After a twelve-day crossing we arrived in Lisbon in the evening. Those who were flying out in the morning took advantage of the opportunity to disembark for an evening out. There is also an excursion for a twilight tour, Fado, and dinner. We are going to stay on board, pack, and enjoy dinner and local entertainers who are coming on board for the evening.
We got off the ship in the morning and like many of our fellow cruisers are staying on in Lisbon for a few days. We took a cab to our hotel and were fortunate that we could get a room right away. We unpacked a little and then headed out with our Hop On/Hop Off tickets to explore the city. We usually make a circuit and then go back around getting off where we have interest.
A bit of history about the natural disaster that hit Lisbon in 1755 is in order before we take off, as it effects everything we will see today. On the morning of All Saints Day, November 1, 1755, a 9.0 earthquake rocked the city for three and a half minutes. Three tsunamis also hit the city. November 1 is a significant feast day in the Catholic church and most of city’s population were attending the Latin mass at the time. Fires stuck out across the city, many believed to have originated from the candles in the churches igniting the feast day flowers. Many people died in the churches as they collapsed. In all, over 75,000 people died as a direct result of the earthquake.
The king and his family were away from the city at the time the earthquake hit. “King Joseph I became excessively paranoid after the quake and refused to live in walled buildings. The entire royal court was transferred to a giant tented complex outside of Lisbon where [the king] remained until his death.” It was the prime minister Sebastião de Melo, the Marquis of Pombal, who saw to the safety of the city and its reconstruction. It is said, he “overruled the church and prevented an epidemic of diseases by load[ing] the dead onto damaged ships and burning the bodies out [at] sea.” He oversaw the new city design and the type of construction utilized to prevent the future vulnerability of the city.
Our hotel is about a 15 minute walk from Marques de Pombal Square (known as the Rotunda until 1998), the main departure point for the various bus company services. I wanted to say up front that we usually have a wonderful experience with Hop On/Hop Off tours. Unfortunately, our Lisbon experience was the worse. First of all, the various companies are hard to distinguish, the buses and employees are poorly marked/identified if at all. The hotel had actually sold us vouchers (not tickets). This is not an unusual practice, but the hotel should have mentioned that they are vouchers. We could not find he stated company named on the tickets and it took us quite a while to determine who to redeem our vouchers with.
When we finally got tickets, we had to stand in the sun in line waiting for the bus. The distinct lines only intersect at this point, so you have to make the full circuit before you tackle another route (after having stood in another line) Our plan had been to start about 10 am and it was 11:05 when our first bus finally left. Greyline tours the castle route in a large van which was more maneuverable on the narrow streets, but did not provide as good a view. I love the top of a two-level bus for great views and pictures. I had to take pictures through glass which is never my preference.
Because of the limited seating no one was getting off, so if you tried to get on the bus at any other stop there was no room. Half the headphone inputs weren’t working either. Boris had to move seats three times (when people finally got off) to find one that worked. He was not the only one with this problem. Actually the commentary was pretty limited anyway.
The castle route is probably the one with the most up and down hill turns. I would condition yourself before heading off to Lisbon. Walking means seeing the most, but you need to be physically fit to manage the hills and cobblestones. There are lots of forms of transportation to help you navigate the city, especially the steep hills. The Asian tut-tuk, in a refined form, had made its way to Lisbon and you see them everywhere. Electric trams which look just like San Francisco cable cars cross the city. The infamous line 28 car takes you up near the castle.
There are also funiculars to take you up the steep hills. I also saw some outside escalators. Of course you can also do the stairs. The local buses were also recommended to us. In some cases, the queues for the buses and trams were exceptionally long. We were surprised at how crowded the city was this early in the season. Lisbon has truly been rediscovered.
Make the climb to the castle district to browse around, take in the incredible views, get some exercise and vitamin D, and soak up the feel of the city. The medieval cathedral is also in this area. Both a day and night tour might be worth it to experience the different feel of the city at various times of day.
One of the best parts of the tour was getting a new perspective on places I had seen from the the cruise ship. The large rectangular riverfront square, the Praça do Comércio, caught my eye on the sail in. It features wonderful colonnaded and colored buildings, a center statute of King Jose I, and an impressive arch. Before the earthquake of 1755, the Ribeira Place sat on this site. The palace was totally destroyed by one of the tsunamis that proceeded the earthquake.
