Portugal’s Capital

Having gathered all the literature about the area and the excursions available, we booked a trip to Portugal’s capital of Lisbon (pronounced Lishbourn by the locals.) So at a little before 6am on Friday morning, we stood at the road side, barely lit by scattered streetlights, gazing out into the stillness. The air had a welcome coolness to it, which we knew would not last long once the sun came up and the temperature began to rise. It was quiet except for the sound of the crickets echoing in the surrounding trees and plants. We stood patiently, talking and thinking about the day ahead, wondering if any one else from the hotel would be taking the trip also. In five minutes or so, another couple arrived, and began to speak excitedly in a language I was unfamiliar with. By the rich, almost poetic tones, I gathered it to be either portuguese or Spanish maybe. When they finished speaking, I politely explained that we were english. A word they immediately understood and asked us in our own language, if we were waiting for a bus to Lisboa, a place that sounded similar but was not where we were going.  On our reply, they smiled kindly and proceeded to stand with us until our bus arrived. Then they cheerily smiled as we left them, standing just as we had stood at the roadside, awaiting their transport.

Once we were on the bus, we were introduced to our guide, Maria. Maria would be giving us all the information we needed about the places we were going to visit and then taking us directly to them, giving us time to look around by ourselves before meeting her back at the bus. As we began our journey through the portuguese countryside, she started to tell us about where we would be going and what we would be able to see. We soon realised it would be a long drive, as lisbon was hundreds of miles away, on the west coast of Portugal. In order to get to Lisbon, we had to drive through the mountains. This was a spectacular sight and as we looked out into the slightly cloudy day, she talked about the different areas of the mountains. She explained about the industry that had declined and why young people were moving away from the area and finding work or going to university.  And then of the companies buying up the disused land and rennovating it into affordable, sustainable property. How this was a good thing for the area because it had been saved from total destruction.  A little further on, when we stopped for refreshments and the toilet, we looked around the shop and were fascinated by lots of things on display that were made from cork. Bottle holders, place mats, key rings and even hats. A short while later we drove through the area where these things had come from. Maria explained that some of the trees have cork in them, and were used to make these souveniers for holiday makers passing through. 

Around four hours later we were driving into Lisbon over the famous 25th April Bridge. Previously named after Portuguese dictator, Salazar, it was renamed in 1974, when Lisbon finally became independent.  From the bridge, looking back, we could see the famous statue of Jesus in the distance, high above the moutainside. It was an amazing sight.    

Our first stop was the Monastry at Belem. Maria told us that the monastry had been built due to the expansion of Lisbon as a maritime harbour. Lots of people were arriving in the city, and the small church that already existed was not big enough to accommodate the growing population. The monastry was very impressive on first sight, the ancient stonework so detailed, with gothic spires twisting up towards the sky. It also stretched on for what seemed like miles into the distance. Maria talked as we walked the length of it and then we joined the queue of tourists eager to see the inside of this remarkablly grand building. The wait was worth it, because inside the archictecture was even more breath taking.

Every inch of the stonework looked so detailed as if it had been carved by hand. The pillars stretched up far into the dome ceiling which was also carved and chiselled to perfection. On either side of the aisle, which was quite wide, there were the tombs of famous and well repected men. The first was a Portuguese poet and the second, the celebrated Martime explorer (Vasco Da Gama) who was the first person to sail directly from Europe to India.  At the front of the Cathedral was a beautiful altar, and on each side of it were the tombs of King Manuel I and his wife, and also King Manuel’s son and his wife. Although the monastry was bustling with people, there was a shared atmosphere of admiration. It was one of the most impressive monastries I have ever seen and the work which must have gone into it, explains why it took years to finish.