Memories of Sintra

Memories of Sintra

There are many day trips that one can take from Lisbon, but one stands out both in popularity and importance: Sintra. This small city contains multitudes. Populated since prehistoric times, occupied by the Moors, used as a summer retreat by the royal family, and then beautified during the Romantic age of architecture—the city is bursting with monuments. And, most importantly, Sintra is easily accessible from Lisbon, merely a 45-minute ride on a cheap commuter train from Lisbon’s central Rossio station. 

A penalty of this accessibility and attractiveness is, of course, popularity. The city is crawling with tourists and all of the concomitant junk: overpriced restaurants, tacky gift shops, crowded streets, and so on. But, of course, if Sintra is popular, it is popular for a reason. This is apparent as soon as you step off the train. The surrounding countryside is picturesque in the extreme, with rolling green hills dotted with tile-roofed houses. The old center of the city is just as lovely, filled with imposing mansions (Sintra has long been the wealthiest spot in Portugal) ranged along medieval streets.

The whole place has the aura of a fairytale, so it is fitting that Hans Christian Anderson visited in 1866. A plaque marks the house where he stayed. Lord Byron was another famous visitor, relishing the dark forests and the craggy peaks that loom above the city. When he first visited the city, he wrote “Oh Christ! it is a goodly sight to see / What heaven hath done for this delicious land! / What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree! / What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!” Years later, in a famous line from Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimmage, Byron dubbed the place a “glorious Eden”—words that the Sintra tourist office are grateful for, I’m sure.

The most notable landmark within the old center is the Sintra National Palace. Compared with many other European palaces, this one has a rather modest aspect, striking the visitor as a large manor house rather than an imposing royal residence. Its most notable aspect are the two white cylindrical smokestacks that rise up from one side, like the two ears of a rabbit (used for the kitchen). The interior decoration, too, is quaint rather than majestic. Wood-paneled ceilings are decorated with the images of swans, magpies, and sailboats. The only room that is unmistakably regal is the Sala dos Brasões, or the Blazons Hall, with features a Moorish-influenced wooden ceiling bearing over seventy coats of arms of noble families, with azulejos running across the lower half. One is also reminded of Portugal’s Age of Exploration, since a delicately-carved model of a Chinese temple is also on display. 

The Hall of Blazons, with some distortion from the panoramic

Most of Sintra’s notable monuments are, however, not to be found in the city center; rather, one must ascend the hill overlooking the old town. It is possible to walk up this hill, though it is not for the faint of heart. I think it would take at least an hour of trekking from the base to the top. Most people opt for the bus, specifically the 434 bus, which leaves from Sintra’s train station. Now, I have taken this bus up twice and it has been highly unpleasant both times. The road leading up is steep, winding, and narrow; it is easy to get stuck behind a slow driver. In any case, the bus is normally packed to bursting, so that one may have to stand up during the ride, gripping the railings for dear life as the bus chugs its way up.

The bus stops near two major monuments: the Castle of the Moors, and the National Palace of Pena. I opted for the former during my first visit, for the very silly and superficial reason that it was cheaper.

The Moors were no fools: when they built fortifications, they chose locations wisely. This is just such an example: the old castle sits atop a hill, providing great visibility of the surrounding area and making attack up the steep hill difficult. Nevertheless the castle fell, in the 12th century, to the invading Christians (though it was not taken by force). Henceforth it became a Christian castle, and was periodically rebuilt and reinforced down the years. The walls that stand today probably owe little to the Moors, the castle’s name notwithstanding.

It is an extremely romantic spot. Grey granite walls rise out of the trees, snaking around the hillside. The visitor can walk along these walls, enjoying the unsurpassable view of the surrounding countryside. Below one can see the town of Sintra itself, ensconced in the forest and centered around the palace, with the green countryside beyond speckled with habitations as the land spreads out until the blue sea in the far distance. Though the hill is not very high, standing atop the walls and looking down gives one an amazing sense of height. Aside from the view, the castle itself spurs the imagination. Its crumbling form, wrapping around little but empty forest, evokes a faraway time. Like all ruins, the fortification’s very incompleteness invites fantasy.

The Castle of the Moors, with the countryside beyond

Standing on the walls, back in 2016, I could see across to the colorful, even disneylandish form of the National Palace of Pena. I was both intrigued and repulsed by what I took to by a terrific display of gaudiness. Yet despite this garish impression, enough curiosity formed deep within my psyche to prompt me to revisit Sintra, two years later, with the purpose of seeing this memorable building up close.

Pena Palace, as seen from the Castle of the Moors

The Pena Palace was built in the 1800s, during the high point of architectural romanticism: and it remains a monument to this movement. Romanticism, as a movement, was characterized by a fascination for everything exotic and ancient. The Romantic imagination, no stickler for details, freely mixed elements of medieval France, Renaissance Europe, Golden-Age Portugal, and Moorish Spain, resulting in an eclectic jumble of styles held together by sheer exuberance. The castle today is dominated by its bright pallet of red, blue, and yellow—its flamboyant form visible for miles around.

