Glancing at a map of Europe, with the Iberian
peninsula jutting out from under France, it is
easy to reflect upon this piece of geography as
just "Spain." But Portugal, that country
that looks like an incongruous slice taken out
of the "Spanish" peninsula, is unique,
and as one of the oldest nations in Europe, predates
the "nation" of Spain by more than 350
My wife, Margaret, and I entered Portugal by car,
driving to Lisbon from Seville. I had hoped to
traverse south through the Algarve, Portugal's
scenic southern coast, site of its most popular
seaside resorts. But my time was limited and so
I chose the shortest route. Before entering Portugal,
we stopped at a truck stop for provisions and
to exchange the last of our pesetas for escudos.
(With the Euro becoming Europe's universal currency,
next year no exchange will be necessary.)
The countryside was flat with occasional rolling
hills spotted with small farms, hilltop castle
ruins, and one factory towns in a perpetual siesta.
About 30 miles from the Spanish border, we came
upon Beja. The Romans conquered the area. French
troops sacked the city in 1808. And a general
attempted a coup here in 1962. Perfect description
of Beja - conquered, sacked, couped. We climbed
high, over cobblestone streets, to the center
of the old town marked by the towers and ruins
of a 13th century castle. And though it was mentioned
in the "tour" books, Beja's castle seemed
the lesser of several others we passed on the
Further along the road to Lisbon, we came to the
city of Evora. The ancient city is a U.N. world
heritage site and sits behind Roman and medieval
walls, its sights deep within a web of narrow
streets maddeningly difficult to navigate. On
a trek through Evora there are Roman ruins, over
twenty churches, a monastery, a museum, and curio
shops. We made Evora a short stop and got on the
A2 toll road. Lisbon was but an hour away.
From the southeast you enter Lisbon across a great
suspension bridge, the Pointe 25 de Abril. The
bridge was inspired by the the Golden Gate and
the view of Lisbon as you cross over the Tejo
River is similar to the view and terrain of San
Francisco as you cross the Golden Gate. On the
south bank of the Tejo, as you cross the bridge,
stands a 92 foot statue of Christ, arms outstretched,
atop a 269 foot pedestal, modeled after the statue
of Christ in Rio de Janeiro.
Our hotel, the Tivoli Lisboa (351 213 198 940,
double room with breakfast, $150), is a modern
eight story 300 room hotel with an elegant two
story lobby, easy to find, and perfectly located
on the Avenida da Liberdade, the grand boulevard
that bisects the heart of old Lisbon. Excellent
service began with arrival. Our car was parked,
baggage retrieved, and check-in completed in just
moments. Our room had a south facing terrace with
a wonderful view of the city, the Castle St. George,
and the river in the distance.
For our first evening in Lisbon, we took a taxi
to the Fado restaurant, Senhor Vinho (Rua do Meio
a Lapa 18). The staff was exceedingly friendly,
our waiter informative, the food great. They were
so gracious that after we inquired about another
table's wonderful smelling meal, they brought
us a taste of their Portuguese bouillebaise. With
dinner came a series of Fado performances - guitar
and songstress - American blues sans understanding.
In the morning we waited in front of our hotel
for Fernando to take us on a tour of the city.
We were an hour early. We forgot the time zone
change. Portugal runs an hour earlier than Spain.
Fernando (916913110) was the taxi driver we met
the night before. English speaking, friendly,
and informative, we hired him to show us about
his city. About 40 years old, married with children,
Fernando lives in a Lisbon suburb. He told us
about his career in the Portuguese special forces,
a service he loved but had to quit when the force
was disbanded. Now he works 12 hour days including
weekends and dreams of leaving crowded Lisbon
to open an artesan's store in a small town near
the ocean. He was an excellent guide and if you
get to Lisbon soon, call him for a tour and make
his dreams come true sooner than later.
Our first stop with Fernando was the Cathedral
do Se - the church that honors Lisbon's patron
saint. Then, through the old hillside narrow streets
of the Alfama district, we proceeded to Castelo
de Sao George. Here, atop one of Lisbon's seven
hills are the remnants of a great medieval citadel
with great views of the city and a wonderful garden
of unusual statues by the contemporary Portuguese
artist, Folon. You can make reservations for dinner
here at the Casa do Leao, a restaurant housed
in part of the former royal residence.
Next, we passed the Parliament building and headed
down the riverfront road to Belem, an area restored
to honor Portugal's ancient maritime glories.
Belem Tower, which guards the Tejo River, is a
16th century fortress. Set out in the water, one
crosses a metal gangway to get there. Its great
central tower has Moorish watchtowers and battlements
decorated with carved stone shields. There is
a vaulted dungeon with cannon and rooftop views
of the sea lapping at its walls from all sides.
There are portals to peer through and turrets
to climb. The Torre de Belem is a grand, adult
climbing toy. Just a short distance down the road
is the Monument to the Discoveries, an immense
stone memorial to the royal patrons and mariners
responsible for Portugal's golden age - a statue
of Henry the Navigator stands at the prow of a
ship, at the head of a pack of Portuguese discovers
including Vasco da Gama and Magellan.
Fernando then took us to Lisbon's National Pantheon,
whose interior dome is indeed as majestic as Rome's
or Paris' pantheon. But this Pantheon houses only
cenotaphs of national heroes. These are memorial
tombs with the bodies of the famous buried elsewhere.
Planted in the middle of a nowhere hillside, along
narrow roads, impassable by tour buses, with little
access for parking, this pantheon is less frequented
by tourists than the more famous pantheons of
other cities. Our last stop was the 16th century
Jeronimos Monastery with its distinctly Manueline-Portuguese
architecture with carved and decorated columns
supporting a spider web of arching domes, and
art depicting the glories of Portugal's once great
Tired, we sat down for lunch in the Rossio, a
downtown shopping area, near the Praca dos Restauradores,
a major plaza honoring the country's liberators.
Here we sat, sipping beers, cooling off, and curious
about but trying to avoid a myriad of beggars
- women with infants, women in veils, limping-trembling
women, the blind, even an old man with a collection
of pets to assist his begging.
Unlike Paris or Madrid, we didn't find Lisbon
to be a shopping mecca, but if you're searching
for variety and bargains, Columbo Mall is perhaps
the best choice. This huge mall with its interesting
architecture, many children's play areas, and
more than 400 stores and a dozen or more international
restaurants, can easily be reached by metro -
sitting right above the Colegio Militar station.
Of the Western European nations, Portugal is perhaps
the poorest. One can still see fields tilled with
oxen. It's glory days are centuries gone, and
much of its former grandeur is poorly preserved.
The cities and towns - compared with its neighbor,
Spain - seem less crowded with tourists. But its
sights also seem less tred, fresh to my discovery.
Read me next week, when I enjoy more of Portugal,
visiting its center and and the Lisbon coast.