Culture Supplement

Three days in Lisbon of countless stories

Panoramic view of Lisbon from the Tagus River

Panoramic view of Lisbon from the Tagus River (Photo: KOHA)

How would Lisbon be described today? A city full of history, beauty, charm and good and hospitable people. Lisbon is believed to have been founded as a settlement in 1200 BC and is one of the oldest cities in Europe alongside Athens. After the settlement of the Celts in that area, the city was founded by the Phoenicians under the name Alis Ubbo ("safe haven"). Three days in Lisbon of hundreds of confessions and stories

"Night in Lisbon", was the title of the novel by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque, that had intrigued me so much to understand more about the capital of Portugal than about the love stories, for which he had been an expert of the special kind. A few decades ago, when I read it, I did not know that this was his last novel, which he had managed to finish. The writer would die eight years after the publication of the bestseller that had managed to sell almost a million copies worldwide. For our little world, it would take us maybe two centuries to sell that many copies of a book.
But the book has at least talked about the city, but it has served to testify to a piece of history - that Lisbon had been one of the few neutral ports during the Second World War and had served as a refuge for many refugees and spies. It had also been the place from where over 100 people had fled Nazi Germany to the US during the devastating war.

The port of Lisbon was once, geographically, at one of the extreme points that define the city, which is perhaps the most easily traversed by the Tagus River. That's what everyone calls it, except the Spanish, who call it Tajo (Taho), and the Portuguese, who call it Tejo (Tezhu). The river has its source in Spain and almost cuts the Iberian peninsula in half with its long course of 1007 kilometers. In its final course, before reaching the delta that unites it with the Atlantic Ocean, where it can expand up to 17 kilometers, the Tejo naturally transforms into the edge of the old city of Lisbon.

The birth of a city

How would Lisbon be described today? A city full of history, beauty, charm and good and hospitable people.
Lisbon is believed to have been founded as a settlement in 1200 BC and is one of the oldest cities in Europe alongside Athens. After the settlement of the Celts in that area, the city was founded by the Phoenicians under the name Alis Ubbo ("safe haven"). While this part of the story remains somewhat unclear, what is known for certain is that this area was under Roman occupation from 205 BC to 409 AD and that Julius Caesar had raised it to the level of a municipium (city) and had christened Felicitas Julia. 

The Romans were driven out by a nomadic people, who were also driven out by another nomadic people, and so finally Lisbon fell into the hands of the Visigoths, who are believed to have laid the foundations of the city's fortifications. 

In the 8th century, the Moors, African Muslims, conquered Lisbon and held it for almost five centuries. And at the time of their conquest, the city was known by the names Luzbona, Liksbuna, Uliksbone and Olisibona.

In the 12th century, the Portuguese took control of the city, under the leadership of the first Portuguese king, Alfonso I, and with the help of crusaders. The city, and later the wider territory, came under Christian control. Muslim religious temples as well as the Arabic language almost completely disappeared. Lisbon, due to its strategic position, became the capital of the new kingdom, in which a university was even founded in 1290.

Discoverer or conqueror

The impressive monument, built in honor of the Portuguese sailors, who turned it into a superpower in the Middle Ages (Photo: KOHA)

The Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries) is an extremely beautiful monument. It is shaped like a caravel bearing the coat of arms of Portugal and the sword of the Avis dynasty, which started oceanic exploration. At the head of the ship is the figure of Henrique de Portugal, the man who had initiated the explorations. In the two side rows on each side of the monument, there are statues of the so-called Portuguese heroes who were involved in the discoveries, as well as figures of cartographers, navigators and kings. 

The monument was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of Henriques' death by order of dictator Salazar who had held power for 33 years. 

The imposing structure of 50 meters in height is an inevitable point of visit for tourists, not only to be impressed by it, but also to learn that the first oceanic explorations of Portugal started in the 14th century, initially with the "excursion" to the Canary Islands and later in the Atlantic archipelago, Madeira and Açores (which are now part of the Portuguese state, like the westernmost points of Europe). A century later, the west coast of Africa would be "discovered" and by the end of the 15th century, Vasco da Gama would find the sea route to India to establish Portugal's maritime and commercial presence in the Indian Ocean.

For the peoples who have tasted the bitterness of the occupation, the name of the monument is deafening. For those who have lived under Portuguese occupation for centuries, it will be the symbol that illustrates their misery.

Navigating the Tejo

This and two other exceptional monuments in that area can be reached by car. But it can also be reached by boat, which traverses the entire length of the Tejo River from the starting point, in front of the imposing Praça do Comércio square (that is, the Trade Square), which has an area of ​​over 30 square meters.

