While Portugal’s former colonies across the world may have the people acquainted with its lifestyle and culture, a rich repository of history and heritage in the country leaves a lot more to be explored.
In medieval times, Portugal was an important linchpin for Arabs, Moors, Romans and Goth. In the Golden Ages during the 14th-15th century, venturous navigators discovered the new continents, founded trading posts and shipped home various treasures such as lucrative spices (esp. pepper, cinnamon, and clove), gold, exotic woods and ivory. Portuguese Empire comprised of colonies in Africa, South America, Asia and Oceania. For Indians, the former Portuguese colonies of Goa, Daman and Diu give hints of their lifestyle and culture. However, a journey to Western Europe to experience the true face of Portugal is equally enchanting. The end of Portuguese India was recognised in 1974, the same year as Portugal’s Carnation Revolution, when carnations epitomised the symbol of a peaceful military revolution into democracy after decades of an abhorrent dictatorship. The sights those days were dominated by people on top of the tanks placing carnations into the gun barrels. Another important turning point in history was the European integration in 1986, when Portugal joined the European Union and in 1999, when the Euro was introduced as a common currency for all Euro-area members.
Lisbon: The 750 year old capital on hills
In 1256 King Afonso II made Lisbon the capital of his kingdom. After the conquest of East India in the 15th century, Lisbon became one of the richest capitals in the world. A heavy earthquake in 1755 and a massive conflagration in 1988 could not stop the reconstruction efforts of many historical monuments built in those “Golden Ages”.
Situated in a bay of the river Tagus on hilly terrain near the Atlantic coast, Lisbon today is one of the most romantic capitals in Europe. Under the reign of King Manuel I (1495-1521), the enormous revenues from overseas trade contracts and monopolies allowed lavish spending on a pompous late Gothic style of architecture mixed with Spanish, Italian, Flemish and Islamic stylistic elements and enriched with maritime ornaments (e.g. ropes used in ships), inspired by the famous navigators Vasco da Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral. This socalled Manueline style influenced the architecture of numerous monasteries and cathedrals built throughout the country. A prominent example of Manueline style is the Belém Tower (Torre de Belém, 16th century), also called the Tower of St Vincent at Lisbon’s Belem district and acts as the landmark of the city as well. “Belem” is the Portuguese word for “Bethlehem”, the town where Jesus Christ was believed to be born. Reconstructed in 1846, the building comprises of a defensive bastion with an iconic fortified four storey tower on the bank of the Tagus River and was classified as UNESCO-World Heritage Site in 1983. In the vicinity another UNESCO-Heritage site in rich Manueline style with Late Gothic and Renaissance elements is the Jerónimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, 16h century). With full crown coffers from the overseas trade those days, King Manuel I allowed the architects free hands on spending. Over 400 years the Hieronymites, an austere hermit fraternity, gave spiritual succour to the sailors and navigators for their successful journeys or missions abroad. Amidst the royal graves rests the sarcophagus with the mortal remains of Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea route via Africa to East India and died in 1524 in Cochin.
A must-see as well as a shopper’s paradise is Baixa, the posh downtown with Rossio (the Plaza) also called Praca de Dom Pedro IV, the vibrant heart of the city, followed by the National Theatre (Teatro National de Dona Maria II), Estacao do Rossio (central station), the pedestrian zone Rua Augusta that leads to the Tagus River. A curio par excellence is the Santa Justa Lift (Elevador de Santa Justa), connecting Rua do Ouro in Baixa with Carmo Square in the upper town (Bairo Alto) by a cast-iron elevator in Neo-Gothic style with two cabins, each carrying up to 25 people. Inaugurated in 1901 and originally powered by steam, the conversion to electrical operation was in 1907 – a gobsmacking innovation for those days. During the ride, the view of the network of streets is stunning and the exit via a bridge at a dizzy height causes a real thrill. An observation platform with a café offers an even better panoramic view. The constructor was a student of Gustave Eiffel, the builder of the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris. Worth seeing in Bairo Alto is Praca de Camoes, the memorial of Luis Vaz de Camoes, the national poet of Portugal and the monastery Concento do Carma (1389-1423), today an Archaeological Museum. Getting back to Baixa, take the Elevador da Glória, a funicular inaugurated in 1885. This national monument, originally waterpowered, was changed to steam-power in 1885 and electrified in 1915.