A model of the Pena Palace

When I spied the castle from the Castle of the Moors, it did not look very big to me—even smaller than the Sintra Palace below. Yet when I finally approached the building, years later, I found it to be gigantic, dwarfing all of the visitors that climbed up to visit. The palace has a roughly tripartite structure, with a red right, a blue center, and a yellow left. The visitor first passes through an elaborate stone gate, reminiscent of the Torre Belém, in order to reach the front entrance. There another gate—the walls covered in blue tiles, with elaborate and gruesome decorative sculptures surrounding the windows—leads inside the palace. From here I entered a sort of cloister, with every surface covered in tiles of blue, orange, and green, rather like those in the Alhambra.

Many of the rooms we passed were similarly decorated. The roofs, however, swelled into elaborate, web-like vaulting: a parody of gothic cathedrals. From within the cloister we could look up to see the bright red tower, whose form is also reminiscent of the Torre Belém. As is typical of palaces, there were rooms full of ornate furniture and other expensive decoration. In one room a beautiful candelabra with glass blown to look like leafy vines hung from the ceiling; in another, the Noble Room, nearly life-sized statues of bearded men held up the candles. Royalty has its rewards. Yet one of the more memorable rooms was the kitchen, whose elegant simplicity contrasted sharply with the pageantry above.

This strange architectural conglomeration owes its form to many hands. The primary architect was the German Wilhelm Ludwig von Eschwege, who is also remembered for his geological research. The King and Queen themselves also lent a hand in the decoration. As it stands today, the palace is somewhat reminiscent of the modernist works of the Catalan architects Gaudí and Domènech i Montaner, though it lacks the controlling intelligence that vivifies the works of those two men. The final impression not one of beauty, but of a kind of whimsical playfulness, strangely contrasting with the normally austere ideal of monarchy.

Eschwege also lent a hand in planning the gardens surrounding the palace, and in this he was highly successful. Both times I visited this hill, I decided that I could not endure another bus ride, and elected to walk down the hill. Luckily, gravity aids greatly in this direction. I recommend this strategy, since the forest is lovely. Here you can see the other layers of walls that form the Castle of the Moors, which slither down the mountain like a ridgeback snake. While lost in this forest, it is easy to see why this spot attracted the attention of romantics: the decaying ruins amid the tangle of trees perfectly evokes that sense of distant grandeur that so beguiled the romantic imagination.

I reached the end of the hill, continued further down through the old streets, once again admiring the many small, nameless corners of beauty in the city. As I got on the train back to Lisbon, I thought complacently that, finally, I had seen what Sintra had to offer. But I was mistaken—which I would have known if, for once, I had done some research before visiting. In fact, I had not even come close to exhausting the treasures of Sintra, so it seems that I must still go back.

The most famous thing I missed is the Quinta da Regaleira. This is yet another monument of the eclectic imagination of the romantic mind. A “quinta” is a large manor house, typically owned by an aristocrat of some sort. This one was eventually purchased by António Cavalho Monteiro, an eccentric who was lucky enough to inherit a large fortune. He used this fortune to create a landscape of mysteries. The dominant architectural style of this property is neo-gothic, which can be seen in the palace and the chapel. The gardens, however, reveal the previous owner’s love of the enigmatic: they feature several tunnels and even two inverted towers that Cavalho Monteiro dubbed “initiation wells.” They were apparently used in rituals related to Tarot cards. Nowadays they are used in the modern ritual of Instagram.

Nearby is the Quinta do Relógio, a Neo-Mudéjar manor house that is currently on sale for over $7,000,000. Tempting, I know. Also close is the Seteais Palace, a large manor house originally constructed for the Dutch consul in the 18th century, and now run as a luxury hotel. Probably outside my budget. Somewhat further off is yet another palace: the Montserrate Palace, which used to serve as a summer getaway for the court. This somewhat strange-looking edifice is yet another example of the romantic style of Sintra’s architecture: colorful, exotic, miscellaneous. 

This short list only scratches the surface. Probably the best way to see everything is with a car and a few days to spare, not just a day-trip from Lisbon. I am sure that such a trip would be amply rewarding. The area is enchanting, and has enchanted so many people throughout the years that it is filled with monuments to its own charm. I can see what Lord Byron was talking about.

Memories of Lisbon

Memories of Lisbon

Lisbon was the very first place outside of Spain that I visited in Europe. It was in April of 2016, during Holy Week, as the end-point of a trip through Extremadura. We took a Blablacar, and I was amazed that there was no border, natural or artificial, between Spain and Portugal.

As we approached the city, the driver turned on the radio to let us hear Portuguese. I had hoped that my experience with Spanish would allow me to understand a little of this sister tongue. But it was absolutely foreign to my ears. Far from sounding like a closely-related language, Portuguese was as familiar as Russian. (I have since learned that this reaction is quite common. Peninsular Portuguese is strikingly different in pronunciation and speech rhythm from Spanish, even though on paper the two languages are quite similar.)

We entered the city on the majestic 25 de Abril Bridge—a suspension bridge conspicuously reminiscent of the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. (The 25th of April, 1974,  is the date of the famous Carnation Revolution, when the dictatorship was overthrown.) Two massive towers hold up a double-decker span over the river Tagus, the whole thing painted a rusty red color. Next to the bridge is another monument that recalls a foreign city: Christ the King, a tall statue of Jesus inspired by the famous Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. Through the cables of the bridge we could see the city of Lisbon huddled on the riverbank, its colorful tiles shining in the sunlight. This was my first glimpse of the city.

