A Travellerspoint blog

June 2015

Lisbon

sunny 16 °C

I was only really in Lisbon to catch a train, and did very little thinking about what I'd do for the few days I had to wait for it. Nonetheless, I found enough to keep me so busy that I never got to explore the historic inner city, which is a shame because it is one of the oldest cities in the world. I did catch a bus which skirted the centre, going through a labrynth of streets which were decidedly not designed with buses in mind, and it seems to have all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies. I was staying in a really cool loft about a 15 minute walk in from the centre, and explored the area between there and the University of Lisbon - nothing particularly touristic, but probably a good cross-section of typical life in suburban Lisbon. Just up from where I was stayng, there was a pretty big version of the Spanish Department store, El Corte Inglés, which had some good food outlets and was quite fun to wander around - I had dinner there one eveing and was a bit disturbed to find that several people were smoking: something I don't recall seeing anywhere else on this journey. Dinner was a not very good deconstructed burger with very fake looking sauce. Amused by the beer they were selling, however.
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Something else that stood out was the large number of really good bakeries: they gave me plenty of opportunity to try out the local sweet, Pasteis De Nata, which is a custard tartlet. They tended to look a bit burnt on top and generally a bit munged, but they were delicious: unless you were dining in, bakeries would only sell them by the half dozen or so, which led to me eating one or two more than might have been optimal for my health. I also found something called a farton - apparently they are really Spanish but are plentiful in Lisbon: a very light pastry about the same diameter as my thumb and maybe twice as long, they come with a dusting of sugar in bunches of half a dozen.
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farton

I did see one building which really impressed me and thought it must be an art gallery - more than a little disappointed to find out it was a sprts stadium, the Campo Pequeno bullring.
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My other exploration was of Belém, which is about 6 km from the centre of Lisbon, at the mouth of the Tagus River.
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According to the people in my loft, there is a cafe here which is ground zero for the Pasteis De Nata industry: I did go in but was so overwhelmed by the queues that I went elsewhere for my fix.
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I was here for the Carris Museum - which means nothing unless you know that Carris is the name of the organisation which runs public transport in Lisbon. The museum is more commonly known as the tram museum: the first stage was a static display of photos and documents providing an account of Lisboan public transport, which started with horse-drawn trams. The oddest thing I learned was that the company was originally started by two brothers, one of whom lived in Brazil which is where the company was initially based. Maybe he had telegraph, but still it must have been enormously difficult to get a transport network up and running when you live the other side of the plant in the 19th century!
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I wish I could write as neatly as that! To take us to the tramshed, they laid on a tram
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Being a tram museum, there were naturally a large number of trams and I geeked out and took photos of practically all of them, then when I went into the bus shed did much the same there! I'll just provide a selection - the first is a horse-drawn tram which looks very heavy.
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The last is a Thames Trader - I included it for sentimental reasons, as a truck like this was one of the vehicles I learnt to drive in, way back when I was about 14 or 15. Outside, there was a very sleek and modern tram
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I wasn't quite done with my exploration of transportation history, as nearby is the National Coach Museum, which was two large pavillions crammed full of coaches - one was very dark so I couldn't get any photos but I took more than enough in the other pavillion.
Museu Nacional dos Coches

Museu Nacional dos Coches

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That last photo was the front of an early version of a Popemobile - a coach given by the King of Portugal to Pope Clement XI in 1716. They sure knew how to decorate their coaches in those days!
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That last one is almost spartan by comparison. Just down the road a bit is the Mosteiro [Monastery] dos Jerónimos - an absolutely huge building which took exactly 100 years to complete, starting in 1501. One of the key functions of the monks here was to provide spiritual assistance to navigators and sailors, as many (including Vasco da Gama) set off from here on voyages of discovery.
Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos

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I didn't go in, because the day was drawing on and the plan was to check out the Berardo Collection - as a young man, José Manuel Rodrigues Berardo ran away to sea and made his fortune in the gold and diamond mines of South Africa, and gifted his collection of modernist art to Lisbon. As with all modern art, some exhibits left me wondering - is this art or inventory?
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A few things caught my eye:
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One exhibit in particular had me entranced - it was a space set up a bit like a room, albeit a slightly disordered one, with three or four different women's faces projected onto exhibits, and recordings of their stories playing.
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Posted by NZBarry 04:50 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Coimbra

