Across the wide Rio Tejo into the arms of the King

There are two things you can’t ignore when you’re in Lisbon (three things, if you include pasteis de nata, which you should definitely not ignore): the glorious Rio Tejo or River Tagus carving its way around the city; and the giant statue of Cristo Rei or Christ the King, which overlooks the river and Lisbon from the top of a hill across the water in Almada. Getting to the latter requires that you cross the former by car, train or, best of all, by boat.

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer provided the inspiration for Lisbon’s giant statue. While it may not have the same grandeur or dramatic vantage point of Christ the Redeemer, Christ the King provides a vast and beautiful panorama over the city. Standing loftily above the Ponte 25 de Abril, the iconic red bridge which straddles the Rio Tejo (and which does a passable impersonation of the Golden Gate Bridge), Christ the King is a remarkable sight.

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Ponte 25 de Abril over the Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Although construction was approved in 1940, it was only after World War II that the building work started. Fittingly, the statue was dedicated to Portugal having survived the Second World War largely unscathed. The foundation stone was laid in 1949 but it took another three years before construction began. It was completed and opened in 1959 and, like the Monument to the Discoveries across the river, became a symbol of the Salazar dictatorship. Church and State, hand-in-hand.

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Cristo Rei or Christ the King, Lisbon, Portugal

Made from reinforced concrete, the statue is 133 metres in height. The observation deck, located somewhere around the feet, is ‘only’ 89 metres, but thanks to the statue’s hilltop position on the top of a cliff, the views overlooking the river and city are spectacular. I don’t know how far you can see, but the views extend for several dozen kilometres all the way pst the dramatic white sliver crossing the Rio Tejo to the south, the Vasco da Gama Bridge.

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

Leaving the ferry terminal of Cais do Sodré in Lisbon we headed to Cacilhas on the opposite bank. The views when you’re crossing the river are pretty special, and give you an idea of the size of the Ponte 25 de Abril, which towers over everything.

Ferry in Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Ferry in Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Fishermen in Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Fishermen in Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Cacilhas, Lisbon, Portugal

Cacilhas is a sleepy suburb and although it might be the jumping off point for the Cristo Rei, most people from Lisbon head here for delicious seafood and beer. The numerous fish restaurants for which Cacilhas is famous dish up a lot of tasty traditional dishes. Most of the restaurants have good views over the river, making a leisurely lunch a real pleasure; fishermen can be seen trying their luck along the waterfront while boats motor past. All the while the beautiful cityscape of Lisbon provides the backdrop.

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

The Rio Tejo or River Tagus with Lisbon in the background, Portugal

On the waterfront, gateway to Portugal’s Age of Discoveries

Walking off the brightly sunlit street, it takes a while for your eyes to adjust to the gloom of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery). When your eyes have adjusted, your mind has to follow suit. This is a magnificent building, in size, grandeur and its historical significance. This is where Vasco de Gama’s crew prayed in 1497 before departing on a voyage that would change history.

Nearly a year after departing these shores, in May 1498 de Gama’s crew became the first Europeans to discover India. Rounding the Cape of Good Hope they crossed the Indian Ocean and arriving in Calicut. The discovery of India changed everything. The opulence and wealth of India, and of its native rulers, was obvious. The European desire to have a share if it, insatiable.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Soon a network of trade routes flourished, pepper, cinnamon and other sought-after spices began to flow towards Lisbon. Gold flowed into the coffers of the Portuguese Crown and sparked a fierce rivalry with just about every other European nation. India’s discovery helped establish the Portuguese Empire and virtually ensured the rest of Europe would want a slice of that particular pie.

Built with an enormous amount of money from the booming early 16th century spice trade, the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is a massive structure with vast stone pillars soaring to the domed roof. The ceiling is ornately carved and looks like a giant spider’s web; beautiful and ancient stained glass windows adorn the walls.

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Europe’s early exploration and huge accumulation of wealth led to a truly impressive burst of artistic and architectural creativity. The Mosteiro embodies the Age of Exploration, exemplifying Portugal’s “Golden Age”; and fittingly this is the building where the most famous of all Portugal’s early explorers, Vasco da Gama, is entombed in beautifully carved marble. For a traveller, a visit to Lisbon wouldn’t be complete without a pilgrimage to see de Gama’s final resting place.