(The Tagus, by the way, is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, also passing through Toledo and Aranjuez.)

Despite this grand entrance, however, my mood quickly turned sour. I had been spending the previous six months exploring Spain like a madman, slowly getting the lay of the land, coming to understand the ancient country’s geography, culture, and language. Now I was, once again, a complete novice. I did not have the slightest grasp of Portuguese, so I had to rely on English, which made me feel like any other tourist. (This wasn’t a problem for communication, since the Portuguese are excellent linguists.) And I had not even the slightest notion of the history of anything we saw. 

But maybe this is all just an excuse. Maybe I was just sick of being on the road. After all, I had hardly spent a single weekend in Madrid the whole year. Whatever the cause, I managed to sabotage my own trip to Lisbon. I spent the better part of my time in that beautiful city wishing I were back in Spain. As anyone who has been to Lisbon knows, this is a shame, since Lisbon is one of the jewels of the Iberian peninsula—indeed, of all Europe.

Residual guilt and regret prompted me to revisit the city two years later, in September of 2018. TAP Portugal, the budget airline, lets you have a layover in Lisbon for no additional charge. So, before returning to Spain for the new school year, I had a little vacation in the Portuguese Capital, determined to see the city with fresh eyes. It was worth it.


Lisbon has one of the most distinctive profiles of any European city. The streets are paved with the famous Portuguese pavement—smooth bits of stone, black and white, that are sometimes arranged into mosaics. The buildings, meanwhile, are marked by that other distinctly Portuguese art: azulejos, or colored tiles. Even very ordinary apartment buildings are coated in shining porcelain. The city is generally quite hilly; and the smooth pavement does not make walking any easier. But the hills are what make Lisbon so dramatic, for streets will open up into magnificent views of the city and the ocean beyond.

On my first trip to Lisbon I learned something of the history and layout of the city by taking a “free” walking tour. The tour lasted four hours, and it was one of the most memorable experiences from my travels. We were led around by a man with long, flowing, black hair, whose passion for the city was intoxicating. He was a true Portuguese patriot, and an enthusiastic son of Lisbon. As he reminded us, Lisbon is one of the oldest cities on the Iberian Peninsula and indeed in the world, founded by the Phonecians and later occupied by the Carthaginians and the Romans. The city is far, far older than the country for which it serves as capital.

In our guide’s memorable phraseology, Lisbon is a woman—with “black, flowing hair” (like his) “studded with seashells, who wears a dress that flaps in the wind like a sail.” Her husband, he continued, was the sea; and their child is the neighborhood of Alfama. This is the oldest neighborhood in the city; and if you have an ear attuned to languages, you will know that its name derives from Arabic. Though popular with tourists, the neighborhood has preserved much of its original charm. When we arrived, neighbors were chatting through their windows, and an old woman was washing something in a fountain. The area preserves the chaotic jumble of narrow streets typical of ancient cities; and this arrangement muffles out much of the extraneous urban noise, giving the Alfama a peaceful atmosphere.

Our guide also took us to the Bairro Alto, the “upper district.” Indeed, the neighborhood stands on one of the city’s hills. It was built considerably after the Alfama, and its streets lack the labyrinthine intricacy of that lower zone. Nevertheless, the streets are intimate and at times reveal lovely views of the city. More importantly, the Bairro Alto is the center of Lisbon’s youth culture nightlife, comparable to Brooklyn or Madrid’s Malasaña. At night the streets are packed with crowds of drinkers freely mingling. Unfortunately I did not get a chance to partake.

I did, however, go to see a fado concert in a café in this neighborhood. Fado is the flamenco or the blues of Portugal: a folk music sung to the accompaniment of a guitar (in this case, a Portuguese guitar). Though I did not understand the words, the music’s mournful quality is palpable. As the guide of our free walking tour informed us, the music expresses saudade, a Portuguese word that means “longing”—a deep state of spiritual disquiet for something missing. Our guide, incidentally, thought that this feeling was at the heart of the Portuguese character: the yearning of a widow for her fisherman husband, lost at sea; or the urge that drove the Portuguese to push off into the unknown during the Age of Exploration; or nowadays the longing of some Portuguese (our guide among them) for the country’s Golden Age, when it was briefly one of the most powerful states on earth.

In the heart of the city is the Baixa area, and at the heart of Baixa is the Plaça do Comécio. This is a grand, monumental square that opens up right to the River Tagus. An equestrian statue of Joseph I of Portugal stands at the center of the yellow buildings, looking warlike and formidable despite being mainly dedicated to opera during his reign. In this area are to be found high-end shopping and touristy restaurants, which I like to avoid. Right next to Baixa is Chiado, a similar zone of shopping and restaurants, containing some of the city’s central plazas. 

One of Lisbon’s most characteristic sights are the trolleys. As in San Francisco, the trolleys help pedestrians to traverse the steep hills of the city; and they have become a tourist attraction in their own right. The trams preserve a retro look, since the cars in use are still of the same rather diminutive size as when the system was built, in the 1870s. The most famous tram line is 28, which often ridden just for providing a good tour of the city. Our guide, however, warned us that it was wise to keep a sharp eye on one’s belongings, since the trolley is patrolled by pickpockets. I took a ride on the tram on my first trip—waiting nearly an hour on line to do so—and was, sadly, quite disappointed in the experience. I think walking provides a much better view of the city.

