Saturday, September 17, 2011

Lisbon: Memories of another era

As I stepped out of Lisbon’s stunning Gare do Oriente station — a must-visit for its outstanding contemporary design — I was confronted by a familiar name up in bright and bold neon-lit letters. The ultra-modern shopping mall across the street was called the Centro Vasco da Gama. It was a name we’ve all studied  about in our history books.
Once you’ve reached Lisbon, it doesn’t take long to figure out that da Gama is one of the most revered sons of this tiny nation. He’s recognised for single-handedly turning it into a naval power, enabling Portugal to rule the seas and colonise distant lands. Discovering the sea-route to India in 1498 AD was his biggest achievement, and the reason that Portugal hailed him as a hero, and continues to do so.
Lisbon sprawls along the banks of the River Tagus, which drains into the Atlantic Ocean a few miles away. Its location served as the perfect staging point for travels to the east and enabled the country’s seafaring voyages. And it was from Belém — now the country’s most-visited historical district — from where voyagers like da Gama set sail.
I began my rendezvous with Lisbon, or Lisboa as the Portuguese call it, at Belém. Amongst its landmarks is an iconic trio of 16th century edifices in characteristic limestone and designed in the Manueline style — a distinctively Portuguese version of late-Gothic architecture.
There’s Torre de Belém or Belém Tower, standing serenely on the shores of the River Tagus. It provides a beautiful view of the city’s skyline and the April 25th Bridge **.  The Belém Tower was once the last sight of homeland for sailors.
Across the road is Belém’s splendid Mosteiro dos Jerónimos or Jerónimos Monastery, which has all the grandeur of a royal palace. The Portuguese are proud of the Manueline legacy and the monastery is said to be the best-preserved example of it. I loved the rounded arches, floral motifs and stones shaped to resemble twisted ropes. It’s here that da Gama spent the night before sailing for India. The existing expansive structure, however, was built to commemorate his successful return.
Completing the trio of the spectacular structures at Belém is the adjacent Church of Santa Maria. It’s an ornate place of worship and also has tombs of royalty. There are only two commoners buried here — one is, of course, da Gama. The other is the distinguished Portuguese poet Luis de Camões.
Even as I was admiring these iconic landmarks, I was drawn to an interesting-looking construction close to the Belém Tower. From a distance it looked like a ship’s prow on the edge of River Tagus. Indeed, the Padrã dos Descobrimentos or Monument to the Discoveries has been designed to look like that and is dedicated to the ‘Age of Discovery’ (15th to 16th century) when Portugal’s explorers brought glory to their homeland.
A trip to Belém remains incomplete without stopping at Pastéis de Belém, the legendarypâtisserie next door to the monastery. For over a century, it has been serving Lisbon’s best egg-custard pastry with a sprinkling of pounded sugar and cinnamon powder. It’s a buzzing eatery and the fact the recipe is still a closely-guarded secret adds an extra flavour to the treat.
Lisbon is a famously laidback city that comes across as being slightly different from other European metropolises. It’s a montage of pleasing contrasts with ornate palaces, museums, majestic churches and a Downtown with open-air cafés and swanky fashion stores. There are also delightful residential pockets with balconies awash with bright colours or dressed in Moorish blue tiles. Portugal was once under Roman rule and there are distinct Moorish influences from the time the Moors dominated the Iberian Plateau between 711 AD and 1492 AD.
Lisbon’s well-connected public transport system makes it easy to explore the city. I hopped in and out of the trams and suddenly stumbled upon a heritage gem — the Number 28 wooden tram that goes up the steep hill to Alfama district. I was rewarded with panoramic views of Lisbon at sunset.
I wrapped up my Lisboa experience with a traditional meal and port wine at Senhor Vinho, the city’s most authentic and stylish Fado (it’s a type of traditional Portuguese music) restaurant, owned by the country’s top Fado performer, Maria da Fé. It was an an indulgence, but well worth it.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from Calcutta to Lisbon. You’ll have to change flights in Delhi or Mumbai and London. For train bookings from other European cities, visit
Staying there: Hotel Olissippo Marques de Sa is a good option. Go to
Photographs by author

 **Correction made in blog text

Published Sept 17, 2011 in The Telegraph, Calcutta  

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