The Arco da Rua Augusta, completed in 1875, sits on the north side of the square. The side of the arch facing the square features a figure representing Glory crowning figures representing Bravery and Genius with wreaths. Below are statutes of national heroes Vasco da Gama and the Marquês de Pombal. The reverse side of the arch features a clock added in 1941. The arch is the southern end of the main pedestrian street of the city. Visitors can now take an elevator up and then climb stairs to a viewing terrance. In additional to wonderful views, the clock’s mechanisms can be seen. The arch was built to commemorate the rebuilding of the capital city after the 1755 earthquake which destroyed most of the city.
Just north of the square we passed by the Igreja Conceiçao Velha. The facade is incredibly beautiful. It is the only portion of the church that survived the 1755 earthquake.
I wanted to stop and have lunch after returning to the Marquis de Pombal Square, but Boris wanted to keep going since there was a short queue for the next tour route we planned to take. We switched to the Belem Route which covers more distance. The stops on this route include some impressive landmarks. The city is full of tourists, but the spaces in-between the stops on the Belem route were not congested like in the castle district. Near the waterfront, we stopped at the 16th century Jeronimos Monastery commissioned by King Manuel I in 1501 to commemorate Vasco da Gama’s historic 1498 trip to India. Da Gama’s tomb is inside the monastery church.
We got even closer to the waterfront at our next stop at the Belem Tower, which we had also seen from the cruise ship. It sits on the river’s edge now due to shifting of the watercourse, but it originally sat in the middle of the river. It was built in between 1515 and 1521 as a fortress. Like the monastery, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While the views are reported to be wonderful, Boris and I did not climb the steep spiral staircase to the terrace on top.
Another waterfront landmark along the River Tagus is the Monument to the Discoveries. It is designed to look like the prow of the type of ship used by Portuguese sailors in the 15th century. The monument was built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. While Henry is at the front, other prominent discoverers are also featured. An elevator takes you to the top. The pavement compass and map of the world shows the extent of early Portuguese exploration.
This was also the part of our tour when it was we got our land perspective of the iconic bridge that spans the Tagus. We crossed under the Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge as the cruise ship sailed into Lisbon. At first glance, you might think you are in San Francisco. The bridge was designed and constructed by the same group that built the Golden Gate Bridge in California. It was originally named the Salazar Bridge in 1966 when construction was completed five months ahead of schedule. The name was later changed to celebrate the bloodless Carnation Revolution of April 25, 1974. The Ponte 25 de Abril Suspension Bridge carries heavy traffic each day and was expanded from 4 to 6 lines in 1995. A rail line underneath the vehicular traffic was added in 1999. There is a toll for northbound traffic headed into Lisbon.
After our stops along the waterfront, we headed back into the city and a return to the Marques de Pombal Square and the end of the tour route. We once again passed the National Theater and the fountains on the adjoining plaza. We passed a unique shopping mall/office building that had incorporated the historic facade. The structure enjoyed high placement in award competitions for its clever design. We also passed the beautiful Basilica da Estrela, also known as the Star Basilica, and the popular family park next to it.
After our tour completed, we stopped for a light lunch during our walk back to the hotel. It was mid afternoon and we had a special dinner planned so we didn’t want to eat too much. Along the way I saw more individual transportation options utilized by the people of Lisbon. It is fairly common now to find individual bicycles for rent along the streets in major cities in Europe and North American. In Lisbon, you can also rent motorized skateboards (also particularly popular on large college campus in the USA).
There was time for a short nap before our dinner at Tavares, the oldest Portuguese restaurant still in service. It opened its doors in 1784. Since we were the first to arrive (Boris likes to eat early and we were standing outside when the restaurant opened at 7 pm), I was able to get a few pictures of the opulent interior without disturbing other patrons and looking like a tourist. The prices were very reasonable for a special evening out.
We started with a white port as an aperitif. We chose the tasting menu (70 euros) with four courses and a complementing wine with each course (40 euros). The salted cod and suckling pig, traditional favorites, were wonderful. So too were the prawns and pork. We ended with the appealingly plated assorted desserts. It was a fabulous meal and a wonderful end to our first full day in Portugal.