Lisbon has more recently taken on a strangely south Asian appearance, due to the spread of rickshaws catering to tourists. Again, I preferred to walk.

As befitting a seaside city of steep streets, Lisbon has many excellent lookout points. One is the Miradouro de Santa Luzia, near the Alfama, which offers an excellent view of the deep orange tiles of the rooftops and the pastel blues and pinks of the buildings. Lisbon has none of the brooding majesty of some Spanish cities; it is all light and air. The lookout point itself is a nice place to have a rest, with its tile benches and flowering trees. Right next door is the Miradour das Puertas do Sol—offering another superb view of the Alfama and the river beyond. The last time I went an enormous cruise ship was docked right in front of the old neighborhood. This cannot be good for maintaining its local atmosphere.

By continuing up the hill you will reach what is simultaneously one of the best views and the most impressive monuments of Lisbon: the Castelo de São Jorge. This medieval fortification is built upon the ancestral core of the city, where everybody from the Phoenicians to the Moors had their own forts. This is no surprise, of course, since the castle stands upon an easily defensible spot, controlling all the surrounding ground and providing an excellent view of the river as well. It is a superb spot.

The castle is up above.

What remains today is hardly more than a husk—the proud walls encircling little but trees and a few decaying ruins. But it is worth visiting for the commanding view alone, which becomes especially dramatic once you climb up to the top of the walls. The castle gardens are home to a handful of peacocks, which surprised me by appearing high up above my head, in the branches of a tree. I had no idea that peacocks were so agile. The castle also contains a small museum, showcasing some of the archaeological objects unearthed there—many examples of ceramics, as well as some ornamental Moorish tiles.

From the front of the castle, overlooking the city, the visitor can spot one of the other great lookout points of Lisbon: the Miradouro da Graça. Further up that same hill is the Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, a place frequented by sunset lovers and aspiring instagrammers. The city is nothing if not photogenic.

During my first visit to Lisbon I was very surprised by its cathedral, often called the Sé. I was used to seeing the massive gothic, barroque, and neoclassical constructions of Spanish cities. Lisbon’s cathedral seems downright humble by comparison. It was built during the Romanesque period, which necessarily limits its size (since the barrel vaults of Romanesque architecture require a narrow space). What is more, the church has been repeatedly buffeted by earthquakes, most notoriously the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

An engraving of the earthquake, fire, and tsunami

This earthquake was one of the deadliest and most destructive in history. It was a catastrophe. The earthquake struck in the morning of All Saints Day, when most people were in church—heavy stone buildings that were probably the worst place to be. A massive tsunami followed in the wake of the earthquake, and in the chaos a fire raged out of control. In the end, tens of thousands of people were killed and over three-fourths of the city’s buildings were in ruins. During the walking tour our guide pointed out the Carmo Convent, a convent that has been maintained in its ruined state as a memorial.

An old photograph of the ruined Carmo Convent

This disaster caused ripples in Europe’s culture as well as its surface. Many took it as a punishment from God, since it fell on a holy day. Voltaire, meanwhile, was dissuaded of the Leibnizian idea that we live in the best of all possible worlds. This led, among other things, to the writing of his most famous book: Candide. But before that philosophical tale, Voltaire published a poem on the event, condemning the idea that humans had somehow deserved it: “And can you then impute a sinful deed, / To babes who in their mothers’ bosoms bleed?” Rousseau responded vigorously against this poem, asserting that humanity deserved it by being corrupted by civilization. After all, if the people of Lisbon had been living in little hamlets, spread out thinly across the landscape, the casualties would have been small. But it did not take a Voltaire to see through this casuistical argument.

My second trip to Lisbon was vastly enhanced by visiting two of the city’s museums. The first was the very popular Museo Nacional do Azulejo, which celebrates the great Portuguese art of colored tiles. The museum is somewhat out of the way, located in what was previously a convent: Madre de Deus. But it is well worth the effort to get there.

The collection offers a bit of history on the tradition of azulejos. As you may have intuited, the word is a loanword from Arabic, specifically the word for “small polished stone.” Any visitor to the Alhambra will know that decorative tile had a strong tradition in the Moorish world, the art of geometric design driven by the prohibition on depicting human forms. Even today, many if not most azulejos contain either geometric or plant motifs. However, this is certainly not always the case. Azulejo altarpieces depicting Jesus, Mary, and the saints were on display. Other tiles portrayed scenes of history or of daily life, like the tapestries that hung in many royal dwellings. 

The former church of the convent that now houses the museum

The variety was astounding. From restrained blues and white to vibrant colors of every kind; from quaint flowers to designs created from mathematical algorithms; from plain squares to tiles with three dimensions—the museum showcased the scope of the artform. Just as impressive as the collection, however, was the building itself. The convent has many richly decorated rooms, with golden altars, coffered ceilings, and walls covered with paintings. In one of the more celebrated rooms, the choir, the entire space is ornamented with gilded woodwork encasing high-quality oil paintings.

