Lisbon - Palaces, Castles and Navigators

James & Amelia Gould
Tue 5 Jun 2007 09:45

23 - 31 May 2007: Cascais & Lisbon


Cascais is the first major resort we have visited since arriving in Portugal, and the contrast with the north of the country was striking.  The marina was huge, much bigger than the little ports further north where yachts jostle for space among the fishing boats.  It was also nearly 3 times more expensive; we baulked when we heard the price, and if we didn’t have visitors coming we would have been out of there in a second!  Gone were the grumpy, scary, big Portuguese fishermen’s wives selling dried fish on the beach, and the fishermen sat around tables in the shade playing dominoes.  Instead the town was full of stalls selling tourist tat and restaurants luring customers with big signs displaying the menu in several different languages.  Suddenly we also found all the things we have been unable to buy in the past month – a newspaper in English, teabags, tomato puree…


My mum and husband, Barry, arrived in Cascais the day after us, and after a relaxing day with them wondering around the town and beach we went sightseeing.  They had hired a car, so we decided to drive out to Sintra, which was the summer residence of the Portuguese Royal Family.  The National Palace was originally built as the residence of the Moorish governors of Lisbon, and after the overthrow of the Moors served as a Royal Palace for over 800 years until the monarchy was abolished in 1910.  Its long history meant that it had been continually altered and expanded and so contained examples of architecture and styles reflecting the fashion over several centuries.  Parts of the palace were beautiful, and it was fascinating to walk through the meandering rooms and see the style change – it was like walking through consecutive series of Changing Rooms.  I especially liked all the Moorish tiles still framing some of the doorways and the Manueline stone carvings.  James liked the Coat of Arms room, on the edge of the palace, which had a westerly view over the Atlantic so that the King could watch his ships coming back from India, Brazil or Africa.  Ed the Duck mostly liked the fountains, and kept leaping out of my bag and into them…


Moorish Tiles
Manueline Door

Coat of Arms Room
Ed in the Fountain


Unfortunately it was a miserable, rainy day so we didn’t get to go out into the gardens or the courtyards.  To escape the rain after the palace we went to the Toy Museum opposite the palace.  This displayed a private collection of toys which started when the owner was 14 years old.  It had an amazing range of exhibits in mint condition, including 3000-year-old stone Egyptian toys, train sets from different countries and periods, and lots of model cars and planes.  James and I became kids again and while I admired the Barbies and doll houses, James marvelled at all the models.


We skipped the rest of Sintra because it was becoming crowded with tour buses, and the rain meant we wouldn’t be able to make the most of a visit to the castle ruins at the top of the mountain.  So we drove a few kilometres East to the Queluz Palace, which was described in the guidebook as Portugal’s “most sumptuous palace”.  The palace was built in the 18th century, and its Rococo style was a marked difference to the plain Moorish palace in Sintra.  Here there were colourful glass chandeliers and intricately carved gold mouldings.  The sun came out just in time for us to stroll through the formal gardens, and Ed yet again leapt into the fountain, to the delight of some school kids who photographed him with their mobile phones.


Queluz Palace


On another blustery rainy day James and I went to the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.  The museum exhibits the collection of Calouste Gulbenkian, an Armenian oil millionaire who moved to Portugal during the Second World War.  The museum was vast, and full of beautiful objects from almost every period.  The exhibition started with Ancient Egypt, where we saw the oldest piece in the collection - an Alabaster cup from 2700 BC (well old huh?!…J).  Then it covered Islamic art with beautifully painted tiles, and tightly woven carpets.   There were delicately illuminated manuscripts from Armenia, and lovely Japanese lacquer boxes.  The highlight of the collection was a whole room devoted to Rene Lalique jewellery.  We spent ages admiring the skilfully designed and made Art Nouveau brooches, pendants and hair combs, depicting dragonflies and flowers with gold, diamonds and stones.  One day, when we are loaded, James will buy me one for our 50th wedding anniversary (44 years to go!) (You’d get less for murder…J).


As soon as our guests had departed, the weather improved (sod’s law!), so we finally made it into Lisbon proper, and saw some of the sights of the Old Town.  First stop was the Castle of St George, perched on a hill high above the city.  We walked around the ramparts, from which we had great 360-degree views of the whole city.  In one of the 11 towers there was a Camera Obscura, a Periscope moved by ropes and pulleys after a design invented by Leonardo da Vinci, where we had a guided tour of the city’s landmarks.  It was really cool to see the city reflected in a table inside the darkened tower – the focus was so good we even spotted someone hanging out their washing!


