Last weekend we were in Lisbon, Portugal, which I think may be my new favourite place. It’s easy, of course, when you visit a place for a short time as a tourist to gain an unrealistically positive view of it. It certainly didn’t hurt, either, that it was several degrees warmer and much sunnier than Edinburgh! But with those caveats in mind, my impression was of a friendly, vibrant, multicultural city where things ran with an easygoing efficiency. In fact, we enjoyed our time there so much that I’m giving it the full A-Z treatment (in two parts).
Azulejos. Part of Lisbon’s distinctive feel comes from the beautiful colours of the glazed ceramic tiles called azulejos (also found in Spain).
Belém Tower. We spent much of one day exploring the lovely district of Belém, located to the west of the city centre and by the river. One of the main features of Belém is its tower, built in the sixteenth century as part of Lisbon’s defensive fortifications. Together with the Jerónimos Monastery (see below), it is seen as exemplifying the ‘Manueline’ style, a distinctively Portugese style of elaborately-decorated Gothic architecture, named for King Manuel.
Colonial wars. When I saw this war memorial, not far from the tower in Belém, I assumed the vast wall of names must represent those who died in wars throughout the twentieth century. But in fact it only represents those who died in Portugal’s colonial wars in Africa between 1961 and 1974. I hadn’t realised that Portugal had been involved in such prolonged and bitter wars against movements for independence in its African colonies, resulting in almost 9000 deaths on the Portugese side alone. These wars eventually contributed to the fall of the Salazar dictatorship that ruled Portugal at the time.
Discoverers’ monument. The roots of the colonial wars go back to Portugal’s long history of exploration and colonisation around the world, from Africa to Brazil, Timor, Goa, Macau and elsewhere. In 1940, the Salazar regime held a Portugese World Exhibition in Lisbon, which included a temporary monument depicting various figures from the history of Portugese exploration. Twenty years later, the monument was rebuilt in permanent form beside the river in Belém. The government of apartheid South Africa gifted a tiled compass rose with a map of the world in its centre, which is in front of the momument – a gift from one authoritarian regime to another.
Elephants. Thanks to its colonial interests in India, Portugal had access to elephants quite early, and several were presented by Kings of Portugal to other kings or popes. No wonder, then, that I spotted a number of elephants on monuments in Lisbon.
Fado. Fado is the folk music of Portugal, and particularly of Lisbon. It usually features a solo singer and the twelve-stringed Portugese guitar. We went to one of Lisbon’s most well-known fado clubs, where we heard some spellbinding performances of this soulful, passionate music.
Graffiti. There was a lot of graffiti in Lisbon, including on the trams and funiculars. One particularly puzzling sight was the words ‘pura poesia’ (pure poetry) written on walls all over central Lisbon, all in the same copperplate-like script.
Herculano, Alexandre. The Jerónimos Monastry had an interesting exhibition about the Portugese historian and novelist Alexandre Herculano, who is buried there. Herculano was inspired to write historical fiction by the novels of Walter Scott, but he also wrote a multivolume history of Portugal which pioneered the use of original historical documents.
Ironwork. There is a lot of lovely ironwork, especially iron balcony railings, in Lisbon.
Jerónimos Monastery. I was enchanted by the elaborately-decorated monastery in Belém. Mostly constructed in the sixteenth century, it is covered in depictions of fanciful animals, religious symbols, stories from the Bible and other imagery.
King José I. In the Praça do Comércio, a large public square near the river, is a statue of King José I, shown riding a horse which, for some reason, is trampling on snakes. (A chocolate fish will be awarded for the best suggestion as to what the snakes represent.) José was king when Lisbon was struck by a devastating earthquake in 1755, and it was therefore during his reign also that the city centre area known as Baixa was reconstructed on a grid system. Apparently King José developed a fear of living within walls after the earthquake and moved the court to a complex of tents in the hills.
Language. I’ve long had a liking for the Portugese language, which is lovely and soft, full of ‘sh’ sounds. It’s very difficult for the uninitiated to work out how to pronounce it, however, as the sound of consonants seems to depend in many cases on the vowels that follow them.
Mushroom restaurant. We had lunch one day at a restaurant that serves only dishes that contain mushrooms. It was a lot better than it sounds! My pumpkin gnocchi with mushrooms was absolutely delicious. The mushroom ice cream and mushroom brûlée… not so much.