In 2012 I retired again and we are traveling in Europe. In 2009 Ron and I retired and we volunteered at Quaker Meeting House in Wellington, New Zealand for a year.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Outside Lisbon - Coimbra and Tomar


After Leiria, we traveled by bus to Coimbra, which has the oldest University in Portugal, and one of the oldest in Europe, established in 1290.  The town is situated on the Mondego River, which is quite wide and pretty, and has pleasant parks and walkways on either side.  Our hotel was right across the street from the river.  We found many pleasant restaurants there for lunch or dinner. 
University plaza

Rising up above the river is a high hill with the ancient University at the top.  (The university has spread out from there over the centuries.)  The University itself has a large courtyard surrounded by the oldest buildings.  One end of the courtyard is on the bluff with a great view of the Mondego River valley.

Church of Santa Cruz
Although you have to climb to get to the university, from the river it is possible to stay on a reasonable flat street to get to the heart of the old town, which is the Church of Santa Cruz, founded in 1131, where the first two kings of Portugal are buried.  However, the original Gothic is totally overlaid with Manueline exuberance and later tile decorations. 
Tomb of Afonso Henriques

This contrasts remarkably with the Old Cathedral (Sé Velha), a bulky Romanesque hulk halfway up the hill, begun in 1162.  This is actually a very impressive church in its solidity and plainness.  It only has a few high up windows, so it was reminiscent of a lot of early churches we saw in Spain.

Old Cathedral
Coimbra is also home to its own version of fado, which we were able to hear in an afternoon concert.  This fado is all romantic ballads sung by students to their lady loves.  There is still an ongoing tradition of singing on the street below your girlfriend’s window.  Although we couldn’t understand the words, which probably are more important in this form, we could tell the difference from the Lisbon fado, which has a more working or even under class tone.
Saint Queen Isabel

Across the river, there are also a number of interesting sights.  The Convent of Santa Clara houses the silver tomb of the Saint Queen of Portugal, Doña Isabel of Aragon, who died in 1336.  This is in the new convent.

Cloister of new Santa Clara
The old convent, built by Queen Isabel, is a recently restored ruin on the banks of the river.  This location proved to be prone to frequent flooding, and the entire first floor was eventually abandoned, and a second floor built in the church.  Eventually, the nuns moved up hill to the new convent, and the old one remained submerged until recently drained and excavated and a new visitors’ center created.  The ruins of the church and cloister were surprisingly well preserved under the mud, and the visitors’ center does a good job of describing the monastic life of the order of Saint Claire.

Ruins of old Santa Clara
We ate lunch at a villa turned hotel nearby, which also has a connection to Inȇs de Castro.  This was one of their hideaways, and it was here that she was captured by her assassins, though she was actually killed nearby in Coimbra.

Portugal dos Pequinitos
Finally, one of the must see sights in Coimbra is Portugal dos Pequenitos, founded in 1940, with scale models of Portuguese houses and monuments, and exhibits about the many Portuguese colonies.  It was built in the 1940s.  The buildings are big enough to walk into, especially if you are a child.  The monuments are rather odd as they are pastiches of buildings – a Manueline window or doorframe, a castle tower or two.  Signs at each building identify the half dozen different elements. 
Portugal dos Pequinitos
I particularly wanted to see this park, as I hope to go to Madurodam in Holland, which is a miniature town that I vividly remember from a trip to Europe when I was 6 years old.  The scale of the buildings at Pequenitos is much bigger, and I think it must be fun to be inside them if you are six.
Conimbriga rain garden
Outside of Coimbra, about a half hour bus trip, is the ancient Roman city of Conimbriga, situated on a hill overlooking a steep ravine.  It is a remarkably well preserved Roman site because it was not built over and continuously occupied like so many other places.  There were many large villas with lovely mosaics.  Many of the courtyards had elaborate water gardens, which I have not seen before.  There is a large public bath, and a large forum.  I have never been to Pompeii, but this felt almost as exciting, as it is possible to get a real sense of the Roman town.
Wall through house
One of the striking things about the town is that when it came under attack by the Visigoths in the 6th century,  it threw up a big wall, cutting though a number of even fairly large villas, using stones from everything that was outside the wall.  Eventually the wall did not prevent them from being overrun.
Wall and road

Finally, our last stop was the town of Tomar, also situated on a pretty little river, the Nabão.  Indeed, our hotel was a pleasant old inn on an island in the river.  Most of the island is a public park, and our room had a large balcony overlooking the park, with a large trellis of fragrant wisteria framing the view. 
View from our Tomar balcony
It was an easy and pleasant walk to the town square where there is a 16th century church with Manueline doorway and well done religious painting by the famous-in-Portugal painter Gregorio Lopes.
Convent of Christ above Tomar

Across the river on a hill is the main sight of Tomar, the Convent of Christ.  This was originally the center for the Knights Templar of Portugal, an order of crusaders.  After the crusades were over, kings and pope decided the Knights had gotten too powerful, so that they were disbanded in 1314.  In Portugal, King Dinis reconstituted them as the Order of Christ, with himself as Grand Master. 
Manueline doorway
They were much involved with the Portuguese discoveries and expansion overseas, and so kings and princes, who continued to head the organization, continued to build and expand the Convent.  It is by the far the biggest complex we have been in, with seven cloisters.  The core of the convent is the original Chapel, built in the 12th century, a sixteen sided church with a central alter inside an arched octagon.  Later a 2 story nave was attached, with the chapel becoming the apse of the church.  There are also the usual (by now) extravagantly decorated doorways and windows added by King Manuel. 
Of interest was the huge dormitory, a part of monasteries that we were rarely able to see elsewhere.  This dormitory was in the shape of a large T.  The hallway seemed as wide as a road, and the cells were as big (or bigger) than our tiny apartment in Lisbon.  There was a choir warming up for a concert in one cloister, which gave a nice aural element to our tour.