Yet the most stunning work on display was the Panoramic View of Lisbon before the 1755 Earthquake. This sequence of tiles encircles the walls of a large room, providing a detailed sketch of the riverside of Lisbon as it existed before that calamity. The work was originally commissioned to decorate a palace, presumably to help a monarch keep track of his own domain. Even a superficial inspection of this work will impress the viewer with how much the city has changed since the earthquake. The old city is covered with religious architecture: churches, convents, monasteries—and now only a hint of this monumental majesty remains. This azulejo is likely the closest thing we have to a snapshot of the ruined Lisbon.

The next museum I visited was the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, which is somewhat misleadingly translated as the National Museum of Ancient Art (though the word “antiga” just means old, not “ancient,” and indeed hardly anything in the collection comes from ancient times). This is the largest museum in Lisbon and indeed Portugal; in fact it boasts one of the largest collections in Europe—or so they like to boast. 

Judging from my visit, I am willing to believe the claim, for the museum seemed to constantly expand. Luckily, the museum is quite a pleasant space, since it is in an erstwhile palace. I first visited the painting gallery. It was far more impressive than I had anticipated. There were works by Dutch, German, Italian, and Spanish masters. I was particularly pleased to find a wry work by Albrecht Dürer, St. Jerome in His Study, with the old bearded saint pointing rather impishly to a skull as a memento mori. The airy, triumphant style of Giambattista Tiepolo (who decorated Madrid’s palace) was in attendance, as well as the dark, brooding style of José Ribera.

Dürer’s depicting of St. Jerome

But my favorite work by a long shot was the Triptych of the Temptation of Saint Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch. Anthony was one of the early Christian ascetics, who isolated themselves in the desert in order to purify themselves. Bosch’s work represents the physical and spiritual temptations that the saint had to endure during his long years of fasting and prayer. As usual with Bosch, this gives rise to bizarre and fantastic imagery. The central panel is the main focus: showing the kneeling saint surrounded by the whole population of Bosch’s superfecund imagination: human-animal hybrids, men lacking limbs and even whole bodies, fish wearing armor, ruined buildings and burning cities—each of these images visually fantastic and symbolic of sin. It seems that Bosch had a both a horror and a fascination of sin, since he was so adept at portraying it.

Paintings constitute only a small part of the museum’s collection. There are all of the items of royal living: elegant furniture, finely-woven tapestries, delicately crafted silver and ceramic tableware—the list goes on. And the collection is not merely from Europe. Pioneering explorers and colonists as they were, the Portuguese collected many fine works from far off places, most notably China and (if memory serves) Japan. The museum’s sculpture collection is especially impressive, if only because of the way that the statues are arranged in the wide halls of the former palace, like silent servants waiting to be called upon.

Inevitably with a museum of this size, some version of fatigue sets in during the visit. Fortunately, the museum has a fine café which leads out to a garden in the back, where you can enjoy yet another sweeping view of the city. I would have lingered there longer, but the museum was closing and the guard kicked me out.

I have spent this long describing the enchanting city, but I have yet left out one of the most splendid corners of the city: Belém. 

The name “Belém” is Portuguese for Bethlehem. The neighborhood stands rather far from the city center, near the mouth of the Tagus river. To get there it is best to take a tram or a train. I took the latter, passing under the 25 de Abril Bridge on the way.

I am afraid that my first trip to Belém, in 2016, only added to my bitterness at Lisbon. This is because the line to visit the Jerónimos Monastery—one of the famous monuments of the are—was very long; and after waiting for an hour and paying to get inside, I found out that the most impressive section of the monastery, the church, is free to visit and has no line at all. Let my experience serve as a warning to any visitors in a hurry.

All carping aside, the Jerónimos Monastery is by far the most impressive work of religious architecture in the city. Its size is immediately striking. Like so many grand monasteries, Jerónimos spreads out with the girth of a palace. While waiting in line, under the hot Portuguese sun, I did get a chance to admire the building’s beautiful façade: ornamented with fabulously intricate friezes designed by João de Castilho (or, as he is known in his native Spain, Juan de Castillo). The cloisters of the monastery are some of the finest I have ever seen, so delicately carved that it makes the stone seem lighter than air. Within this monastery are buried several Portuguese luminaries, such as the novelist Alexandre Herculano and the poet Fernando Pessoa.

The monastery church maintains this exquisite decoration. In the vast and gloomy space, culminating in web-like vaulting, the columns rise up like legs. Each of them has been carved almost from top to bottom. As in the Escorial Monastery in Spain, Jerónimos serves as the royal resting ground. Large pyramidal tombs sit upon sculpted elephants, containings kings and queens. Yet the most famous people buried in the church had not a drop of blue blood. In matching tombs near the entrance are buried Luís de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet, and the famous explorer Vasco da Gama. These tombs were constructed long after those two eminent men died; but their remains were transported here in the 19th century.