Alfama, today the oldest quarter of Lisbon, formed the city centre during the era of the Moors, Islamised tribes, partly nomads from North Africa in the seventh century. The architecture, therefore, is typical with elements such as maze of alleyways with archways and steep flight of stairs. The streets here are sometimes so narrow, that the tram no. 28 operates single-tracked. Hills up and down, the legendary tram passes a lot of sightseeing points: Castelo de Sao Jorge was the residence of the Portuguese kings until the 16th century. Alfama die Sé (12th century) is the oldest church in Lisbon. The kings of the House of Braganza were buried in the Monastery Sao Vicente de Fora (16th century).
The National Tile Museum, housed in Madre de Deus Convent that is situated in Xabregas, on the western area of Lisboa, curates glazed ceramic tiles enamelled or painted in vivid colours gathered from the 13th to 20th centuries, tracing the history and production of the art of Azulejos. Deriving originally from Persia, the Moors imported the Azulejos to the Iberian Peninsula, where the design and technique changed in the course of time into contemporaneous style. There was a mass production after the earthquake and conflagration. Until today many walls and floors in churches, monasteries, palaces and even official and private buildings are plastered with tiles. The motifs are predominantly ornaments, animals, buildings, historical events or hunting scenes. Even the metro stations in Lisbon are covered with this art.
A visitor must not miss to stop at Ponto Vasco da Gama, the 17.2 km long suspension bridge, connecting the eastern part of Lisbon with Montijo and Almada, one of the longest bridges in the world. The prototype was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
There are enumerable things to discover in Lisbon, depending on the tourist’s field of interest. At the end of a long sightseeing day take a rest in your hotel only to plunge later in the Lusitanian hospitality. Enjoy the nightlife in the bars and taverns in Bairo Alto, Alfama and Mouraria. In case of appetite for musical entertainment, go along with Lisbon’s typical Fado-taverns. Fado, identified as the UNESCO world cultural heritage in 2011, has its origin in the former slums of Lisbon and is the Portuguese word for fate. The mournful subjects of the singer are about social grievance, unfulfilled love and saudade, i.e. the desire for better times, accompanied with a 12-string Fado-guitar. Everything calls for an appetite for local culinary specialities. Order one of solid meat or fish dishes. Lunch and dinner usually includes a soup with cabbage, potatoes, shredded kale with sliced chourico, a spicy sausage. The national dish is stockfish; while one of the popular dishes is Sardinhas Assadas (grilled pilchards). A stew may contain mussels, pork, onions, vegetables, potatoes and rice galley, influenced from Brazil, Goa, Macao, Greece, Turkey, Africa or Arabia. Typical deserts are rice or caramel puddings. But what is the right drink to lift your spirits?
Wines of Portugal – a deep- rooted history
Since roman times Portugal is one of the oldest wine growing areas in Europe. In 1703, the Methuen freetrade agreement opened the bilateral trade between England and Portugal. England’s demand for wine skyrocketed and became the major import product. But, there was one hitch: to preserve through the long sea passage, English marketers mixed the wine with 25 per cent brandy. This happened for the first time in 1678, as the duty documents reveal. Today, the alcoholic strength is reduced to maximum 22 per cent. Therefore, the brandy gets added only for fermentation, whereby the remaining sugar creates the precious sweetness. The world-famous port wine grapes thrive in the terraced hill slopes of the Douro Valley in the northern province of Portugal where the slate soil serves as a hot-water bag. Porto, once a small trading spot in Roman times, is today the second largest city of Portugal and world famous as port of shipment for: Port. Portugal also produces varied excellent white and red wines such as Redoma Douro, Quinta do Cotto, Fojo and Gaivosa.
Apropos good old stoppers: Did you know that Portugal, at 51 per cent, is the world’s biggest producer of cork? Cork bark is the product of dead cells of the cork oak (quercus suber). The trees grow in the Mediterranean Algarve region, covering about 5.3 million acres, with the maximum age of 250 years. Approximately 20,000 workers in 490 factories produce about 35 million corks per day for wine and champagne.
How to reach
By Air: The national airline TranportesAerosPortugueos is well connected to other countries of the world. Lisbon International Airport also has several international flights.
By Rail: The Santa Apolonia Station in Lisbon, Coimbra station and the Campanha station in Oporto have daily trains to and from Paris, Madrid and several other European locations.
By Road: With an international driving permit, one can come across the border from Spain.
Where to stay
Portugal is one of the economic destinations in Western Europe, which is reflected in the prices of these great places to stay, from arty cabins in the Algarve to a cool surfer’s hostel near Lisbon.