Castelo de Sao Jorge - Ramparts and Camera Obscura


From the castle we wandered down hill towards Lisbon’s Cathedral, which wasn’t very interesting in itself.  However, the 13th century cloister has been heavily excavated, revealing the remains of a 6th century Roman house and Moorish buildings.  It was really strange to see a big hole in the middle of the cloisters, and interesting to see the different layers left behind by the various inhabitants of the city (including a rubbish dump, full of Moorish equivalents of Coca Cola cans).


Lisbon Cathedral’s Cloisters and Excavations


After a week in Cascais we decided it was time to move on to somewhere cheaper.  We still had a few more places we wanted to visit in Lisbon so we decided to sail up the river Tejo to one of the marinas in the centre of Lisbon.  It was a lovely sunny day, and it was great to see Lisbon and its monuments from the river.  The best part was sailing under the 25 April Bridge, which is a 2.3KM long suspension bridge, rising 70m above the river.  The noise of the cars racing along the top was deafening! (A got very excited going under the 25 Apr Bridge, I just thought of OST at Rosyth…J)


Lisbon’s 25 April Bridge


Once Rahula was safely tucked up in the Doca de Alcantara we could get to the city in minutes, which meant we had more time to explore what the city had to offer (hurrah…J).  We went into the old town again, and took a cool lift up from sea level to a street perched on the side of the steep hill.  It was strange to walk in at street level, go up 3 floors, and still be at street level.  I suppose it beats taking the stairs!


Elevador de Santa Justa


From the street at the top of the elevator we walked to the Convento do Carmo, whose church was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1755.  The ruined church actually looked beautiful with the blue sky blazing through the remaining arches. 


Convento do Carmo


The old part of Lisbon is beautiful, and there is real evidence of attempts to improve the areas that are still run down.  It is not too crowded, and still fairly cheap.  The public transport system is excellent, including the old trams which are a Lisbon landmark.  All the best sights can easily be done in a weekend, so I recommend it to you all!


We also headed to the outskirts of Lisbon to Belem on the bank of the river, which was where many of Portugal’s sea faring expeditions started.   The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos was built to mark the discovery of a sea route to India by Vasco da Gama using a tax levied on subsequent trade.  As a result it is a beautifully decorated, extravagant building, and a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The main reason for our visit was so that James could pay homage to Vasco da Gama’s tomb, as the father of all Navigators (I felt week at the knees…J), though I loved the architecture.


Mosteiro dos Jeronimos
Vasco da Gama’s Tomb

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Next door and part of the old monastery is Portugal’s Maritime Museum, which was a must on our list of places to visit.  We found a huge museum full of hundreds of models of ships, naval uniforms, and a collection of Royal Barges.  It was a fairly dry display, with not much explanation on what you were looking at, and little about the excitement of Portuguese exploration in the 16th century.  There was none of the flair of the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth, but it was interesting nevertheless.  The models were beautifully made, with minute attention to detail.  There was a collection of strange looking navigational instruments, which James got very excited about.  He also showed his very Jack side by spending hours looking at a Seamanship teaching board, showing all the different knots, blocks and parts of a boat.  I especially liked the room devoted to the Royal Yacht Amelia which was lavishly furnished, and had a bath onboard! (I am still holding out to fit one on Rahula!).


The Mother of all Seamanship Boards
My Dream Boat


The rest of the Belem area is a pleasant park with several interesting buildings.  The Torre de Belem was built in 1520 to guard the approach to Lisbon’s harbour.  It is a pretty, Disney Castle-like tower, which we admired from afar while hiding from the rain under a tree.  The other landmark is the Monument to the Discoveries, which was erected in 1960 to mark 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator.


Torre de Belem

Monument to the Discoveries


Finally on the grand tour of Lisbon we “popped into” the Electricity Museum, expecting to do the whole place in an hour and be home in time for G&T at sunset.  The museum is housed in an old coal generating station and was recently reopened after a revamp.  The revamp made it into an “interactive museum” and it was the coolest place for a couple of geeks like us… we ended up spending hours there.  It was full of buttons to press, motion activated BIG machines, and had a walk through a boiler.  It was also empty, which meant we had the Discovery section to ourselves, and we played for ages on all the models showing how electricity is generated and how it behaves.  I’ll spare you the pictures…