The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, July 15, 2001

In the land of adventurers and travellers
Sushil Kaur

IT was quite a change after three days on the placid North Sea. The English Channel had waves going up to almost 10 feet and the ride in the hovercraft was terribly rough. But as soon as our ocean liner entered the estuary at Lisbon, a calm descended on all of us.

The Arco Triumfal da rua Augusta is a Triumphal Arch
The Arco Triumfal da rua Augusta is a Triumphal Arch

I had waited for my visit to this ancient city for years, especially because of my interest in Columbus and the Portuguese Imperial culture. My first day was spent taking a walk in the city. There is absolutely no way you can get lost in this city. Just when you think you are lost, a panoramic view of the city comes before your eyes and you know your whereabouts. It is the city of adventurers and poets, of conquerors and travellers who set out from here to discover the world.

Lisbon is located on the River Tagus where it broadens before entering the Atlantic Ocean. The ‘25th of April Bridge’ is one of the longest suspension bridges in the world, extending 1013 metres over the Tagus. I had been told that Lisbon is the seat of an archbishopric and so I made it a point to spend one day visiting old churches, convents and monasteries. My most memorable visit was to one of the important monuments in Portugal, the monastery of Batalha in Lisbon which introduced the Manuelino-Gothic style in Portuguese architecture. 

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Also known as the monastery of Santa Maria da Vitoria, it was established around 1387 on the strength of a promise made by King John I of Portugal during the battle of Aljubarrota, one of the most important episodes in the history of Portugal and one which assured the independence of the country.The monument comprises three impressive naves, five apses for shrines, a large royal cloister, chapter house and other annexes.

The city is also the site of the Se, a Romanesque-Gothic cathedral built in the 12th century and partially ruined by earthquakes. A Hieronymite convent in the suburb of Belem was built in the 16th century to mark the discovery of a sea passage to India by the navigator Vasco da Gama. It contains the tombs of da Gama and the Portuguese poet Luis Vaz de Camoes. Notable educational and cultural institutions in the city include a museum of ancient art and colleges and universities, the oldest of which is the Universities of Lisbon (1288).

Navigators’ monument in Lisbon
Navigators’ monument in Lisbon

I was fascinated to learn that Lisbon was the oldest known city in Western Europe. If this is so, then scholars must have no objection to the legend which attributes the founding of Lisbon to Ulysses. In ancient times, the Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans colonised Lisbon. The Visigoths captured Lisbon from the Romans during the A.D. 400s, and north African Muslims called Moors seized it during the 700s. In 1147, Christian forces led by Afonso I, the first king of Portugal, reclaimed the city from the Moors. Around 1260, Lisbon became the capital of the kingdom of Portugal, and following a period of colonial expansion, became one of the wealthiest cities in Europe. During the 1400s and 1500s, the city served as headquarters for the explorers and adventurers who established Portuguese empire in Africa, Asia and South America. The Navigators’ Monument in Lisbon commemorates the great age of Portuguese colonial discovery. Under the aegis of the great kings John II and Emanuel, Portuguese explorers set out to chart and take possession of new lands in Africa, the Americas and Asia. Their expeditions laid the basis of the Portuguese Empire. Portugal remained neutral during World War II, and Lisbon became both a haven and a port of embarkation for refugees from all over Europe.

The importance of Lisbon declined in during the period of Spanish rule (1580-1640). In 1755 an earthquake destroyed about two-thirds of the city and killed more than 60,000 people. A 1988 fire, called the worst disaster in the city’s history since 1755, destroyed the shopping district. The Baixa was built as part of the reconstruction of the ruined city.

Lisbon is built on terraced sides of a range of low hills overlooking a harbour. In the older section, narrow and crooked streets lead up to the ramparts to the Barrio Alto. Ageless men sit reading, indifferent to the cries of children and the metallic grinding of trams. Trams are seen mingling with tourists and residents sitting side by side. Lisbon has many public squares, statues of national heroes, tree-lined avenues and small parks. Most people live in pastel-colored houses or blocks of flats. Many tourists visit the Sao Carlos Opera House and the Castle of Sao Jorge, once home to Portugal’s kings. Another attraction is the Tower of Belem, built in the early 1500s to honour Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.

The newer section has straight, broad, tree-lined avenues, handsome squares and extensive public gardens. The markets seem oriental, the gardens have an African flavour. Almost every hotel seems to have traces of history attached to it. There is a rumour that Avendia Palace was the site of innumerable intrigues during World War II when agents from different countries had clandestine meetings in dark corridors.

A visit to Lisbon is incomplete without experiencing of the intellectual aspect of this city. The Procopio is a literary salon where writers, philosophers, poets, musicians and travellers assemble over a cup of cappuccino and discuss Columbus in the morning and Plato or Marx in the evening. So varied is the gathering that it cannot be defined by employment, age or language of its members.

During the World War II, Lisbon became a centre of international political activity because of its non-aligned status. On April 25, 1974, a military revolt in Lisbon overthrew the dictatorship that had ruled Portugal since 1926 and thus was born the idea of liberty and freedom that would overtake the whole of Europe from Leningrad to Berlin and from Prague to the Hague.