Sunday, 1 March 2015
Visiting Lisbon and rediscovering
the Land of the Discoverers
I had forgotten that Portuguese explorers had once sailed around the Cape and that the great explorers included Henry the Navigator, Ferdinand Magellan and Vasco da Gama. I had forgotten that Portugal once had an empire that lasted for six centuries and that included Macau, East Timor, parts of India, Mozambique and Angola in Africa, the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic and Brazil in Latin America. I had forgotten the Portuguese capital had given its name to Lisbon Treaty that shapes the present European Union.
I had failed to realise that Lisbon is the most westerly European capital, is one of the most visited European cities, is a centre of culture and has one of the most pleasant climates in Europe.
Did I know that Portugal had a Celtic legacy to rival any of the so-called Celtic countries? Or that Portuguese, with 220 million speakers, is the fifth most spoken language in the world, the third most spoken language in Europe?
In the back my mind, I thought Portugal was a Mediterranean country, but it has no Mediterranean coastline and Lisbon is the only European capital on the Atlantic coast. I associated Portugal with sun holidays on the Algarve, forgetting it has a rich historical and cultural legacy.
I linked Portugal with Europe’s “PIGS” economies – Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain – not realising that Lisbon has one of the ten highest GDP figures for European cities.
Whatever I had known or forgotten, Portugal was a distant place … until I unexpectedly found myself on the short flight to Lisbon for a few unplanned days marking a family anniversary.
I arrived at Portela Airport, and stayed close to the city centre beside Eduardo VII Park, which runs down Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s main avenue, with its tropical, subtropical and flowering plants and green spaces. It was named after Britain’s King Edward VII, who visited Lisbon in 1903.
The summer season lasts from May to October, and Lisbon has the warmest winters in Europe. Even in March, April and November the average daytime temperature is 18.9 C, and although it was early November, it felt like late summer, so it was warm enough to spend an afternoon sailing on the River Tagus.
Lisbon’s far-reaching public transport network allowed us to travel throughout the city and its suburbs during those few days, using trains, buses and the traditional yellow trams to see the city and its suburbs.
An ancient city
I realised Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, older perhaps than London, Paris or Rome. Legend says the city was founded by Odysseus or Ulysses after he escaped from Troy. Latin mapmakers and historians knew Lisbon as Ulyssippo or Olisippo, and in the Classical Greek world it was known as Olissipo (Ὀλισσιπών) or Olissipona (Ὀλισσιπόνα).
Certainly, the story of Lisbon goes back to Phoenician times, when traders called the place Allis Ubbo, or “safe harbour.” Archaeological evidence suggests there was a Phoenician trading post on the slopes of the castle hill from about 1200 BC, close to the sheltered harbour in the estuary of the River Tagus, and Phoenician remains from the eighth century BC have been found on the site of the mediaeval Sé Cathedral.
After the defeat of Hannibal, Olissipo was integrated into the Roman Empire as part of the province of Lusitania, and it was known to Julius Caesar as Olissipo Felicitas Julia. The Roman remains included walls, a theatre, baths, temples, a forum and a necropolis, and the city became a centre of trade with Roman Britain and the Rhine.
Christianity arrived at an early stage; the first-known Bishop was Potamius (ca 356), and the early martyrs included Maxima, Verissimus and Eulalia.
The barbarians arrived with the fall of the Roman Empire and Lisbon was occupied by Sarmatians, Alans and Vandals, and later by the Germanic Suebi who were integrated into the Visigothic Kingdom of Toledo.
Moors, Crusaders and explorers
Lisbon fell to the Moors in 711, but large Christian and Jewish communities continued to live and trade in the city. In 1108 the city was raided by Norwegian Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land, but it was retaken by the Moors in 1111. Lisbon’s Islamic heritage is still visible in the Alfama, the oldest surviving quarter, which takes its name from the Arabic al-hamma, meaning fountains or baths. Alfama spreads down the southern slope from the Castle of São Jorge to the River Tagus, and extends west to the Baixa quarter.
In 1147, crusader knights led by King Afonso I of Portugal besieged and reconquered Lisbon, although the local bishop was killed by the crusaders. The remaining Muslims were forcibly converted to Christianity or were expelled, and their mosques were destroyed or became churches.
Close to Sé Cathedral, a church marks the birthplace of Saint Anthony of Lisbon (1195-1231), also known as Saint Anthony of Padua. He was a wealthy Portuguese bohemian who became a Franciscan friar and after a life working the poor he was canonised as a saint and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church.
Lisbon became the capital of Portugal in 1255, and grew in the later Middle Ages as trade expanded with northern Europe and the Mediterranean. The Portuguese expeditions in the Age of Discovery began in the 15th century, and the explorers who left from Lisbon included Vasco da Gama, who sailed for India in 1497, and Pedro Álvares Cabral, who left for Brazil in 1499.
