Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
Additional photos by Manos Angelakis
Lisbon - The Heart of Portugal
In the years since I last visited Lisbon, the city has grown up into one of Europe’s major tourist destinations. Returning at the holiday season to see the city dressed in its festive finery and the streets crowded with merry makers of all ages, was indeed a delightful redux.
Portugal’s location on the western edge of the Iberian Peninsula with the Atlantic Ocean literally at its door, bred a seafaring tradition which eventually led the Portuguese on enormously profitable voyages of discovery around the world and made them the envy of other European nations.
It all began hundreds of years earlier in the 7th century, when the Moors invaded the Algarve, the southernmost region of Portugal. By 1249 the Portuguese had reconquered the Algarve and confidently set their sights on exploration and expansion. Prior to that, fearing the Earth was flat and afraid they might fall off the edge, or even worse, be eaten by sea monsters, little long distance sea travel had been attempted, but it was reasoned that the Moors had come from somewhere else, so maybe there were other somewhere else’s to discover.
Prince Henry, through his Mother Philippa of Lancaster, could have worn the Crown of England but preferred sailing to politics, which turned out to be a serious miscalculation since he suffered from unrelenting sea sickness. Nevertheless, in 1394 he invented the triangular maneuverable sail and ergo Prince Henry The Navigator was off and running… well sailing… to Africa. He is credited with ushering in, both Portugal’s Age of Discovery and the profitable, but reprehensible, Atlantic Slave Trade. In 1497 Vasco da Gama sailed to India and in 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral “discovered” Brazil but thought it was India (he got confused and sailed in the wrong direction). To commemorate all the voyages is the impressive Monument to the Discoveries looking out to the seas conquered by these intrepid explorers.
Further along the bank of the Tagus River is the dramatic Belem Tower built as one of a series of defensive fortifications to protect the harbor from invasion. Now it is an inviting solitary sentinel standing tall against the pretty as a picture Portuguese sky attracting tourists from around the world.
Not far away is the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Jeronimos Monastery, an impressive example of Manueline architecture. Built with profits from the spice trade during the Golden Age of Discovery, the monastery took 80 years to complete. St. Jerome, amongst his many literary accomplishments, was credited with translating portions of the Hebrew Bible into Latin during the years 390-405 A.D.
Our tour of Lisbon also took us to the 16th century Arab inspired Alfama District whose labyrinthine streets were intentionally obfuscating to confound any unwanted visitors; thankfully we had a guide that could unerringly navigate the area.
Lisbon is built on a series of hills, many of which are traversed by trams. Originally imported from San Francisco in the 19th century before electricity, the trams were pulled by bulls but once electricity came in, the bulls were out-sourced… possibly to the bull ring. The colorful yellow trams are for locals and the red trams are for tourists.
On Sunday morning of All Saints Day in l755, Portugal was rocked by a massive earthquake. Most of the devout Roman Catholic population of Lisbon was in church and initially feared they were being punished by an angry God. To escape the collapsing buildings the people ran to the open spaces by the river which had mysteriously disappeared… and then a 40 foot high wall of water rushed in swallowing thousands of people and drowning the city in one of the largest tsunamis ever recorded. Burning candles in the churches lit the rubble on fire so whoever did not die in the initial collapse of buildings was drowned by the ensuing waters or the fires that followed. Strangely almost all the churches were destroyed but the city’s brothels survived – a fact of geology rather than theology. The loss of life and destruction of the city was massive but even more devastating was the loss of faith in a merciful God and for the first time in a world filled with superstition and the belief in the power of the Catholic Church dawned the understanding that natural phenomena was outside the scope of man’s religious institutions. In a trick of fate, the enormous tragedy altered conventional wisdom and ushered in the Age of Reason. We visited Igreja de São Domingos in the town center with its fire scorched columns and walls standing as a reminder of the awesome power of nature.
The Marquise of Pombal - on whose shoulders the restoration of Lisbon fell - when asked “what now?” was alleged to have replied “We bury the dead and take care of the living”. He was responsible for constructing earthquake-proof buildings on the riverfront and the grid pattern street layout of the new town. It was also decided that colorful tiles should be used extensively to brighten up buildings and that accounts for the beautiful city we see today.