The style that characterizes the Jerónimos Monastery is called Manueline—a blend of gothic, Italian, Spanish, and Moorish influences—and it is typical of the Portuguese Golden Age. Nearby is another excellent example of this style, as embodied in the Belém Tower. Indeed, this tower was composed of the same rock as was used to make the monastery. It was built as a defensive structure; but this pragmatic function did not lead to a dull edifice. Rather, the fortification displays the same exuberant decoration as the monastery. The fortress was originally constructed on a small island near the bank; but the shoreline has gradually expanded, so that nowadays the tower can be visited on foot. Both times I saw the tower, the line to enter was quite long, so I decided against it.

Just down the river from the tower is the Monument to the Discoveries. This is a far more recent construction, having been built in 1939 for the Portuguese World Exhibition. It is a worthy addition to the area. The massive concrete fin is shaped like the prow of a ship; and riding on top, in a heroic procession, are great figures from Portugal’s Age of Discovery. In the space in front of the monument, a large mosaic compass has been inserted into the pavement. In the center is a map of the world, with the names of notable explorers and the dates of their voyages marked. Most of the figures aboard the ship are, I am afraid, unknown to me. But at the tip is Henry the Navigator, the Prince who helped to inaugurate and coordinate the first Portuguese explorations.

No account of Belém would be complete without mention of the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém, a bakery famous for making Lisbon’s most iconic food: pastel de nata. This is made with egg custard inside a small, crispy pie crust. They are omnipresent in Lisbon and make for an excellent breakfast or dessert. The recipe was originally developed in the Jerónimos Monastery itself, by monks who wanted to make some extra money. But when the monastery was secularized in the 19th century, the recipe was sold. While I am on the subject, I should also say that, in general, the food in Lisbon is quite good: fresh, flavorful, and reasonably priced. I especially enjoy the cod.

To sum up this long overdue account, Lisbon is a city of delights. The city itself is beautiful; and it is full of history and culture. Indeed, the only problem with Lisbon is that it is so nice that it attracts a great many tourists. But this is the curse of all great destinations.

Northern Portugal: Oporto & Aveiro

Northern Portugal: Oporto & Aveiro

The train from Vigo left the station, traveled around the bay’s edge, and then turned south on its voyage to Oporto. I was vainly trying to read Hegel. Through the window I could see the Galician landscape, green and woody; then the tracks took us along the ocean shore, showing us the waves lapping the sand. It was not a high speed train and so the relatively short voyage took three hours.

The border between Portugal and Spain is almost imperceptible. In the north it follows the path of the River Miño, a relatively small waterway that could never have been a serious impediment to travel. In the south, there isn’t even a river. It makes me wonder how such a notable contrast in culture and language arose in the first place.

Immediately across the border is the Portuguese town of Valença, which is known for its baroque fortress overlooking the river, bulwarked by polygonal walls and trenches. Further on we passed by the town of Barcelos, which has a well-preserved medieval center and bridge. Finally the train creaked to a halt in its final destination:


Oporto

With around 300,000 inhabitants, Oporto is the second-largest city in Portugal and the urban center of the country’s northern half. Its real name in Portuguese is Porto. “O” is the Portuguese word for “the,” and “porto” means “port,” so that the name “Oporto” is just “the port” mistakenly transcribed. In any case, the name is appropriate, considering the city’s maritime orientation. Situated along the banks of the River Douro, the fishing and shipping industry have been important to the city since Roman times.

oporto_bridge

The most beautiful views of the city are to be found along this river, as the banks slope steeply down to the water, and the city follows like tumbling dice. Across this divide the two halves of the city are connected with a series of towering bridges. Among the newer bridges is the Arrábida Bridge, which had the biggest concrete arch in the world when it opened in 1963 (I don’t know what has surpassed it); and there is the sleekly modern São João railroad bridge, which eschews the arch for a wavy line suspended on two pillars.

But the most beautiful bridge in Oporto is the Ponte Dom Luis I. This bridge is sometimes confused with the nearby Maria Pia Bridge—a railroad bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel—and for good reason, since the two look very similar. This is not accidental, of course, since the Ponte Dom Luis I was designed by the engineer Théophile Seyrig, one of Eiffel’s disciples. The main difference between Seyrig’s bridge and Eiffel’s is the former’s lower deck; and this feature is extremely convenient, since it means that pedestrians and drivers near the river don’t have to ascend the banks to use the bridge. This was the second innovative bridge I have seen by one of Eiffel’s disciples, the first being the Vizcaya Bridge near Bilbao. Both of these, as well as Eiffel’s own bridge, are models of elegant design, combining function and style.

Oporto_pontedomluis

At the time the bridge was completed, it was the largest of its type in the world; and still today it is an impressive structure, standing 85 meters (279 feet) tall. Nowadays cars (and people) can cross the Ponte Dom Luis I on the lower deck, while the upper deck is reserved for pedestrians and the tram. The top of the bridge offers, without a doubt, the best view of the city, showing the antique city center crowded along the riverbanks, their orange roofs glowing in the sunlight, while ships cruise by in the sparkling water below. On one side of the river, a medieval wall still clings to hillside; and beyond one can see the tower of Oporto’s cathedral, and the still more impressive Clérigos Tower in the distance. The courtyard of Serra do Pilar monastery presides over the bridge’s other end, creating a satisfying symmetry.

oporto_bridgeview1

Torre_de_los_Clérigos,_Oporto,_Portugal,_2012-05-09,_DD_01
Photo by Diego Delso; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Oporto has much to offer in the way of churches. The city’s cathedral is a sparse but elegant Romanesque structure, with a narrow nave supported by a barrel vault. Not far from here is the Church of Santo Ildefonso, with a façade of the blue tiles that are such a pleasing aspect of Portuguese architecture. The aforementioned Clérigos Church sits on a narrow block; and though its ornate Baroque decoration is impressive, it is hard to pay attention to anything but its massive bell tower on its back end, so tall as to be visible from many points of the city. But any list of churches is bound to come up short; every time I walked to a new part of town, I was surprised to find stately and grand church buildings.

