From Mariner Kings to European Crises, Portugal Rises Triumphant

The whimsy of Lisbon is evident in the colorful trams.

The whimsy and wonder of Lisbon is evident in the colorful trams. Small is good when you have to manage hairpin turns on the steep slopes of a multi- hilled city.

A perfect symmetry wound itself around my trip to Portugal, perhaps because I chose to stay on a schooner rather than in a hotel in this capital and seat of ancient mariners. Fifty-one meters long, the Principe Perfeito lay at anchor three masts strong in one of the little harbors along the Tagus River. Her captain, Rafael Silva, had rebuilt the craft from a under-used cargo carrier, going so far as to hoist the bridge and reposition it further aft in order to accommodate three masts – thus creating a prized “tall ship”.  The interior was lovingly and laboriously created with mahogany walls and fixtures varnished to a diamond-like gleam.  My own cabin, a modestly priced single, sported two comfortable bunks, a closet fitted with a rack and four well-sized drawers, a bedside shelf, and a heater – unused during my stay.  Adjacent to the upper bunk, a small round porthole brought fresh air, the occasional noise of passing traffic, the sounds of the crew calling directions, and a tranquilizing whisper of the water as it lapped against the cement wharf. During the hours when the tide rose and fell, I got more or less a view of the buildings and streets beyond.

I wasn’t long in Portugal before hearing stories of King John II, the thirteenth king of Portugal and the Algarves who ruled from 1481 to 1495.  Captain Silva, his years of experience in the merchant navy evident in a vast storehouse of information, willingly answered all my questions about the boat, named the Principe Perfeito, the Perfect Prince, after that same king, and Portugal’s naval history. While easily as ruthless as his forebears, suppressing conspiracies through the systematic and sometimes personal killing of a variety of plotters, King John was gifted with an almost prescient knowledge related to world exploration, including Africa, the Orient, and, some assert, the Americas. At some point during the pivotal years of exploration, when many still thought the earth was flat, political machinations meant that invisible lines were inked onto mis-drawn maps.  Later, when Brazil was discovered, either accidentally or on purpose, those treaty lines granted Portugal sovereignty over a huge swath of South America.

The Portuguese as a people still feel pride in this auspicious heritage, but the more forward thinking are now saying, “Yes, but what have we done lately.”  It is no good, they feel, to honor the past if there are no goals for the future, little innovation, and almost no support from an economically strapped government. One thing Portugal is doing right is preserving that heritage.  Somehow they have come up with the funds to keep their ancient monuments in repair, restore portions of castles, palaces, and fortresses, and preserve the old and new sections of important cities and towns.

It begins at the airport, a spacious and well-appointed space that is designed for travelers, particularly travelers with money.  Many oh-so-tempting shops displaying designer this and name brand that.  Once the gauntlet of glamor has been successfully avoided or indulged, practical issues can be dealt with. The bookstore near the exit has a wide array of tourist books, so if you haven’t brought yours because it was too heavy or you left it in the seat pocket of the airplane, you can pick one up.

Taxis are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, with a ride from the airport to mid-town running around 23 Euro.  The trip back to the airport is a bargain at only 13 Euro.  As with many European cities, Lisbon has worked long and effectively on its public transport, with the result that there are trains, trams, buses, and boats to take you wherever your adventurous spirit desires.

On my first day, I decided to focus on the downtown or city center. To ease my way into a heavy urban environment after living in a small mountain town in Morocco for 10 months, I chose the bicycle path which hugs the river from the area of Belen, past my ship’s anchorage and on to the boat and train terminals and then to Praca do Comercio.  Wonderful views of the water were paired with slightly less welcome views of graffiti on almost ever wall. I took a few shots of more skilled examples of this urban art form in other parts of the city. Once through the Praca do Comercio, which is vast, vacant, and rather boring since they removed all the little kiosks for the Pope’s visit, I indulged myself in window shopping on the roads that lead away from the water and toward the bustle of city life.

In the old days in Russia there was a maxim, “If you see a line, get in it.”  You never knew what your reward might be: shoes from Turkey, pork products from Germany, or French soap.  It didn’t matter.  Communist Russia suffered from so many lacks that anything at all would be a bonus. Some ways on in downtown Lisbon, I saw such a line and quickly took up a spot at the end.  The attraction turned out to be the Elevator Tower of Santa Justa, one of the best miradouros in the city. For 5 Euro or so, you can ride to the last main level and then negotiate the fifty steps of a spiral staircase to the top. Well worth it, because the city spreads out below like a white and red carpet that rises and falls with changes in elevation. Praca Dom Pedro IV is punctuated at its northern end by the National Theater.  Beyond the hills rise on all sides cradling the heart of the city.

Starbucks Lisbon could not be considered the usual tourist attraction, but for someone who hasn’t had a Skinny Sugar-Free Vanilla Latte in a year, I was drawn as a moth to the bean.  This far flung branch of a Seattle favorite is lodged in the entry of a train station, the one that travels to the castled heights of Sintra.  Thus, I could label my visit as information gathering as well as happy sipping. Dozens of times each day, trains depart for the western portion of the peninsula on which Lisbon resides.

I took that train, and, after grabbing a bus, alighted at an innocuous looking spot that turned out to be the unlikely beginning of a challenging trudge up the the Castelo Mouros, the Moorish Castle built in the days when much of Spain and Portugal were under the rule of the Arab Moors (9th or 10th century) .  Lost in a beautiful wood, the entry to the fortress displays the paradox of the place’s history.  A Christian shrine and tomb for later tenants lay a mere 100 yards from a green flag written with Arabic script.  Try as I might to decipher the script in the wind, I couldn’t manage to read it. Though little is left of the fortress except for the walls and those hundreds of stairs, the view of the Ribatejo plains and  further to the Atlantic Ocean are unparalleled on a clear day.  One can see why occupation of these heights would give great advantage, but once the major wars were over, the population drifted into the lower lands, leaving the peaks for climbers and raptors.

Nearby is the fairy-tale castle of Pena, a conglomeration of styles and tiles and decorative details that would hearten Walt Disney. Long the site of a revered shrine and monastery, the Castelo grew up around an existing structure, one that somehow has remained largely untouched by the overdone design schemes reflecting 18th century Romanticism at its most ambitious that sprang up in every more modern corner. Walking through the public spaces, I saw restorers working on the stained glass and recreating the trompe l’oeil wall paintings – possibly as part of a project sponsored by the UN since the palace is a World Heritage Site.  Pena Palace is all the more precious to the Portuguese as it the last residence of the last members of Portugal’s monarchy. It was from this palace in 1910 that Queen Amelie fled in order to join her remaining son aboard his yacht and sail for England and safe haven.

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