sunny 15 °C

Coimbra was the capital of Portugal for a bit over a century, from 1131 to 1255, and was a Roman town before that. These were not the reasons I chose to stop off on the way to Lisbon: every so often people on the internet put out collections of the most spectacular libraries in the world, and one which regularly features in such collections is the Biblioteca Joanina, which is part of the University of Coimbra. Built in the early 18th century, it has been described as a "baroque fantasy of exotic carved wood, intricate arches, and gilded patterns". The University itself was started in 1290, oddly enough in Lisbon, not Coimbra, but apparently the students and the populace of Lisbon didn't get on and it was moved to Coimbra in 1308. It ping-ponged back and forth between the two cities a couple of times before finally settling in Coimbra for good in 1537, in the former Royal Palace. Surprisingly, apart from a 200 year period starting in the 16th century, it was the only Portuguese university until the early 20th century.

I arrived on the Saturday and had a good look around the outside of the university but because I'd got a bit lost getting there (which is pretty stupid since it sits directly above the centre of town), I decided to put off the pleasure of touring the university until the next day. Unfortunately, the library had a very strict no photography policy, and several people were chastised for not observing it. I did manage to sneak a couple of photos onto my tablet under the guise of typing notes on it but couldn't really get any photos which really demonstrate the luxuriousness of the library. Luckily there are photos on the internet which I have been able to snaffle. This is still a working library, although the texts are rare and, I suspect rarely consulted: having big groups of tourists coming through every 30 minutes or so (they only allow entry at fixed times) would be quite a distraction for any user.
Biblioteca Joanina

Biblioteca Joanina

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Downstairs, there was a feature I have never seen in any library I have ever visited: a small and very dark prison for students (and "scholars" i.e. staff!) who broke the rules - makes the 50 cent a day fine for late returns of library books look ridiculously lenient. There was another collection of books on this floor as well - totally unglamorous but still hard to get photos. The library is named after King Jao III, who made things happen so that the University could settle on its present site: his statue is just outside.
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Entry to cells

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The old part of the University is on a quad (although one side is open to give views of the river) but the general public can only go in and see the chapel (when there is no service underway) and the main building of the old palace, which had a big (and very dark) room in which they conduct examinations, as well as a smaller room to examine senior students. In this building I noticed another unusual feature: back when the King was in residence, there was a ceremonial guard, the Royal Guard of the Archers (although they were actually armed with halberds i.e. an axe blade topped with a spike mounted on a long shaft, which has a hook or thorn on the back side of the axe blade for grappling mounted combatants). When the King left, his halberdiers went with him, but the University formed a replacement guard to police the University - which it retains to this day.
Main Palace Building

Main Palace Building

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hall of halberds

Most of the teaching and research work of the University is done in a modern campus alongside this quad.
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Down the other side of the hill from the university, there is a nice looking botanical garden and a very visible sign of the Roman period: an aqueduct.
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One thing that struck me as I walked around was the enormous number of churches - just outside the University, there were three clustered together, and several others not so far away. It turns out that these were originally established as University colleges - using the same model as Oxford and Cambridge - but the system of colleges was abolished in the 19th century. Many of the buildings are still in use as churches, although some have found other uses - including the Santa Cruz Cafe set up in the church of that name, at the upper end of the main pedestrianised shopping street.
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Cafe Santa Cruz

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The food, unfortunately, was not great but it was a nice space in which to enjoy a beer after my walking about. Walking in Coimbra is not as easy as in some places, because of the University being on top of the hill and the various steps, near vertical laneways and passages to get about - but they were enjoyable to explore because they contained interesting wee shops and bars.
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Because Coimbra has been around for a while and is a significant city, it has a variety of interesting buildings - some obviously past their best but manifesting a sort of faded elegance (except for the last building).
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Others have been kept up, and remain very stylish.
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Some were standouts - particularly the Colégio Rainha Santa Isabel and the Fundação Cefa. It struck me as appropriate that in a country which takes its sports and religion seriously, the Coimbra sports stadium (a cathedral to sports if you like) and the Coimbra Cathedral were side by side.
Colégio Rainha Santa Isabel

Colégio Rainha Santa Isabel

Fundação Cefa

Fundação Cefa


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I would have liked just a little bit more time in Coimbra - I had a fairly quick walk up the pedestrianised shopping street, but it looked like it would have been worth a dawdle and I barely touched on the river. Still, it was a fascinating place to spend 24 hours.

Posted by NZBarry 16:44 Archived in Portugal Comments (2)

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