One church does stick out in my memory, however, and that is the Church of São Francisco. From the outside it does not look like much: a sliver of gothic windows can be seen from the back, while the entrances of the building complex are all crowded around a little square. Nevertheless, this modest structure is the best-preserved gothic building in the city, which is one of the reasons it was designated as UNESCO World Heritage.

The church’s somewhat unassuming exterior gives way to a detonation of art once the pilgrim passes through the door. Here Baroque is triumphant, covering every surface with intricate designs and elaborate sculptures, flowering forth like spring trees. Every altar showcases a cacophony of forms, overwhelming the viewer with fine details; my favorite is the magnificent altar showing the Tree of Jesse, the family tree extending from the father of King David down to the Virgin. I can understand why some may be put off by the richness of the decoration; but I am always impressed by such excess. The eye struggles in vain to take it all in; and finally I turn away, defeated.

Oporto_Chapel

Another unforgettable section of the church are its crypts. Wealthy patrons of the Franciscan Order (to whom this church belonged) chose to be buried here, in catacombs accessible through an adjacent building. It is an eerie space, shadowy and cold, illuminated by fiery yellow lights. Most hair-raising are the piles of human bones visible through openings in the floor. These are the common graves of the Franciscan brothers, I believe, accumulated over hundreds of years.

The Church of São Francisco was originally part of a convent, complete with an adjoining cloisters; but during Portugal’s Liberal Wars (1828-34), a fire destroyed most of the convent. This unfortunate destruction at least allowed space for the city’s Commercial Association to build their lovely Palácio da Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace, in its place.

The neoclassical building that now stands is a veritable church of finance. To visit one must join a guided tour, which is no bad thing; my guide did an excellent job explaining the history and art of the structure. We began in the Patio das Nações, or the Courtyard of Nations, so-called because of the paintings of the coats-of-arms of various countries with which Portugal does business. On one wall I even spotted the eagle of the United States. As in a real palace, every room, even the stairwell, is lavishly decorated; yet unlike a palace, the iconography is calculated to glorify commercial exploits. Here we can see, manifested in stucco and stone, the wealthy bourgeois usurping royalty as the dominant force in the country.

I particularly remember the Sala das Assembleias, the merchant equivalent of the throne room, all of it decorated in fake lacquered wood (actually the “wood” is painted on) and filled with elegant furniture. Yet the most marvelous room in the building is without doubt the Arab Room, an enormous space whose walls are decorated in a Neo-Mudéjar style, imitating the stucco patterns of the Alhambra, yet adding ostentatious colors to the mix. If the Commercial Association wanted to impress visitors with their splendor, they did an excellent job.

Arab Room
Photo by Josep Renalias; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

If you have even a passing taste for wine, it is criminal to visit Oporto without going to at least one winery. The city is, of course, the home and namesake of Port wine; and there are several well-known wineries located across the river. In case you are not familiar with Port, this is a dark, red, and sweet fortified wine—about 20% alcohol by volume—that is normally drunk with dessert.

This wine has historically been very popular in England, largely thanks to the Methuen Treaty of 1703, which lowered import tariffs on Portuguese products while war with France made French vintages an impossibility across the channel. For this reason, too, some of the most prominent Port companies are owned by British families, such as the one I visited, Taylor’s. The visit consisted of a self-guided tour, with a tasting at the end. What most sticks out in my memory were the photographs of the terraced banks of the River Douro, the mighty river whose misty climate provides the home for the grapes.

oporto_bodega

The most famous dish of Oporto is the francesihna, which must be seen to be believed. Though its name means “little Frenchie” in Portuguese, it is neither little nor French. It is a double-decker sandwich, whose bread struggles to contain ham, sausages, and roast pork. Smothered with melted cheese, and perhaps a fried egg for good measure, the sandwich is then bathed in a tomato-beer sauce and placed in a bed of French fries, where it awaits its fate. By happenstance I stumbled upon a small restaurant called Bufeta Fase, which has great reviews and correspondingly great francesihnas. When I went the place was full of Portuguese people, which is a good sign.

francesihna

My belly full of port and francesihna, I felt that I had better take a long walk. I decided that I would try to go all the way from the city center to the ocean port, following the course of the river. This course led me through the most attractive neighborhood in the city, the Ribeira, full of colorful houses arranged in a jumble along the river. On the other side of the river you can see some of the old boats that were used to transport the wine in the days before technology made our lives easier and less romantic. Nowadays the main cargo transported on the River Douro are tourists on ferries.

