The Lisbon Whirlwind

Some time ago I promised I would put up an Iberian post…well this is it, probably the closest we’ll come to a travelogue in the series of posts under the category “A Home on the Rolling Sea”

Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, was to be our first port of call on this year’s cruise.  The itinerary suggested that we might be short of time for a full blown exploration of the city not to mention the fact that we would be arriving on a Sunday.  We wanted a quick peek at as much as possible to judge if we might go back at a later date for a more relaxed visit.  We planned, we executed, we collapsed in a soggy heap back on the boat afterwards.  Lisbon…oh yes!  

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There are a number of Galleries throughout this post.  By clicking on the first photo on each you will bring up the carousel with captions.

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The Lisbon Whirlwind

It is Sunday, and after three very pleasant evenings of wine and Margaritas at sea we’re at last permitted to set foot on dry land.   “Charlie fae Wigan” our esteemed Captain from deepest Lancashire has parked our oversized floating cocktail bar outside the quaint Alfama district, the one time home of Lisbon’s fishermen.  We had thought of making our own way around Lisbon but not knowing until today at which quay we would dock – and it being Sunday – we reckoned it safer to book the organised coach tour taking in three different areas of the sprawling, hilly, city thus maximising our sightseeing opportunities.

I have to hand it to our guide, she knows her stuff and we are treated to a thoroughly enjoyable discourse on the history, architecture and lifestyle of Lisbon as the bus winds its way first of all through the  winding Alfama before entering the post 1755 earthquake grid of narrow streets that comprise the Baixa district.  Rattling Victorian era trams hold up our progress before we emerge into the slightly more expansive world of Rossio Square (Pedro IV Square) with its hallucinatory waved tiling.  This you do not want to venture across after a few glasses of port in your local fado bar.

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Now, having mentioned Fado, it’s probably time to let the sounds of the “guitarra”…and of course the glorious voice of Mariza accompany the rest of this excursion through the sights of Lisbon.

Press the play button below. 

“O Silencio Da Guitarra” – Mariza from Fado Curvo (2003)

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We are sitting in the front row of the bus courtesy of J’s schoolteacher/rather “European” approach to queuing.  This turns out to be a recurring feature of the cruise, where I am marched briskly to the front of any gathering that might be turning into a queue and into the first and best available seats.  When the coach trundles to a halt I am first off courtesy of a firm hand on my elbow.  I am the “bad boy” of the school trip, constantly monitored and denied the luxury of sluggardly behaviour.  However, today this grandstand seat is providing wonderful entertainment in the shape of a hint of tension between the driver and our guide.  She waves an imperious hand at the direction she wants the coach to take, only for the driver to ignore her demands and carry on the way he sees fit.  This results in a torrent of exasperated Portuguese from our guide and some gruff muttering from our driver which I suspect might translate as;

“We can’t effin go that effin way ’cause it’s an effin one-way, effin street!”

Our guide raises her nose in the air as if discussing the matter with a heap of steaming manure and revises her no less imperious demands, to be met with yet another grunt of disapproval from the driver.  The bus turns around and we now appear to be going back the way we have just come.  Hopefully they reach a compromise that will actually allow us to reach our destination – which we have been able to see for about five minutes now, without actually getting any closer!

Because it is Sunday the queue for the world famous Jerónimos monastery at Belem is massive, an odd mix of be-shorted sightseers and smartly clad worshipers.  Do we really want to see the inside?  While we do like a bit of culture, and the cloister is supposed to be very impressive, we’re Scottish.  This means we are treated to sunshine, sometimes as much as once a year, but not necessarily on our birthday.  There was no chance of us standing in a queue for inside when we’re certain there are places to see outside.

By eschewing the chance to loiter in a queue for an hour we have time on our hands before our coach moves on to its second destination, so we amble through the nearby Jardim de Praça do Império with its spectacularly non-functioning fountain and partake of a cooling stroll through vertical geysers of fine mist in the courtyard of the nearby Centro Cultural de Belém.  As we stroll back in the general direction of the coach we contemplate our next destination, the “Discoveries” area of Belem.  This contemplation is made infinitely easier by the fact that we can actually see one of the major monuments a mere 200m away!  So much for a coach tour of three separate areas of Lisbon.

