In our first trip to Portugal, we flew into a rainy Lisbon. It was a city full of surprises with a rich and proud history, people who are for the most part, welcoming and quick to smile. It’s taken us this long to get to Portugal because the popularity of Lisbon means it’s always a little more expensive than elsewhere, but now we understand why everyone loves to visit!
I had no idea that Portugal is actually the oldest city in Western Europe, predating even Rome. On November 1st 1755 however, a devastating earthquake destroyed almost the entire city and most of the residents in it. Coming from a place that knows a thing or two about earthquakes (especially recently!) I was fascinated to learn that this catastrophic event had significant political, philosophical and scientific ramifications across Europe. The 1st of November is All Saints Day which means the majority of Lisbon’s Catholic residents were at church when the earthquake struck. One of the traditions on this day was to light candles. So now we have a situation where people are packed into churches and in their homes, are a bunch of candles. Bring in the earthquake that struck 200km out in the Atlantic ocean and was an estimated 8.5-9 in strength, and suddenly you get not only the frightening and destructive force of the very earth beneath your feet moving, but also the crumbling of church roofs onto the worshipers and the collapse of homes that then burst into flames. For those that survived the initial quake, they emerged surrounded by broken buildings, smoke and flames – looked a lot like hell! People who are familiar with earthquakes will know that when the trembling stops there is another risk, and with an earthquake of that magnitude, the ensuing tsunami was disastrous. Water rushed up covering the entire downtown area of Lisbon. The people who survived all that, battled the remaining fires across the city for five days.
From a religious perspective, this event that impacted a number of cities across the Iberian Peninsular, looked like divine judgement. The significance of the religious holiday could not be ignored, and the fact that a great number of non-Christian people survived was particularly hard-hitting. Today, we’re aware that they were safer due to living in neighbourhoods based on stronger bedrock and also higher up, saving them from the worst of the damage. Being non-Catholic, they were also without candles everywhere and weren’t in the churches. At the time, philosophers and religious leaders were struggling to make sense of the disaster, but of course for the everyday survivor, rebuilding was of immediate importance.
Prime Minister Sebastião de Melo, or the Marquis of Pombal, conducted the rebuild but perhaps most importantly, also surveyed different neighbourhoods to provide a detailed (and recorded) outline of the event including how long it lasted, how the sea behaved, and where people felt the shaking was strongest. This is the earliest known record of scientific investigation into earthquakes. The Marquis also experimented with building homes that could withstand some trembling and shaking, resulting in his status as the leader of modern seismology. Some of the engineering techniques he discovered are still used today!
It is impossible to ignore the impact of the earthquake because it means basically all the buildings in the city date from the 18th century onwards. We knew it was an ancient city, but it had the appearance of a much younger one.
When you walk around the streets of Lisbon, you realise that they have an infatuation with tiles. They’re absolutely everywhere. I even saw one building I thought was made of bricks but it was only tiles made to look like bricks covering the outside! It should come as no surprise then, that there is an excellent tile museum that is well worth visiting. The collection is housed in a picturesque building that was the Convent of Madre de Deus. There is a defined path through the museum to ensure you see everything including a truly amazing work comprising around 1300 tiles that depicts what the city looked like prior to the 1755 earthquake. Also inside the museum is one of the most gilded chapels we have ever seen. It was built after the earthquake with enormous paintings of religious scenes, and golden ornate decorations on every other available surface.
On the way back to our hotel, we decided to check out Castelo de S. Jorge which is a Moorish castle dating from Medieval times. It sits atop a hill where it looks down on the old centre of Lisbon and despite the clouds, we were able to see quite a lot of city stretching out below. We enjoyed walking along the ramparts of the castle, feeling about as much like knights as we ever will.
A few minutes after we were settled in our room, we heard a knock on the door and it was a complimentary delivery of water and Portuguese custard tarts! An unexpected but delicious afternoon treat! I would proceed to consume a few more of those tarts over the course of our trip – they’re so delicious! That evening we went to a grill house where we had real peri peri sauce with chicken, interesting cured codfish (something everyone loves, so we were told) and a huge salad. I often say we eat too much while abroad and it happened in Lisbon too!
We awoke on Sunday morning with a sense of adventure and embarked on a stroll through the city streets, seeing the popular Santa Justa Lift and several beautiful churches. There is a small, extremely slow and agonisingly squeaky tram that took us down to Restauradores square. At it’s centre is the Monumento dos Restauradores which is a victory monument for the Portuguese Restoration War that lasted from 1640 to 1668. From there we strolled along the seaside to see an enormous chicken monument (yes, for real). It was really beautiful even if it did make me think of Nandos! Not too far from the big chicken, a man was building rock towers as if by magic (definitely some kind of sorcery involved!). A steep climb up led us to Miradouro de Lisboa; another fortress-like structure that provided nice views of the city, made all the better with the improved weather.
For lunch we went to a restaurant called Cervejaria Ramiro which is where Richard and I indulged in a seafood bonanza we won’t soon forget. The restaurant quickly became full and a queue formed outside but we were just ahead of the crowd so got a table straight away. We ordered clams, prawns, langoustine and sea snails. The sea snails were a risk, we simply picked something at random off the menu and when they appeared we were pretty skeptical. They’re cooked but served cold with a little hook to fish them out. While decidedly unattractive, the taste was mild with a chewy texture. Everything was so fresh and simply cooked but with fairly reasonable prices given the quality. Seafood lovers must make a journey to this place.
We spent the afternoon taking part in an unplanned walking tour. Our guide was enthusiastic and dealt well with a heckler (“Tourists, go home! Lisbon doesn’t like tourists!”). We learnt from him that there are some areas designated by local government for street art to encourage poorer neighbourhoods to have a sense of ownership and pride in their homes. This along with other community initiatives have improved several suburbs around Lisbon that were previously avoided for safety concerns. Economic strains that plague many European cities were also evident in Lisbon, but in general the people seem optimistic and tenacious.
The tour also included a wander through Alfama; a gorgeous neighbourhood that retains a sense of an old village with its small winding cobbled streets. The area was originally where the Moors lived hence the somewhat Middle Eastern name. Alfama was less impacted by the 1755 earthquake than the rest of the city so it’s buildings are older and give an idea of what the whole of Lisbon was once like. Once you’re inside, the noise of traffic and bustling city life disappears, leaving only the clattering of dishes and the laughing of children playing in the street. The sense of community is particularly strong and we were told about how residents of all the homes surrounding an open square will cook outdoors and spread out tables to eat together – doesn’t that sound amazing?
Lisbon, and Portugal in general, is often seen as the younger sibling of its Spanish neighbours. The city has a unique character though, so don’t think it’s not worth visiting. There is a calm and relaxed approach to life along with an abundance of beautiful tiles, ancient castles, and hearty food. On our last day in Portugal we took a trip out to Sintra – a beautiful town unlike any we’ve seen before. A new blog post will be up soon with all the details!