Saturday, April 04, 2009


This morning my parents’ tour group departed The Algarve and proceeded to Lisbon.

The tour group arrived in Lisbon in late morning and for the rest of the day the participants in the tour were shown a handful of the highlights of Lisbon.

To see everything in Lisbon worth seeing, and to do so at a leisurely pace, would require two weeks. However, as my parents’ guided tour had only one half-day in Lisbon at its disposal, the focus was on a couple of “must-see” Lisbon attractions.

First stop was the Alfama Quarter, one of Lisbon’s oldest neighborhoods. A maze of narrow medieval streets and ancient buildings, the Alfama Quarter was the only section of Lisbon that survived the 1755 earthquake (because it was the only section of the city built on bedrock).

Tour participants were granted two hours in which to explore the Alfama Quarter and have lunch. By design, my parents used the allotted time to take Tram 28 to the top of the Alfama Quarter’s steep hill. From the top of the hill, they walked back down through a series of side streets, picking up a sandwich along the way. En route, they located Lisbon’s Cathedral and the Church Of San Antonio, both of which they plan to visit tomorrow morning, Palm Sunday.

The Alfama Quarter is very charming. It is a mixture of shops, cafes, homes and stately public buildings. Some of the houses are in various states of dilapidation, while others have been restored in recent years as the quarter has undergone gentrification. It is perhaps Lisbon’s most frequently-visited quarter.

From the Alfama Quarter, the tour group proceeded to Lisbon’s entrance harbor to undertake a guided visit of Jeronimos Monastery (“Mosteiro Dos Jeronimos”), Portugal’s single greatest ecclesiastical structure. The mammoth Jeronimos Monastery is situated in Belem, the seaport near the gates of Lisbon.

Jeronimos Monastery parallels The Mafra National Palace in that both giant complexes—one ecclesiastical, one ecclesiastical and secular—were funded with the fabulous wealth pouring into Portugal during The Age Of Discovery.

The monastery was built specifically to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s successful voyage to India in 1497. The monastery was begun in 1502, and mostly completed by 1550, although interior and exterior decorations were refined for another half-century.

Jeronimos Monastery is considered to be the world’s finest example of Manueline architecture. Manueline architecture is a unique Portuguese mixture of flamboyant Gothic, Moorish and early-Renaissance architecture, named after Manuel I (“The Fortunate”), the Portuguese monarch that commissioned the monastery. The monastery complex is a riot of intricate stonework, inside and out.

The monastery complex is enormous. In addition to a massive church, the complex houses a refectory, chapter house and cloister. Indeed, the complex is so large that it now houses two major secular museums, Portugal’s invaluable National Maritime Museum and a somewhat less important National Archeological Museum (neither of which was part of the guided visit).

The church at the monastery serves as one of Lisbon’s two Pantheons: notable figures from Portuguese history, such as Vasco Da Gama, are buried in the church, as is one complete line of Portugal’s Royal Family.

From Jeronimos Monastery, the tour group visited nearby Belem Tower and Monument To The Discoveries, both of which are also situated at the seaport near the gates of Lisbon.

Belem Tower was another commission of Manuel I. Belem Tower, too, was built to commemorate Vasco Da Gama’s successful voyage to India. Another notable example of Manueline architecture, it was constructed between 1515 and 1521, contemporaneous with the construction of nearby Jeronimos Monastery.

Belem Tower serves both as a ceremonial gateway to the city of Lisbon and as part of the city’s ancient array of coastal defenses. It provides the most famous image of Lisbon, known worldwide, and has served as the symbol of the city for five centuries.

Monument To The Discoveries is a modern tribute to Portugal’s most glorious era. Completed in 1960, the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry The Navigator, Monument To The Discoveries portrays 33 figures from The Age Of Discovery, including Henry himself, who stands atop the monument and looks out upon the water.

The 1960 Monument To The Discoveries was a recreation of a smaller, temporary monument that had been created for the ill-fated 1940 Lisbon World’s Fair. As most of Europe was at war from September 1939, the 1940 Lisbon World’s Fair turned out to be a purely local affair and is largely forgotten today.

Once the tour group completed its visit to the three key attractions at the Lisbon entrance harbor, the group proceeded to its Lisbon hotel, a high-rise Marriott in the modern section of Lisbon, home of Lisbon’s business and financial districts. My parents said that the views of Lisbon from their hotel windows were marvelous.

After a couple of hours settling into the hotel, the tour group was taken to a restaurant for what was called a “farewell” dinner. Tonight’s dinner marked the final event of the eight-day guided tour. The tour will conclude tomorrow morning by transporting tour participants to the airport.

Tomorrow my parents will remain in Lisbon, spending the day on their own. They plan to visit two churches in the early morning, attend Palm Sunday service, and visit Lisbon’s two main art museums in the middle of the day and in the afternoon.

On Monday, they will fly back to Minneapolis.

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