The city of seven hills
Beautiful tiles, magnificent art, vintage trams and custard tarts were just some of the discoveries Judy Bryant made on a visit to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.
South African Garden and Home
Tiles, tiles and more tiles – in all their patterned and glazed glory – are the visual takeaway from cinematically-beautiful Lisbon. Produced mainly in the mid-to-late 1800s, they adorn hundreds of buildings in the Portuguese capital and are intrinsic to this beguiling city’s identity.
These arresting facades were just one of many delightful discoveries made during an unexpected Easter weekend in the Cinderella of Western Europe’s classy capitals.
A short break in Lisbon was frankly an afterthought: booking a long-awaited trip to Barcelona with a university friend, and discovering a better flight deal if we returned a few days later, we decided to spend a few days in the city where even the shortest little cobbled street seems to have at least one photo-worthy painted panel.
Just as well we visited, we assured ourselves later, replete with culture and too many of the delicious little cinnamon-dusted custard pies (pasteis da nata) arrayed in aromatic little cafes and bakeries across the city.
The first pleasant surprise was the price of accommodation, given the lowly rand – a lovely room with a shaded balcony in upmarket Principe Real. Including a hearty breakfast made to order by housekeeper Maria (including freshly-squeezed orange juice) this cost R500/day per person via Airbnb.
On arrival, our first sights of the glorious tiles were at station stops on the old four-line metro, a classic example of how public spaces can be managed. Themes ranged from orange trees to literature, women of Lisbon to bullfighting, flowers and animals.
Artist Maria Keil designed wall coverings for a total of 19 Lisbon metro stations over a period of 25 years – from her first commission in 1957 to her final work in 1982. This marked a turning point in the revival of the Portuguese art of the azulejo, which had undergone a long period of decline.
After a warm welcome from our host Goncarlo (and the resident bouncy canine, Avocado) we took Goncarlo’s advice and headed off to the unpretentious Casa da India restaurant for authentic Portuguese food.
When guide books say Lisbon is a city of seven hills, they aren’t joking. Peering at a Google map on a tablet, we stumbled down a dark, steep cobbled street and eventually joined the queue of hungry families snaking round the block. Soon we were washing down chilled local beer while taking up the neighbouring family’s insistent offers to sample morsels of ham and slices of cheese from their laden platters.
The next morning we did a whistle-stop tour of city highlights by boarding one of the bright yellow, wooden-panelled trams that, despite their venerable age, hurtle round corners and rumble up Lisbon’s many hills. We chose the best-known route of number 28, which despite the cloudy weather, offered tantalizing glimpses of red-tiled rooftops, graceful church spires, squares with imposing statues and the wide Tagus river.
During Easter in a Catholic country, the churches are especially magnificent – and this city offers sacred show-stoppers galore. The Sao Roque (Church of Saint Roch), for example, might have a plain façade, but once you enter, the gilt, precious stones and paintings are astounding.
Each of the four gloriously-decorated chapels is a masterpiece of Baroque art, but you can see why the fourth one – built in Rome and shipped to Lisbon in 1747, dedicated to John the Baptist – was billed as “the world’s most expensive chapel” in its time. It’s laden with gold, silver, ivory, agate and lapis lazuli, plus extraordinarily detailed mosaics and a painted ceiling.
One of the most serenely beautiful chapels, however, was a chance encounter when we wandered into the Convent of São Pedro de Alcântara. It was founded due to the initiative of the first Marquis of Marialva, who vowed to erect a convent if the Portuguese won the Battle of Montes Claros in 1665.
This small church is a condensation of all that is lovely: ancient oak pews juxtaposed against classic blue and white tiles, with a simple stone baptismal fountain. As we left, we followed the haunting sounds of melancholic fado music, and discovered a panoramic view of the city spread out before us.
Many of the beautiful churches and galleries are founded on the riches amassed when Portugal was a global empire. There are also more recently accumulated, vast private collections donated to the city, such as the treasures of the Gulbenkian Museum.
Part of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, it houses a magnificent collection of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Islamic, Asian and European art, glass, furniture and ceramics. It was donated by Armenian oil magnate Calouste Gulbenkian, who adopted Portugal as his home. (Many of its masterpieces were on display in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art while the Foundation building was renovated and modernised in 2001.)
Another stupendous collection comes from local magnate Jose Berardo. The greatest hits of the Museu Coleccao Berardo range from British and American pop art (Warhol’s silk-screened portrait of Judy Garland and the famous Campbell’s soup), to Cubism and Dadaism, the surrealism of Dali’s famous lobster telephone, and much, much more.
Cities like Paris and Miami were interested in buying this vast collection of modern and contemporary art, but fortunately the Portuguese government made sure it was kept in Lisbon by providing space inside the Belem Cultural Center. This is a large complex that hosts touring music concerts, operas, ballets and art displays.
Belem is an easy 20-minute tram ride south-west of the city centre and is a picturesque district from whose ancient harbours ships set sail around the world. Many of the 14th century voyages of discovery departed from here.
One of its top sights is the vast Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, an extravagant monastery where wives of sailors prayed for the safe return of their loved ones. There are beautiful stone carvings and intricate, lacy stonework throughout this Unesco World Heritage Site.
The adjoining Maritime Museum has armadas of model ships, barges and cannonballs, with enormous old wooden anchors displayed on the grass outside. Nearby, on the north bank of the river, is the Discoveries Monument built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator.
Jutting over the water, it represents a vast stone three-sailed ship ready to depart, with Prince Henry at the prow holding a small vessel. In his wake are sculptures of important historical figures and hardy Portuguese explorers, crusaders, monks, cartographers and cosmographers.
After hours of gazing at art, we made the most of the spring sunshine. Strolling past sparkling fountains, with food trucks parked nearby, we discovered a 110-year old tropical garden with ponds, towering palm trees and tropical plants from all over the world.
This was no casual walk, however. We were on a mission. Our quest was to sample arguably the greatest custard pies of all, pasteis de Belem, crafted at a local patisserie since 1837. Apparently the origin of this Portuguese uber-pastry is an early 19th century sugarcane refinery that was situated next to the monastery we had visited earlier. The story goes that after the liberal revolution in the 19th century, monasteries were shut down and, to survive, the monks developed the sinfully good recipe.
The crispy pastry and egg custard was delicious, particularly with the extra packets of sugar and cinnamon tucked into the smart blue and white parcels.
But possibly the finest custard pies of them all, we finally decided after much sampling, were just round the corner from our very own little apartment, at a bakery named Cister, founded in 1938. “Those pasteis are so deep you have to eat them with a spoon,” Goncarlo had assured us. We didn’t believe him, but it was true. There, just before we left for the airport, I perfected saying isto estava delicioso (that was delicious).
Fortunately, the botanical garden of the University’s Natural History Museum was also just round the corner. A walk around its 10 acres, almost invisible from the surrounding streets, plus lugging our suitcases to the metro stop (where the elevator was broken) worked off any excess calories.
Just enough time for one last look at the glorious tiles as the stations whizzed by. Adeus, Lisbon. I’ll be back for second helpings.
First published in South African Garden and Home, August 2016
Images Judy Bryant and supplied