Vasco de Gama's tomb, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

Vasco de Gama’s tomb, Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Lisbon, Portugal

A little walk through some gardens brings you to the banks of the Rio Tejo, where fishermen try their luck and a couple of other monuments to Portugal’s Golden Age are found. The Padrão dos Descobrimentos, or Monument to the Discoveries, was opened to the public in 1960 to commemorate Portugal’s past glories at a moment of right wing nationalist tub thumping.

Fisherman on the Rio Tejo Lisbon, Portugal

Fisherman on the Rio Tejo Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Harmless as it may look, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos was built by the Estado Novo government of dictator António de Oliveira Salazar, in part to send a message to Portugal’s African colonies. When the rest of Europe was retreating in the face of pro-independence movements in the 1950s and 1960s, Salazar’s pro-colonial ideology saw Portugal dragged into colonial wars which only ended with a 1974 military coup overthrowing the Estado Novo.

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Not so subtle message or not, the Monument to the Discoveries is a dramatic piece of sculpture. Along the sides are numerous carved figures of rather pious looking individuals facing towards the horizon. The wonderful thing is you can climb up inside the monument and get tremendous panoramic views over the river and town. Looking down there is a giant map of the world showing the dates of each of Portugal’s discoveries.

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

View from the Monument to the Discoveries, Lisbon, Portugal

Stroll a little further along the river front and you arrive at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Belém Tower. It initially struck me that this rather odd boat like structure was just for ornament, but this was part of an elaborate defence system in the early 16th Century. It was still seeing action during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th Century. This little stretch of waterfront has seen its share of history.

Belém Tower, Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Belém Tower, Rio Tejo, Lisbon, Portugal

Old Europe, the streets of Lisbon (II)

Lisbon is a city of tightly packed streets. Periodically you’ll find yourself emerging into the sunlight and presented with tremendous views over the city and the River Tejo. Ancient looking yellow trams rattle their way up cobbled roads; people drink strong coffee in cafes or sip chilled Vino Verde at outdoor restaurants. Overhead washing hangs from windows. Life here has its own rhythm, one that has dominated the city for centuries.

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Flowers, Lisbon, Portugal

Flowers, Lisbon, Portugal

Yellow tram on the streets of Lisbon, Portugal

Yellow tram on the streets of Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon is full of beauty. Whether it is the small alleys leading into intimate plazas; red tiled rooftops stretching off into the distance; ornate blue and white tiled buildings; ancient monasteries and overwrought, elaborate church interiors; or outdoor restaurants serving up perfect fish; small cafes with delicious Pasteis de Nata and expresso, this is a city that is a joy to explore. If they could sort out the rush hour traffic mayhem, it would be perfect.

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Flowers on a balcony, Lisbon, Portugal

Flowers on a balcony, Lisbon, Portugal

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

I hesitate to say this, but compared to many other cities across Europe, Lisbon feels truly ‘authentic’. ‘Hesitate’ because what I really mean is there is a pleasant lack of the all-enveloping tourist consumerism that seems to suffocate some cities. The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos may become crowded with coach loads of day trippers, but the streets of Alfama and adjoining neighbourhoods feel remarkably tourism (if not tourist) free.

The hassle-free nature of visiting Lisbon allows you to absorb the town’s history without having to haggle your way down the street…and Lisbon’s history is worth taking time to absorb.

Street in Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal, Portugal

Street in Lisbon, Street in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Views over Lisbon, Portugal

Views over Lisbon, Portugal

Founded around 1200BC, this is one of of Europe’s oldest cities. Civilisations have come and gone from Lisbon: Celts, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Barbarians, Visigoths, Berbers and Arabs all knew Lisbon before the Reconquista re-established Christianity across the Iberian Peninsula. Under Moorish rule Christians and Jews were granted equal protection under the law, no such luck for the Jews and Muslims under Christian rule: convert, flee or die were their options.

Houses, Lisbon, Portugal

Houses, Lisbon, Portugal

Cat on a window ledge, Lisbon, Portugal

Cat on a window ledge, Lisbon, Portugal

The Reconquista of 1147 re-established Christianity and there are dozens of churches to act as witness to this fact. From the 15th Century onwards, it was from here that Portuguese navigators set sail to discover the ‘New World’, sparking a Europe-wide competition to first trade and then colonise vast swathes of the globe. Portugal became wealthy from the spice trade, entering a ‘Golden Age’ in the 16th Century – cue yet more church building.

