Portugal: Lisbon, the city lives on a glorious past

About two days’ sail due east from the Azores brings our steamer to the mouth of the Tagus, and twenty miles up the river lies Lisbon. I have visited it three times. The last, we crossed the bar in company with a whole fleet of sardine feluccas, and the sun was setting when we steamed past the hilly city lining both banks of the river and anchored in the strong muddy current. All the regular New York-Azores-Lisbon-Marseilles steamers make Lisbon their principal port of call, but most of the winter-cruise boats pass it by, going direct from Madeira to Algiers or Spain. How-ever, it is an entrancing city, and so much happened here that one is fairly bewildered over the significance of such landmarks as Vasco da Gama’s tower, and the Convento dos Jeronimos running in whole blocks of Moorish-Gothic architecture along the river front, and the great marble water gate where set sail the Armada that tried to conquer England.

It is difficult at this date to realize that Spain and Portugal were once so powerful as to own between them all the known New and Old Worlds discovered and conquered by their navigators—so powerful that, to prevent them quarreling about it, the pope established the Line of Demarcation in 1494, nothing less than the forty-fifth Meridian of West Longitude, which gave to Portugal everything east of itself and to Spain all the world west. It so happened that this meridian cuts off the eastern point of South America, most of what is now Brazil. As Portugal already claimed it by the accident of one of her ships being blown there, this little bit of the New World went to Portugal—in fact established the location of the Line—but all India and all the Eastern Archipelago and the South Seas were Portugal’s. And well she had earned them! The names of Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Diaz, Diego Cam, and Pedro de Cintra were her warrant, captains who for fifty years had borne the brunt of the struggle down the coast of Africa and around the Cape.

But you will find them all remembered in Lisbon. The city lives on a glorious past; like most things venerable, it is an artist’s town. There is much to paint around the water gate where colorful feluccas congregate, and in the market where a hot sun illuminates fruit stand and fish booth and the bizarre Portuguese attendant of both. Even the lighters that come off to the steamer are all color, half a palette extended over the decorations of strake and prow, deck,, poop, rudder, and rails. Greens, reds, whites, blues, orange; and above all a great dirty red sail. One sees no lack of courage in trying a different color on every component part of the lighter! A pious picture of the Virgin or some saint decorates the front wall of the captain’s cabin.

Arrangements for going ashore are well organized. Those landing to stay take a different motor boat and must have their pass-ports examined and go to the duano. For the rest, the Fox Company issues a return ticket ($1.50) which is your guarantee to be returned safe and sound before the ship sails. Up the river the launch plies, to land at Lisbon’s famous Water Gate, an imposing flight of broad marble steps leading down into the river and giving on the Praca do Commercio. You are told to be back at five, for the steamers usually sail at seven in the evening. There are no further formalities; you are free to wander in the town and see all there is to see. As there is much of it, I should advise taking one of the cars parked in the Praca and hiring it for an hour, sixty escudos. Through the ornate and imposing Arch of Independence it rolls, and up the Rua del Oro. You arrive at the Rocido, called “Rolling Motion Square” by the English colony, the heart of the town, flanked by government buildings and the smartest shops. An extraordinary thing, this square, all its pavement laid in an undulatory black and white mosaic that recalls the lost empire of Portugal on the sea. Past the tall memorial column in it, the car whirls, and past another extraordinary building, the railroad station—three great glass and stone arches in Moorish-Gothic—to reach the wide esplanade of the Boulevard of the Republic. This terminates at its upper end in a regular belt of boulevards surrounding the city. We cross, and, out in the country a bit, reach the Tree Fern gardens. Now, a tree fern is not to be seen wild, save in New Guinea and Borneo and such islands of the east. It is difficult to grow in any sub-tropical region. We have seen a few small ones in the Azores, but here Lisbon has a whole park of them, growing under bamboo lattice to imitate the shade of the high tropical forest that they require overhead. A fairyland of a place; big handsome trees growing in deep moss and car-pets of begonias.

The car takes us on to the bull ring, one of the finest on the Peninsula, very Moorish in architecture. The bullfights are on Sundays, during the summer, so you will not be likely to see one. But, as it is the ambition of every Portuguese youth to become a toreador, you will see them practicing, with a mechanical bull pushed around by flunkies. As he is very lively, and as the utmost grace and dexterity are required of the candidate for picadore, the practice will not be without interest. In Portugal the bullfights themselves are more humane than in Spain. The bull is not killed, but is led out when tired and a fresh one brought in. We saw the advertisement of Ochos Toros Magnificos on the billboards while we were there; which gives one some idea of the number of them available to tire out the youthful ambitions of Lisbon!

