also, we had average, but not so cheap meals.
To get an idea of what I am talking about, you can see a long queue of tourists waiting to enter the church of the Jerónimos Monastery. Basically, that’s how it was everywhere we went. I can easily cope with that once or twice during a visit, but not when such crowds of people are a constant throughout the day. Then, it becomes a very hard work and I don’t particularly like it.