Travels with Tim and Lisa

"If my discoveries are other people's commonplaces I cannot help it – for me they retain a momentous freshness" (Elizabeth Bowen)

Archive for the ‘Portugal 2010’ Category

Art in Lisbon, 22.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 23, 2010

Did I say yesterday that I thought Lisbon was raffish? Perhaps that was an understatement.

Galleons on lamp posts

We took the Lisbon Sightseeing bus again, this time on their ‘orient’ route which took us to the north and along the coast of the estuary. In the city centre we saw the same curious mixture of beautiful old 19th century buildings side-by-side with concrete monoliths and glass and steel tower blocks, but everywhere we looked there was graffiti.   Nothing artistic or creative about it, it’s just dirty tagging and it is enough to make you weep to see the way it is plastered all over lovely old buildings. You can tell by the way it has faded that nobody makes any attempt to clean it off either.

The bus then hurtled its windswept passengers along and upwards towards the north and brought us to Oceanario de Lisboa, a brilliant modern complex of stunning architecture coherently designed on a maritime theme.

It was built to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s landing in India, and it is breath-taking.  Yes, I know I’m over-using that word, but what else is there to describe seeing building after building with elegant symbols evoking galleons, rigging, sails, waves and the prows of ships? There are also massive water features to represent the oceans of the world, and all of it faces out to the River Tagus (which is really an estuary). Pristine, stylish and new, it is home to a commercial precinct of banks and classy business addresses. It is what Melbourne’s Docklands could be if we had the same architectural genius to conceive the development with the priority on making something beautiful instead of making money. It is stunning.

And it is an extraordinary contrast with what came next on this bus tour. I do not understand how it has happened that Lisbon has (a) allowed so many of its lovely buildings to fall into appalling disrepair and (b) surrendered itself to the scourge of graffiti in the way that it has.  (Click here to see what I mean). Where in the city centre shabby old buildings in need of restoration remain as infill amongst the new, here street after street after street was full of apartment blocks with fallen masonry, windows broken or filled in with bricks, and rusted balconies. The buildings were filthy, there was graffiti on every available wall, the streets were full of rubbish and weeds and those silly tiles were all broken and dangerous and no attempt had been made to tidy them up and make them safe. I have seen poverty in Africa, Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam but I have never seen such a sleazy, dirty, disgusting place as this in Europe. It made me very cross indeed. Nobody should have to live in such conditions and the Portuguese government ought to set up an economic stimulus package for the obviously unemployed young people to clean it all up.

We were pleased to get off the bus and take a restorative walk up through the King Edward VII gardens. This is a large park right in the heart of Lisbon, established to commemorate his visit here in 1903, and the quiet beauty of it helped to restore a sense of equanimity. We found a congenial restaurant (Cafe Esplanado) at the top of the hill where a friendly waiter recommended traditional fish for our lunch and his sense of pride in his culture made us feel that Lisbon was a lovely place after all.

Encouraged, we set out for the Museu Gulbenkian but mistook the Modern Art Gallery for it instead. We couldn’t find any of the pictures we were expecting to see and felt a little disappointed but (not realising that we were in the wrong gallery altogether) put it down to the way galleries lend their artworks to other galleries all the time. We decided that it is even harder to make sense of contemporary art when there’s no English signage or gallery guide – but were very impressed by some five year olds earnestly discussing some incomprehensible pictures of horses with their teacher. This little scene told us three things: school children here are very well-behaved; they all speak their national language (which is not the case with a prep class in Melbourne) and their school thinks that it’s worthwhile teaching them about art when they’re very young. (What happens to turn these little art scholars into graffiti vandals when they are older, I do not know.)

From the quiet of this almost deserted gallery we strolled out into another lovely park. This one is a series of paved walkways, intersecting with gardens, waterways and secluded places to sit quietly and enjoy the bird and plant life. The paths wend their way around a complex of squat modern buildings and it was from one of these that we spotted some very interesting art works. Could this be the Museu Gulbankian that we had been expecting?

It was, and it was brilliant. It is a superb collection of artworks from the ancient to the impressionists. There were gorgeous funerary objects from Egypt, Greece and Rome; wonderful rugs and velvets from Persia (Iran); exquisite porcelain and lacquer boxes from China; and glorious illuminated Books of Hours. There were magnificent French clocks (still ticking); some delicate tapestry chairs from the 17th and 18th century; sumptuous pieces of Sevres porcelain and a really good representative collection of portraits, still life and landscapes, including Dutch and Flemish masters, Rubens and Rembrandt. There weren’t actually many impressionists, but the piece de resistance was the Lalique gallery where there is a stunning collection of jewellery and small sculptures – and that brooch, the one that featured on the cover of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. I couldn’t help it, I know the suitcase will be overweight, but I bought the guide book so that I can admire them all over again at home.