A curiosity that may be given a few minutes of time is that odd wooden house to be found at the end of the parkway. It was built by a freakish lover of forests, and has everything in it entirely of wood. A moment’s reflection will convince you that the whole world must be culled to supply, in wood, everything that a house requires—including mirrors. Here it has been very ingeniously done.

Back to town; I would give half an hour to the market, and then there is shopping to do in the Rua del Plata, for Lisbon is the cheapest place in the world for silver. I’ll warrant, if there is a lady in the party, that you do not escape without purchasing a silver net-bag! And then to lunch. The Swiss restaurant at the head of the Rocido will do you rather well and at a not exorbitant charge.

The afternoon is to be devoted to the principal sight of Lisbon, the Convento dos Jeronimos. This huge pile, the finest example of Moorish-Gothic in Europe, is some three miles down the river and may be reached by car or the Belem tram from the Praca do Commercio. Fortunately three other sights are grouped with it, the tower of Belem, commemorative of the departure of Vasco da Gama (as the Convent was built to celebrate his successful return), the Museum of Royal Coaches, and the president’s palace. We can see them all in one trip.

The Convento covers some three city blocks of ornate stone, and consists of chapel, ambulatory, refectory, cloisters, all the medieval paraphernalia of a monkery. But all of it is a poem in stone, the delicate vertical tracery of the Gothic overrun everywhere with the Moorish exuberance of florescence in stone. The ambulatory is especially daring. A great court, surrounded by a double tier of flat arches, and these in turn filled in by the slender twisted column and elaborate lacery of leaf and vine so dear to the Moorish architect. The upper arches fling across in mere featherings in stone, upheld by a slender column. Courageous in-deed the architect who would trust its mere weight to spring thus into mid-air unsupported for some ten feet! But there those delicate arches haye stood—since 1498. The cloistered walks of the ambulatory are particularly impressive. Here we have the clear height of both tiers of arches up to the groined roof. And the vistas, with sunlight filtering through the stone fretwork in a golden haze of dust, are most imposing.

Adjoining the ambulatory is the mortuary chapel, another impressive exhibit of Moorish-Gothic. Here are buried in state the poet, Camoes, and a number of kings of no consequence. Then there is the main chapel and the refectory to see. The long west wing of the convent has been turned into an historical museum well worth the visit. Unless you have landed on a saint’s day—and there seems to he one for nearly every day in the year—you will find this museum open.

The tower of Belem is a huge square construction of no particular beauty, but we must visit it to do homage to the great explorer who set sail from this spot over 400 years ago. One must recall, in imagination, the Lisbon of that time, all aflame with the excitement of new worlds being discovered and the long-lost East Indies opened to trade once more, in spite of the caravan routes being closed by Turk and Tartar—a time when great events were stir-ring so that men held their breaths. The navigator captains were the kings of the earth, then. How great was the fervor of Lisbon can be appreciated when we recall that this tower was built by a grateful sovereign merely to commemorate the departure of his captain. When Vasco da Gama returned, Lisbon could do no less for him than to build the magnificent pile of the Convent, to the glory of God and the recovery of the East Indies—for that was what Da Gama’s voyage around the Cape meant to Portugal.

To those who have seen the Cluny, the Museum of Royal Coaches will not be new. But here are many more of them, and in better states of preservation; in fact I understand that one of the coaches was used not so long ago—at the coronation of the last king of Portugal, he who was such a total failure that the people decided to try a republic. The Museum forms part of the presidential compound. Near by are the great iron gates, with sentries on guard. If the president is not in residence, tickets of admission can be had from the concierge.

If the steamer stops two days, by all means take the trip to Cintra. I presume that all of us have a hankering to see, just once, a palace being lived in by royalty; not a dead and cold magnificence like Versailles, with all its occupants gone and the place a kind of museum. The visit to Cintra includes a visit to the Queen’s palace, where one may sate one’s eyes on courtly magnificence of to-day–for the royal family has been deposed but very recently and is now maintained by the state—and thence you visit the Castle Pena, Montserrate, Cascaes on the seaside, and Mont Estoril, which is the Riviera of Portugal. The Fox Company charges $6.50 for this trip, including lunch at a fashionable restaurant, tickets to be bought on board, and it is worth it. I have known ladies, who hungered for a sight of a real palace, to pass all Lisbon by completely and devote their whole day ashore to Cintra I

There is only one thing lacking in Lisbon, and that is any monument to her one great man, Prince Henry the Navigator. He it was who gave Portugal her glory, who organized her’ expeditions, pushed on her captains, improved navigating instruments, maps, and ship construction, was the brains of the whole enter-prise of escape from the blight of the closed caravan route. He built himself a city on the seacoast where he could be free from the distractions of court and could study and plan and build undisturbed. Lisbon seems to have retaliated upon this ungallant behavior by building him no monument. Like Warren Hastings of India, he has none save his own enduring work.