We’re not the only ones to be unimpressed; back at the bus mutterings can be heard accompanied by a host of pointing fingers.  The guide ignores the general disgruntlement and carries on with her informative monologue.  We could have walked to the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) in about five minutes via an underpass; the coach takes about twenty dealing as it must with one of the most complex series of road junctions and sets of turning manoeuvres I have, as a retired road designer, ever had the misfortune to have witnessed.

Our arrival at the “Discoveries” heralds the start of our breakneck speed tour of the sights along the north bank of the Tagus River.  J reckons we can have a quick peek at the monument celebrating the great era of the Portuguese explorers, followed by a quick sprint along to the Belem Tower and, if we are really, really, quick we’ll just manage a fly-by at the Memorial to the Overseas War Dead (Monumento Combatentes Ultramar) all before a lightning sprint back to the bus.  I check my watch, the distance…and the Guinness Book of Records.  I am about to discover what a P7 school outing must be like as J goes into teacher mode and I am marched at top speed in the direction of our first monument.   Pedlars of sunglasses of dubious provenance and black clad old ladies selling shawls of questionable usefulness, given the baking heat, are sent spiraling away by the shock wave accompanying our passing.

The high level detail on the Padrăo dos Descobrimentos (The Monument to the Discoveries) is impressive but as a whole the blocky lump just doesn’t look right from certain angles.  As you’ll see later it does, however, look more impressive from the water.  The Belem Tower (which used to sit in the middle of the river) looks fascinating but the Portuguese are out in weekend force and there is a long, time consuming, queue to see the old lighthouse.

We march onward to the monument to the overseas war dead.  This is in a different league from what has gone before and well worth the breakneck sprint.  Architectural elegance is almost an understatement when it comes to describing this structure.  There is a stunning simplicity to its concept but against the azure of the summer sky it gleams.  We wish we could stay longer to wander round but time is against us and it will be a miracle if we are not last back to our transport.  J shifts gear and we launch ourselves back along the Belem promenade at full tilt, this part of our tour having been successfully executed.  The sunglasses pedlars and ancient shawl sellers make their last attempt at a sales pitch but are astonished to find themselves talking to empty air such is our speed over the ground.

Later the coach drops us off near the expansive Black Horse Square (proper name: Praça do Comercio), the entrance from the port into the Baixa.  The resident stone horse isn’t black but was once very grimy and the name stuck.  I think I prefer the former irrespective of its descriptive inaccuracy.  Heading off into the city from the square is the Rua Augusta, the main shopping street, the centre of which is occupied by a series of canopy covered restaurants.  We check out the menus and settle for one that sells fish.  It should be noted that all the restaurants in Augusta Street sell fish.  And what a plate of fish we order!  Either we have over-ordered or Sunday is BOGOF day in Lisbon.

We know we don’t have a great deal of time before our ship sets sail so, lunch dispatched, we begin a mad rush to see a couple of things pointed out from the coach, earlier in the day.

The Santa Justa Elevator is a true wonder.  Built 1902, it was designed to improve transport links between Baixa and the adjacent, hillier, part of the city.  Sadly we have no time to take a trip upwards for the views.  However, I persuade J that there is enough time for the 5 minute sprint to the north end of Rossio Square to see the entrance to the old railway station.  Having seen it from the bus on our way to Belem I was keen to take a quick photo.  J acquiesces and off we scurry, dodging a pavement full of somersaulting “puppies” on the way.  The proprietor notices the glint in my eye as I line up a punt and quickly shepherds his yipping charges well out of our way.  I thought those things went out of fashion years ago.

I’m happy.  I manage a quick snap of the entrance to the station before J hauls on my collar and drags me back towards Rossio Square.  Anticipating our return the vendor of the somersaulting “pups” has vanished leaving us a clear run for Augusta Street.  We cut diagonally across the square and grind to a woozy halt half way across, standing as we are in an ocean of black and white, wave patterned, tiling.  Stomach and brain exchange messages to determine the appropriate course of action.  A compromise is met – shut eyes and run!

For the last time J fires up the afterburners and we rocket back down Augusta Street, through Black Horse Square and along the short section of dock road to the waiting boat.  Bye bye Lisbon…it was fun.

And finally; some of the places we’ve just visited as seen from our balcony on the ship as we head back out the Tagus.

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