Happily one of our favorite privately owned five-star hotel brands has a property in Lisbon and using the Corinthia Hotel Lisbon as a base I was able to visit some of the most fascinating towns and Manos was able to visit some of the premier wineries, in the surrounding area. www.corinthia.com/lisbon
One bright and beautiful morning I was collected promptly at 9 a.m. by Leonel Rodrigues from Premium Tours, in a comfortable, clean vehicle… destination: Fátima, Názare, Batalha and Óbidos. Premium Tours specializes in private tailor-made tours for individuals or small groups according to their special needs and specific interests. Their professional guides are multi-lingual and have a native’s knowledge of the history and customs of their homeland. email@example.com
Fátima: some 88 miles north of Lisbon is the parish of Fátima where between May and October of 1917, three shepherd children saw visions of the Virgin Mary - Lucia dos Santos and her younger cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto - and were given three secrets. This is one of the most sacred Catholic holy sites to which millions flock (no pun intended) every year.
The Chapel of the Apparitions is in a small open seating area and marks the spot where Our Lady of Fátima allegedly appeared to the children. A short distance away is the sacred oak tree which is enclosed by an iron fence. In 1953 the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima Rosary was built to accommodate the many visitors to the site and a broad plaza was constructed that now ends at the Basilica of the Holy Trinity built in 2007. During May and October, the plaza connecting the basilicas is filled with thousands upon thousands of people. Happily I was there on a relatively light pilgrimage day and had a chance to visit all the sights including the candle stands where the faithful congregate. Hovering over the candles is a massive mirror that reflects the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima Rosary on the other end of the plaza… what a photo op. At the far end of the plaza is a large section of the Berlin Wall enclosed in glass that was dedicated at the site by Pope John Paul II.
Batalha: The Monastery of Batalha, one of the best examples of both late Gothic and Manueline architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage site that was initially commissioned by King Dom João I to commemorate the battle of 1385 between Portugal and Castile. Thanks to the strategic use of the battlefield, the Portuguese won the day and threw out the Spanish that were attempting to usurp the crown. Unfortunately, after 150 years of construction under the successive reigns of seven monarchs, building funds were diverted to Lisbon’s Jeronimos Monastery, leaving the side chapel unfinished and open to the elements. A fee is required to visit the unfinished chapel but the main church is free to the public. Interred in the Founders chapel are the medieval tombs of King Dom João I and his wife, Queen Philippa of Lancaster, along their sons, including Prince Henry the Navigator.
Nazare: Located along a wide pristine beach of the Atlantic Ocean at the foot of a high precipice is the small fishing village of Nazare, famous worldwide for its 100 foot high surf. Apparently this phenomenon occurs only once or twice a year and surfers rush in from all over the world to “catch the wave”. Hard to imagine because the day I visited the sea was smooth as glass but Leonel assured me it was true. It seems there is a deep water trench that under certain circumstances activates a tsunami like wave.
We had lunch at one of the small local restaurants at the beach and then visited the tiny Lady of Nazare chapel built in the upper town to honor a miracle. The legend tells of a knight that was chasing a deer and as his frenzied horse was about to gallop off the cliff, he prayed to the “Lady of Nazare” and the horse reared up on his hind legs just in the nick of time. The chapel is masterfully decorated with blue azulejo tiles… a true miracle.
Óbidos: Our last stop before sunset is truly a Portuguese treasure. Óbidos is a medieval walled town that maintains the ambiance of a place out of time. Its intact azulejo covered main gate; white painted houses with flowers climbing the walls and colorful painted trim; narrow winding cobblestone streets that lead up to the castle at the high point of the wall. The castle was converted to a Posada with an outstanding view over the countryside far below. Walking around the city walls is a challenge so I spent my time instead visiting the darling shops that have been converted out of houses hundreds of years old, many still with their original wood beamed ceilings and stone hewed walls. There are two original churches but I spent my time visiting St. Mary’s with its peaceful beautiful energy. The church’s ceiling is hand painted and the walls are covered with azulejo tiles of exceptional quality.
As the light was fading, we returned to the Corinthia Hotel just as Manos was entering the lobby laden down with amazing Portuguese wines from his day visiting fine wine producers in the Lisbon area. More about this in his story -- see Alentejo Wines
For further reading see Óbidos and the article on Oporto and Port Wines
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