Praça do Comercio – the center of trade in the Middle Ages. Today, an inevitable point to visit in Lisbon (Photo: KOHA)

The square, which once housed the royal palace, was "liberated" by this Paço de Ribeira, as it was called, after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that hit Lisbon in 1755. By the end of the 18th century, this imposing space had been built for reflected the wealth and ambitions of Portugal with countless voyages to Brazil, India and Southeast Asia from where they returned with goods to trade with.

Now, the whole space shimmers with the yellow color of the facades and in the middle it holds a single statue: of the reforming king of Portugal, Jose I, during whose time the core of today's Lisbon was built.

Cruising the Tejo is an experience in itself.

Various tourist companies have already taken their places inside the 18th century administrative building and each of them, with clear instructions, orients you to the quay and the paths leading to the boats. Their departure is coordinated and with a time gap between each departure, in order to avoid any accidents or even not to disturb the flow of the very large river. 

The cruise that lasts about 30 minutes from one point of the city to another offers you unique panoramas of it: the beauty that is best described by photography. While on the right side you can't get enough of looking at old and preserved objects, on the left side you see a piece of land that resembles an island with many abandoned objects, but beautifully used by artists who have filled them with colorful graffiti.

The middle side of the Tejo River, Municipality of Almada. Graffiti can be found everywhere in the city (Photo: KOHA)

Somewhere in the middle of the path, the boat passes under the suspension bridge called "25 Abril" (April 25), which marks the date of the third Portuguese revolution and the overthrow of the dictatorship. The revolution took place in 1974 (just after the 50th anniversary was marked) and is known worldwide as the "Carnation Revolution". This is because the soldiers, who overthrew the dictatorship with a coup d'état, did not fire a single bullet, because they chose to close their barrels with a red carnation flower.

Even the bridge was commissioned by the dictator Salazar. It was designed and built by the American firms that had been involved in the construction of the famous San Francisco Bridge in the USA. The bridge serves to connect Lisbon with the municipality of Almada (on the side of the Christ monument) and was inaugurated in 1966.

April 25 Bridge, 1013 meters long, originally called Salazar Bridge (in honor of the dictator who ordered its construction). It changed its name in 1974, after the Carnation Revolution (Photo: KOHA)

To the left, at this height, stands out the great monument of Christ, Santuário de Cristo Rei (Sanctuary of Christ the King), which was built inspired by Christ in Corcovado in Rio de Janeiro. While the one in Brazil was built in 1931, the one in Lisbon was built in 1959.

Sanctuary of Christ the King (Photo: KOHA)

History from which to behave

After the bridge, from the right, you will see a row of industrial buildings converted into museums. Otherwise, I don't know if there is a city with more museums and exhibitions than Lisbon, if the population is measured proportionally - there are about 70 in half a million inhabitants living in the city. The one that can be seen from the river is the former object of the power plant transformed into the Power Museum.

What was once known as the Estaçao dos Barbadinhos was in operation between 1880 and 1928, and inside it still retains the steam engines with the corresponding pumps. Steam was produced with coal.

Museum of Current (Photo: Pedro Simões /

Slowly, the boat brings us closer to the Belém neighborhood. First we pass by the monument of the conquerors, as I would call it, to stop at the "last station", the Tower of Bethlehem, or Torre de Belém, a unique example of "Manueline" architecture, late Portuguese Gothic. This style was named after the Portuguese king Manuel I, during whose time some of the most impressive buildings in the city were built.

The starting point for the discovery of the new world, for the conquest of lands unknown until then (Photo: KOHA)

The tower had served as a starting point for "discoverers" and traders and was built in 1519, on a small island in the river. But the earthquake two centuries later would change the course of the river and now the building is above ground, almost connected to the rest that leads to an imposing object.
The 30-meter tower, which has details of the architecture of the moras (small minarets), was declared a world heritage by UNESCO in 1983. To climb it and visit its four floors, you have to wait at least half an hour straight. 

Opened by the river and the ocean, winds coming from all directions do not stop in Lisbon. In particular, the breath is felt along the banks of the Tagus - everywhere you get the impression that you have boarded a ship and set off to "discover" a new land.

The microclimate changes only a few tens of meters inland. 

Right in front of the sailors' monument, after crossing the four-lane road, you arrive at a symmetrical, square-shaped square with dimensions of 175x175 meters. It's called Praça do Império (Empire Square) and it dates back to 1940, when it was built, shoot, by the decision of the dictator Salazar. 
Even this square with an area of ​​over 30 square meters, apart from a large fountain, is all filled with sculptures and greenery, leading to an impressive monument: Mosterio dos Jeronimos (Jeronimos Monastery).