In more recent times, Lisbon’s fate (and that of Portugal) has been a long slow decline, not helped by a couple of monstrously destructive earthquakes along the way. By mid-20th Century, Portugal became one of the poorest countries in Western Europe. A series of 20th Century Republics resulted in a Fascist dictatorship, which only ended in 1974 with the loss of Portugal’s remaining colonies.

Views over Lisbon, Portugal

Views over Lisbon, Portugal

This decline is clearly visible in Lisbon today. As is the result of the recent financial crash which has massively impacted on Portuguese society, disproportionately affecting young people, thousands of whom have voted with their feet. It may never see the Golden Age again, but the vibrancy of that time seems to pervade modern Lisbon. This is a global city, its world view shaped by its past but also with an eye to what looks like a bright and progressive future.

Lisbon at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Tram at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Tram at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Walking the streets of Lisbon evokes a powerful sense of this long and extraordinary history. Walking these same streets at night under the ethereal orange glow of the city’s street lights is altogether other-worldly. It really is one of Europe’s great capitals.

Bar in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Bar in the Alfama District, Lisbon, Portugal

Tram at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Tram at night, Lisbon, Portugal

Grafetti, Lisbon, Portugal

Grafetti, Lisbon, Portugal

Old Europe, the streets of Lisbon

One of Europe’s most ancient cities, Lisbon’s relaxed charm and cultural vibrancy have made it one of the continent’s go-to destinations of recent times. It wasn’t so long ago that Lisbon was considered to be a ‘hidden gem’ or ‘off he beaten path’, not so these days. The path is well and truly beaten, and with good reason. This City of Seven Hills has a history stretching back 2,500 years and a contemporary culture that enraptures visitors from all over the world.

View over Lisbon towards 25 de Abril Bridge, Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon towards 25 de Abril Bridge, Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon towards Castelo de São Jorge, Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon towards Castelo de São Jorge, Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon towards the Santa Justa Elevator, Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon towards the Santa Justa Elevator, Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon straddles the River Tejo (or Tagus depending on who your speak to). At 1038km the Tejo is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, in Lisbon it meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is a dramatic setting. Witnessed from the top of the 12th Century Castelo de São Jorge, or one of Lisbon’s many vantage points, on a day when the sun sparkles on the water it is truly magnificent.

This is a city where expectations are regularly exceeded. There is something deeply moving about wandering Lisbon’s ancient streets and alleyways. If you happen to be walking down the street in one of Lisbon’s old working class barrios and are fortunate enough to hear Fado drifting out from a neighbourhood bar, you feel transported back in time.

View over Lisbon, Portugal

View over Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Fado is considered by UNESCO as global ‘intangible cultural heritage’, something anyone who has heard the haunting melodies of the divine Mariza will instantly appreciate. Although born in Portuguese-controlled Mozambique, one of Portugal’s favourite musical daughters was raised in the narrow streets of Mouraria and Alfama. Walking those twisting, turning streets today you can still feel the tightly knit nature of this former working class fishing community. History seems to seep out of the walls.

Fado tiles in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Fado tiles in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Fado tiles in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Fado tiles in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Streets in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

The Alfama district is Lisbon’s oldest quarter, and the past seems to shroud the narrow streets. The name derives from the Arabic Al-hamma, meaning ‘hot baths’ or ‘hot springs’. Knowing this makes sense of the medina-like labyrinth of streets that sprawl up and down the hillside. Another memory of the Moorish occupation is the glazed tiles that you see on many buildings in this area; the tiles were the invention of Arabic culture.

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, Lisbon, Portugal

Gone are the mosques that once formed part of Moorish Portugal and an intimate part of these streets. In their place are numerous elaborate and highly decorated churches, including the Church of Santa Engrácia, which has been turned into the National Pantheon where many of Portugal’s most famous are buried. The nearby Monastery of São Vicente de Fora is equally stunning, equally enormous.

Yellow tram, Lisbon, Portugal

Yellow tram, Lisbon, Portugal

Yellow tram, Lisbon, Portugal

Yellow tram, Lisbon, Portugal

Window with flowers in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Window with flowers in the Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

We only had a short time in Lisbon, but it is a smallish city that lends itself to easy exploration – although those seven hills take a toll after a while. Whether you’re on foot or hopping on and off the iconic yellow trams, with two or three days to spare you can cover quite a lot. Two or three days is also just enough to make you realise that the city has much, much more to offer.