So ends our sojourn in Lisbon.  Tomorrow we will try to find a post office so that we can offload some of the excess baggage, and then it’s a travel day. Two flights, with a boring wait in between, but then Seville!

Posted in Art Galleries, Europe 2010, Gardens, Lisbon 2010, Portugal 2010 | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Maritime Museum, Lisbon 21.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 22, 2010

Ok, I’m back from dinner, and if my spelling is wonky now you can blame the excellent Portuguese grappa which tastes like a very good brandy!

From the Jeronimo monastery we then went to the maritime museum, called Museu de Marinhu. It’s fabulous.

First of all, there is a huge map in the entrance lobby showing the routes discovered by Portuguese mariners in the 16th and 17th centuries.  People of my generation remember laboriously tracing world maps and plotting these voyages of discovery when we were in primary school, perhaps too young to really appreciate the courage, tenacity and imagination of these explorers, but certainly more likely to remember them than today’s children who merely photocopy a map, if they study them at all.  Does it matter? I think it does.  I think it’s important to acknowledge human endeavour in any form, and I think that these men who set off into the unknown without proper maps, navigation aids or even knowledge of how to keep sane and healthy on a long voyage are real heroes.

If you google Portuguese explorers there are 121 pages to choose from, and that’s just the ones whose names have made it onto Wikipedia.  At school we learned about Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Bartholomew Dias, and it’s quite possible that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to sight the western coast of Australia.  Henry the Navigator was among the most famous, and it’s not so long ago that Lisbon erected a monument called The Discoveries to commemorate his achievements.  There is an impressive portrait of him in the museum too, and this is an indication that contemporary Portuguese take an intense pride in their maritime history and the role it played in opening up the new world to Europe.

The museum has lots of terrific scale models of Portuguese ships of battle and discovery, a great collection of naval uniforms from times past to the present day, some magnificent royal barges – and also some flying boats from the 20th century.  The Portuguese ditched their monarchy back in 1910, but the museum hosts an intriguing display from the royal yacht Amelia, complete with his and hers bedrooms (each with own piano), a roulette table and some very swanky crockery.  Not all that different to the Liz and Phil’s yacht that’s on display in Edinburgh, perhaps a bit classier.

Museu Nacional de Arte antiga

Source: Wikipedia Commons

We had lunch in the Belem Cultural Centre overlooking the River Tagus but declined to inspect their modern artworks.  They might be great, but our feet were sore and we still had the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga to do.  We got back on the red tourist bus to get most of the way there but then there was a trek across roadworks, more of those perilous paving stones, a very high footbridge across a railway and then a LOT of stairs – not just to reach the entrance but also inside it – no lifts anywhere!


It was just a tad disappointing.  We saw The Temptation of St Anthony by Hieronymous Bosch (so now we’ve seen the trilogy – the other two are in the Prado) , a Bruegel and a Durer, but most of the other artworks were by artists we’ve never seen or heard of .  The porcelain was lovely and there were some stunning gold figurines which must be worth a mint, but we weren’t able to take full advantage of the collection without an audio guide or a guidebook to explain the significance of what was there.

Indefatigable tourists we try to be, but we took a taxi back to the hotel which turned out to be the most expensive of the trip (not counting Melbourne to Tullamarine) because it was peak hour and the traffic was chaotic.  I used to be scared of plane flights, but now I know that Lisbon taxi drivers are scarier still.  They drive fast and furious, but without the dashing flair of the Spanish who for some odd reason inspire one with confidence.

I was almost too tired to go out to dinner but we’d made a booking and I was glad we went after all.  Alma is a superb fusion restaurant which serves both a classic Portuguese degustation and an innovative one.  Tim had the classic and I had the new and they were both brilliant.  The ambience was elegant and the waiting staff were friendly, helpful and very knowledgeable about all aspects of the cuisine and the wines.  We met the chef, who turned out to have worked in Sydney for two years, and he was a lovely person too. If you go to Lisbon, this is a must-do experience.

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Posted in Art Galleries, Dining out, Europe 2010, Gardens, Lisbon 2010, Museums, Portugal 2010 | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

Belem museums, Lisbon 21.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 22, 2010

Portuguese paving

We set off this morning for the Lisbon bus tour, always a good way of getting to know a new city.  These red buses are everywhere it seems, and if you can bear the stiff breeze the top level is best for photos.  On the way to the depot, I took a photo of the Perilous Paving, just to show you that it can look very nice indeed.  (I have since discovered that it’s made with limestone and basalt.)