The 16th century was Lisbon’s golden era, and the city was at the centre of Europe’s trade with Africa, India, the Far East and Brazil. The exuberant Manueline style of architecture developed at this time, and surviving examples include the Belém Tower and the Jerónimos Monastery, west of the city and both Unesco World Heritage Sites. The Torre de Belém was built as a fortified lighthouse in 1515-1520 to guard the entrance to the port. It once stood on a tiny island in the Tagus.
Belém takes its name from Bethlehem, and the monastery was built by Henry the Navigator in 1459. Manuel I chose the Hieronymite monks for the monastery, so they would pray for the king’s soul and provide spiritual care to navigators and sailors who left from the nearby beach in search of the new world. The church has soaring pillars supporting a fan-vaulted ceiling, and at the west end is the tomb Vasco da Gama.
Rebuilding after disaster
After a crisis over the succession to the crown, Portugal lost its independence to Spain in 1580, and the Spanish Habsburgs ruled Portugal and Spain as a dual monarchy until independence was restored in 1640.
Portuguese prosperity was enriched with the discovery of gold in Brazil in the early 18th century, and King John V used some of this new-found wealth to build several baroque churches and theatres in Lisbon. But tragedy struck on 1 November 1755 when a devastating earthquake and the tsunami that followed destroyed 85 per cent of the city and killed 30,000 to 40,000 people out of a population of about 250,000.
Lisbon was then one of the largest cities in Europe, and the catastrophe shocked Europe. The Alfama, with its labyrinth of narrow streets and small squares, suffered little damage. Many of old houses have been remodelled and today this quarter has bars, restaurants and small shops, with traditional Fado music heard everywhere.
Meanwhile, Lisbon was rebuilt as a modern city by the Prime Minister, the Marquis of Pombal, with two great squares, the Praça do Rossio at the heart of the commercial district, and the Praça do Comércio on the shores of the River Tagus. The heart of Lisbon is the Baixa or city centre, rebuilt by Pombal as an elegant district.
With the Napoleonic invasion, the royal house fled to Brazil. The assassination of King Carlos I in Lisbon in 1908 led to the final fall of the monarchy and the proclamation of a republic in 1910. The First Republic came to end in 1926 when another revolution established the Estado Novo, or the Second Republic.
Under the Salazar regime, Portugal remained neutral during World War II, although 100,000 refugees fled Nazi Germany through Lisbon. During World War II, the Praça do Império was laid out in the heart of Belém, with rich gardens and a large fountain, and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos or Monument to the Discoveries was built for the Portuguese World Fair in 1940. The monument to Christ the King (Cristo-Rei) in Almada on the southern bank of the Tagus, was erected as a thanksgiving for Portugal being spared the horrors of World War II. With Christ’s open arms overlooking the city, the statue resembles the Corcovado monument in Rio de Janeiro.
Portugal lost its grip on its remaining colonies in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Carnation Revolution in 1974 brought an end to the far-right regime and ushered in the Third Republic. Today Lisbon is a modern European capital, conscious of its cultural and colonial past. In 1998, Expo ’98 celebrated the 500th anniversary of Vasco da Gama’s sea voyage to India. Yet this is also the city where the Lisbon Treaty, reshaping the European Union, was signed in the Jerónimos Monastery in 2007.
To the edge of the earth
On the edges of Lisbon, we visited Estrela, with its 18th century Estrela Basilica and its large dome and twin bell towers on a hill in western part of Lisbon. Nearby was the São Bento Palace, where the Portuguese parliament sits, and the official residences of the Prime Minister.
The city is linked to the south bank of the Tagus by two important bridges: the 25 de Abril Bridge, Europe’s longest suspension bridge, and the Vasco da Gama Bridge, the longest bridge in Europe. But instead we took the ferry from Belém to Porto Brandão one evening, after an afternoon of sailing on the Tagus, and had dinner that evening in an old fishing village.
On another afternoon, we took the train from Rossio to Sintra, with its 19th century palaces, castles and royal retreats, and its literary heritage. From there we travelled on to the Atlantic Ocean and Cabo da Roca, where we stood on the most westerly point of continental Europe. The proof of the journey came in a certificate quoting the Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões (1524-1580), who wrote at the height of the age of discovery: “Aqui, onde a terra se acaba e o mar começa ... Here, where the land ends and the sea begins ...”
I had been to the edge of the earth, where the land ends, and returned through Cascais and Estoril along the coast to Lisbon.
Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.This essay and these photographs were first published in March 2015 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)