The walk to the port is long and passes through some nondescript areas, until gradually the city simmers down into town, and the ocean begins to take shape before you. Eventually I was walking past small houses and docks full of personal fishing boats. The other side of the port is dominated by an attractive sandy bay, now a natural park. I arrived at the Carneiro beach just as the sun was dipping below the horizon, lighting up the ocean a fiery red. I walked to the lighthouse, which sits on a boardwalk that extends like a concrete arm into the water, and then turned wearily back home. Now I had to do it all in reverse.

Oporto_sunset

This concluded my time in Oporto. As an afterthought, I would also like to include a note on the Portuguese language. Etymologically and grammatically, it is the closest Romance language to Spanish. For this reason any Spaniard can read basic Portuguese with little trouble. But spoken Portuguese—at least in Portugal—could hardly be more distinct. Indeed, to an untrained ear it hardly sounds like a Romance language at all, but rather Slavic, not only in its consonants and vowels, but even its spoken rhythm.

Apparently one reason for this perceived difference is because the Portuguese spoken in Portugal (as opposed to that spoken in Brazil) is stress-timed, which means that unstressed syllables are deemphasized to preserve a fairly constant gap between stressed syllables; whereas Spanish is a syllable-timed language, so every syllable, stressed or unstressed, takes up roughly the same amount of time. English is a stress-timed language, too, which perhaps helps to explain why Portuguese people are notably better than the Spanish at speaking English. I have had no trouble getting by in Portugal using English; even in small shops outside the city center people have spoken remarkably well. I have also been told that, unlike the Spanish, who often dub movies and shows, the Portuguese watch everything with the original audio—which would help explain the performance gap.

I also must note that, as soon as the you get out of the tourist center, you can still see signs of Portugal’s economic crisis. Buildings are in poor repair or entirely in ruins, and the streets are seldom buzzing with life. The recovery has been slow indeed. And when you see that, behind the numbers and charts, there are ordinary people who have suffered from the downturn, you can get a sense of the anger and despair that the institutional status quo can engender.


Aveiro

Having some extra time in Oporto I decided that I would venture out and explore a smaller town. This led me to Oporto’s central train station, São Bento, which is itself worth visiting for the tile-work in the main lobby depicting scenes from Portuguese history. My destination was Aveiro, recommended to me by a Spanish teacher.

Aveiro

The city of Aveiro is largely famous for its canals, which is why it has been nicknamed the “Venice of Portugal.” These waterways are a pretty sight, with colorful gondolas cruising by, each of them filled with tourists covered in baseball caps and sunglasses, snapping photo after photo. Even without the canals, the town would be attractive for its many colorful tiled building—a style called “azulejo,” which combined form and function, since the tiles decorate while helping to keep the building cool.

Aveiro_azulejo
The Aveiro train station, an example of azulejo decoration

With a busy and beautiful port, and a thriving tourist industry, Aveiro is one of the most affluent areas in the country. The economy is quite diversified, as many locals work in salt extraction plants; and the city also contains one of Portugal’s more important universities. In many ways the city is an oasis.

Nevertheless I managed to get into a sour mood shortly after I arrived. Though I love to travel, the sight of shops selling tourist knickknacks, the sound of American families bickering as they walk by, the overpriced and inauthentic restaurants with gaudy décor, the attractions that entertain but do not instruct—in short, travel conceived of alternately as a resort or as an amusement park—makes me feel bitter and out of place. Unless I am learning something, then it is hard for me to justify going to another country; if I want fun, I might as well stay at home and have a beer.

I cannot say that this sour mood is either fair or rational; nor is it pleasant. To escape from the crowds and clear my head, I walked out towards the port. This has been divided with a series of narrow land-bridges, making the area into a kind of marsh, with pockets of water divided like fields of wheat. Frankly I don’t know the purpose of this arrangement; but the result is fascinating and beautiful.

I kept walking and walking, until I lost myself in the labyrinths of land and water. There were little buildings out in these marshes, and a few old boats floating in the water; yet nobody seemed to be around. Soon I was so far out that I could forget about Aveiro. A peaceful silence hung in the atmosphere. The air was clear, except for swarms of tiny, harmless gnats that buzzed in circles to no apparent purpose. As I rounded a bend I was surprised to find a flock of flamingos lounging in the water. They were no less surprised to find me, and soon took off, flapping their enormous wings with impressive alacrity, disappearing from sight in a matter of seconds. They are magnificent beasts.

aveiro_flamencos

The further out I went, the more elated I felt, savoring the joy of being alone with nature. Yet my joy turned to anxiety as I began to worry that I couldn’t find my way back. A few wrong turns led me to dead ends, where the land bridges terminated in water, forcing me to retrace my steps through the tall grass. A couple times I missed my footing and almost slipped into the water. I imagined what the news would say if I drowned in the marshes of Aveiro: “Dumb American Tourist Gets Lost in Portuguese Bay.”

After three or four moments of fear, despair, and self-reproach, I successfully retraced my own steps and found my way back to solid land. Refreshed, rejuvenated, and greatly relieved, I walked back to the train station to get back to Oporto. Do not let my sour mood dissuade you. Aveiro is a beautiful place, both the town itself and the surrounding area.

This was my final day of Holy Week vacation. The next day I flew back to Madrid, and to work, feeling more at peace than I have ever felt before or since.