Thursday, June 24

Lisbon redux

We’ve had a relaxing weekend in Lisbon. It was Garry’s first visit, my second. We were blessed with perfect weather; blue skies and sunshine. We also took advantage of a special rate stayed at the Sheraton hotel. It sits on a hillside overlooking the city, awaking each morning to a glorious view. Even better, it was recently refurbished so everything was rather new and shiny.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the city itself. Lisbon’s glorious days of ruling a global empire are clearly behind it. Its streets are filled with elegant stone mansions, classical buildings and noble statues. However, their collective upkeep is clearly beyond the nation’s means. Most are stained and slightly tatty, paintwork is often faded or peeling.

Our first full day was spent wandering the city. We walked a couple of kilometers from our hotel to Baika and the waterfront. These are the oldest sections of the city. However most of the structures you see today were built after the devastating earthquake of 1755 that killed up to 100,000 people. The most noteworthy sight in the area is the Elevador de Santa Justa. It’s an iron elevator rising 45 metres above the narrow cobbled streets, offering passengers easy access to the hillside district of Bairro Alto (which literally means, Upper Quarter). It was opened in 1902 and has run continously ever since.

Access to the shore of the Tagus River is gained via an impressive triumphal arch built in 1875. The structure is crowned by bold, dazzling white marble statues representing Glory, Ingenuity and Valour. Through the arch lies an expansive waterfront plaza known as Praça do Comércio. This was once the location of the royal, or Ribera Palace. On November 1, 1755, the entire area was demolished by a massive tsunami that followed the Great Earthquake.

It was here that we purchased two days tickets for one of the typical open bus tours circling almost every city of note in Europe. However, this one had a twist. It also offered a tram-based tour of the winding hillside streets of Alfama. This district surrounds the ruins of Lisbon Castle which dominates the local area. The tour was definitely a highlight of our weekend. When we weren’t marveling at the impossibly narrow lanes our tram slid through, we were being captivated by stunning views across red tiles roofs and the Targus.

We then caught a tour bus out to the ornate Belem Tower. It’s often considered the symbol of Lisbon. The tower guards the river mouth, offering views across the water in every direction. It was designed by architect, Francisco de Arruda, and constructed in 1515. de Arruda had previously worked on Portuguese fortifications in Morocco and thus his work was heavily influenced strongly by the Moors. The resulting building has clearly identifiable Moorish-style watchtowers, along with delicate Venetian-style loggias, and a statue of Our Lady of Safe Homecoming, a symbol of protection for sailors venturing out to sea.

We explored the tower for almost an hour, climbing an endless number of stone spiral stairs to the very top of its main tower. We then headed back into town for dinner at Taberna do Chiado, a Portuguese tapas restaurant in the swanky inner-city neighbourhood of Chiado. We dined by an open window, watching the world pass by in the street below. It was the perfect end to enjoyable day.

Our final day in town was spent touring the riverside districts upriver. This eventually led us to the Lisbon Aquarium located in the grounds of a former Expo site. It bills itself as the largest such complex in Europe. An enormous central tank, rising several floors, is home to adult sharks, giant sunfish, manta rays and schools of fish. It’s an incredible scene. We spent most of the afternoon there before grabbing an early dinner and making our way to the airport.

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