Anyway, we  discovered lots of interesting things about the city and there is no shortage of attractions to visit, only a shortage of time and the likely exhaustion factor!  We hopped off the bus at the Monasterio de Jeronimo which is a fabulously huge old monastery now used to house museums while retaining the central part of it more or less as it was. (Without the monks).

The first museum we visited was the Museu Archelogico.  (I hope I spelled that correctly).  The star attraction there is a recently discovered Roman kiln which is the first one I’ve ever seen.  I found myself wondering about these anonymous potters, and imagined what their response would be if they could know that people like us are admiring their work two thousand years later…

There were some Egyptian artefacts, but the most impressive room was the Treasures Display.  Here there was a map showing where the known gold deposits were during the Roman era, and the Iberian peninsula was one of the most richly endowed.  The cabinets showed how the Romans progressed from simple beaten armlets to sophisticated filigree earrings, rings inset with precious stones or small cameos, entwined ropes of gold necklaces and really fancy torcas decorated with military symbols. (Torcas are those necklet things that held men’s togas on).

 From the museum we went into the monastery.  The cloisters were breathtaking – every column and surface was carved with exquisite images of fruits, flowers, vines, animals, people and of course religious symbols as well.  In the refectory there were beautiful tiled pictures and the chapel had lovely stained glass windows.  The only thing that spoiled all this was a group of very badly behaved secondary school students screeching and shouting all over the place, and no supervising teacher in sight.

More later, we’re off to dinner.

Posted in Cathedrals & churches, Europe 2010, Lisbon 2010, Museums, Portugal 2010 | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

First day in Lisbon, 20.10.10

Posted by Lisa Hill on October 21, 2010

Today was mostly a travel day (and it takes longer to pack each time we buy some souvenirs!) but we ended up in the Hotel Marques de Pombal in Lisbon in the middle of the afternoon.    There are actually lots of Hotels Marques de Pombal because he was the much-admired Prime Minister who redesigned Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake, but ours is the one on Avenida de Liberadad and very nice it is too.

Our hotel is situated on a leafy boulevard not far from the restaurant strip, but from what we have seen of it, Lisbon is a bit raffish compared to Spanish cities.  On our walk downtown in the late afternoon we saw homeless people curled up asleep beside shops selling Zegna suits and Louis Vitton handbags; and many of the apartment blocks could do with a lick of paint.  Our hotel receptionist advised us to beware of pickpockets on public transport, and although this is standard advice anywhere, here we felt mildly uneasy walking about after dark in badly lit places.

Not least because of the pavements!  Here, pavements are made up of thousands of small squares of shiny paving stones, and there is no pretence at laying them evenly or flat.  I discovered this as soon as I ventured outside the hotel – where the surface consisted of smooth, glassy undulating waves with the occasional missing stone presenting particular peril for anyone silly enough to wear high heels.  (Not me, I hasten to add, and I’ll certainly be  wearing my ankle brace for my next venture outdoors!)  Wikipedia tells me that this form of paving is unique to Portugal and its former colonies and I can only guess at how many sprains and breaks these pavements cause in wet weather when the smooth surfaces become really treacherous! 

Restaurant Nicola, Lisbon

These perils made us choose a restaurant for dinner rather hastily, but it turned out to be an excellent choice.   Restaurant Nicola is a very old restaurant dating back to the 19th century but was redecorated in the 1930s so it has an art deco ambience.  Pleasingly, it was the haunt of a poet called Manuel du Bocage and there are paintings and a statue to admire but all of this would count for nothing if the food were not so good.

It’s traditional Portuguese fare, specialising in seafood.  We were offered appetisers of sardine and tuna pate, a cheese a bit like a red Leicester, and a kind of dried ham, and we chose a white wine called Marques de Boba alentejo (2009) to wash it down with.  Lisa’s ‘Cadiz’ soup was made with beans, carrots, celery, pasta, and a light tomato stock, while Tim’s ‘mixed smokeds’ turned out to be ham, (a bit like a parma ham) and a sort of salami, but not as greasy or fatty as chorizo.  But it was the main course which was the star of the show – we thought that ‘arroz & marisco’ would turn out to be a sort of paella but it’s more of a cross between a soup or a stew.  It’s made with long-grained rice, peeled prawns, clams and mussels in a spiced saffron stock and it was delicious. 

Serious sight-seeing tomorrow!

Posted in Europe 2010, Lisbon 2010, Portugal 2010 | Tagged: | 1 Comment »