The middle of Empire Square in the direction of Mosterio dos Jeronimos (Photo: KOHA)

Giant monument

The monastery is the most distinguished example of Portuguese "Manueline" Gothic. Its construction began in 1501 and took the place of a small neighborhood church. The purpose behind the decision to build it was to turn it into the necropolis of the Avis dynasty. 

Now the "discovery" of new territories brought back a lot of wealth. Money was not a problem, because King Manuel I had decided to use the money for its construction from the tax called Vintena da Pimenta (literally: the twentieth part of pepper) which collected 5% of the tax on the trade that was carried out from Africa and the East, which equaled some 70 kilograms of gold per year, with the exception of the tax collected from the trade in pepper, cinnamon and cloves that went directly to the king in the budget. 

The construction took 100 years. Until the 19th century, there were not many interventions in it, while from the middle of this century, the object underwent some changes in some of its wings, to remain as it is today. 

From the beginning of the 17th century until 1833, it served precisely as a monastery of monks, who had the duty to pray for the eternal life of the royal family, as well as for the life and success of the sailors who departed from the tower in front of them. In that year, the monastery was emptied and left neglected until the state took it under its supervision, including now a number of tombs that were scattered throughout the building, including that of Vasco da Gama.

The monastery is over 300 meters long, but the queue to enter can be as long as 200 meters. On average you have to wait an hour and a half to get inside, with tickets recommended to be purchased online.

 Jeronim Monastery, at the entrance of the Museum of Archeology (Photo: KOHA)

And while you're waiting, it would be good to have a bottle of water, a cap and an umbrella with you, because sudden changes in the weather are unknown. But if you lack any of these, there will be street vendors who will address you in every possible language they know and will not leave until they have managed to sell even something, be it a scarf, a bracelet, or whatever they can offer you from the people who carry them on their arms.
If you are not interested in buying anything, the easiest way to get rid of them is if you speak Albanian to them - it is a language they do not understand and they will leave with the conviction that you cannot be understood.

The line to enter the monastery. The object on the right is the Folk Art Museum; cypresses cross the Empire Square, while on the left you can see the Monument to the Discoverers (Photo: KOHA)

And inside? 

Inside you are just speechless. 

This is a place that should be visited primarily by architects and builders, as well as art historians. All that construction and processing of limestone to bring out all those ornaments, without the fear that any piece might fall (not even the catastrophic earthquake of 1755 managed to damage it), is simply breathtaking. Despite the hundreds of people moving through the facility, however, there is a stillness that dominates. And suddenly, everyone begins to discover their hidden talent for photography – there are so many beautiful details that you'll want to frame each one.

And what makes the most impression is the combination of ceramic tiles in the interior - and the very strange effect of warmth that they evoke in all that space and depth.
The almost two hours spent inside pass almost like a dream.

The interior of Mosterio dos Jeronimos, declared a heritage of humanity in 1983 (Photo: KOHA)

The monastery is actually a tourist complex which has been adapted for other cultural needs. While the church has limited visiting hours, entry is not allowed on Sundays except for Mass, the middle part of the building is dedicated to the needs of the Museum of Archaeology, while the extreme western part is dedicated to the Museum of the Sea. Each museum requires separate tickets to visit, but above all, it also takes time to visit.

And that it is not only foreigners who are impressed by this building, is proven by a plaque bearing the signatures of the representatives of the 27 member states of the EU, on the occasion of the signing of the Treaty of Lisbon, in 2007, which had approved the amendment of the documents basic, constitutional, of the former European Community. Previously, in the same facility, in 1985, after eight years of negotiations, Portugal signed the EU Union Treaty, of which it formally became a member in 1986, alongside Spain. 

Never ending story.

This is only the beggining

The distance from Belém to the center of Lisbon is somewhere around six kilometers, that is, if you start from the traffic lights at Filozofiku and all the way to Gërmi. With the very big difference that there hardly anyone would be able to step on you on the sidewalk, because they are still sidewalks, and that you would distinguish two fundamental things from that street: greenery and exceptional cleanliness. Nowhere visible collective containers like it happens to us. Clean, almost someone cares to collect the scum with a big, invisible suction machine.

The other option back to the city is again by boat, then tram, train and city bus. But there is another possibility, and this is the red or yellow tourist bus, which in free translation could be called "hop-zhdryp". 

Traveling with these buses around the city is a lifesaver for the legs and the energy that should be saved for other activities and walks. Ticket combinations offer the possibility of selecting routes and places to visit, as well as the intensity of traffic with them, for one, two or three days. A three-day ticket for three bus/boat lines costs 46 euros and is still worth it. Because described above, it is only a fragment of what the visitor to Lisbon would be able to experience, and still remain without seeing many things that are hidden in the seven hills of the city.

To be continued in the next issue of the Culture Supplement