The other main sight in Tomar is the oldest preserved synagogue in Portugal.  It is an aesthetically pleasing square room with four pillars in the center supporting Gothic arches.  The pillars are said to represent the 4 matriarchs of Judaism, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel, which is something that I had never heard before.  The museum included displays explaining Judaism, and a number of old gravestones from around the country.  The volunteer who showed us around was very enthusiastic, but also wished that much more archeology and preservation work could get done.  For instance, in an adjoining room there is evidence of the mikvah, which needs more excavation.  We enjoyed talking with him about the similar, less well preserved synagogue in St. Eustatius.

On April 22 we returned to Lisbon by train with enough time to enjoy relaxing at the Praça Commercio and eating a delicious vegetarian dinner.  On April 23 we flew out to new adventures in Holland.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Outside Lisbon - Leiria

Leiria - River Lis and castle
On April 13 we took the train north from Lisbon to the town of Leiria, where we stayed four days.  The river Lis runs through the town and our hotel was on the bank of the river with a great view of the town’s landmark castle on the hill above.  The town has created a nice park and walkway along the river on both sides, which was very pleasant to stroll along.  There is also a large park where the main road crosses the river, and then a smaller pedestrian square with lots of restaurants and cafes.   Much of the town under the castle's bluff is quite old with narrow streets, but there were also wider thoroughfares and modern stores.  And of course, a large modern town (about 50,000) spreads out from the medieval core, which we only saw entering and leaving. 
Castle porch
With help from the guidebook, we found a contemporary restaurant which had a choice of 4 vegetarian entrees, so we ate there twice.  I have also found that most Portuguese restaurants have one or more vegetable soups that make a pretty good meal.

We walked up to the castle which is now a partially reconstructed ruin.  It was a Moorish stronghold (and perhaps Roman before that) until reconquered in 1135 by Afonso Henriques, who became the first Christian King of Portugal.  The walls and the castle keep date from around this time or the next century.  In the late 15th century King João I built a small palace within the walls and restored the church. The palace has a wonderful porch gallery overlooking the city, and a couple of other restored rooms of comfortable proportion.  The church is an elegant ruin, and the keep and battlements at the top of the hill are impressive. 
At dinner that evening, on one of the squares, we got to observe one of those quaint native festivals you read about.  This was a parade to drum up support for the local soccer team playing that evening.  First honking cars drove around and then people marched through the various squares wearing their soccer scarves, drinking, waving banners, singing songs, and blowing horns and whistles.
Old Leiria

Leiria also has a recently built Museum of the Moving Image.  It had everything from flip books and stereoscopes to early movie cameras, with a number of good interactive models.  We most enjoyed a photo exhibit of old Leiria from the turn of the last century to mid-20th century. 
Stairway to Church
Another hill above the river is dominated by a church, the Sanctuary of our Lady of the Conception, with an impressive staircase leading straight up the hill, so we had the energy to climb up there also and check out that view.  The church itself was not open.
Batalha Monastery

Leiria was our base for day trips to two World Heritage Sites.  The first was to Batalha Monastery, built to thank the Virgin Mary for her help in bringing victory at the nearby battle of Aljubarrota in 1385.  The church started off as classic Gothic with English Perpendicular influences, but later Manueline decorations were added to doors and cloisters.
Church nave
It was good to see it right after being at the Jerónimos cloisters in Belem.  The mix of styles was quite enjoyable.  There is a Founders Chapel with tombs of many kings, starting with Joao I and his wife Philippa of Lancaster from the early 15th century.  They have a joint tomb and their effigies are holding hands.  There is a very nice cloister.  Originally plain Gothic, typically elaborate decorative Manueline stone tracery was added to the arches.  In fact, this is the first building in which this work appears, and the architect then went on to build the Jeronimos Monastery.
The decoration really takes off in the doorway carvings of what are called the Imperfect (or Unfinished) Chapels.  Some more kings are buried here in chapels around a central octagonal courtyard, but they ran out of funds for completing the vault, so the courtyard is open to the elements.  King Duarte and Queen Eleanor of Aragon have a joint tomb there where they are also depicted holding hands.  Duarte (Edward in English) was the son of Joao and Philippa mentioned earlier.

Unfinished Chapel

King Duarte and Queen Eleanor

King Joao and Queen Philippa

Alcobaca Monastery
 The second day trip was to the Alcobaça Monastery.
Alcobaca Church nave
Although the name sounds Moorish, it is because it is built where the Alco and Baça rivers meet.  This is another huge tall Gothic church, but it is older than Batalha, built starting 1178.  The big draw for this church are the tombs of King Pedro I and his love Inȇs de Castro, a lady-in-waiting to his wife.  After the wife died, he lived in secret with Inȇs, and they had several children.  Later he claimed that they were secretly married.
King Pedro
Pedro’s father Afonso IV ordered Inȇs assassination because he feared the influence of her Spanish family.  Later, when Pedro became King, he declared Inȇs to be his Queen.  The tombs are placed in the two transepts of the church, so that when they raise up on the Day of Judgment, the first thing they see will be each other.
Ines de Castro
Their statues on their tombs depict themselves supported by angels ready to assist them to sit up.  It led me to wonder how their actual bodies are going to be able to move the heavy stone lids aside on that Day.  I guess angels will help with that too.  The tombs have wonderfully elaborate bas-relief carvings on all sides. 

Detail Pedro's tomb
Detail Ines 's tomb

Hall of Kings
Adjoining the church is the Kings Hall with ceramic statues of Portuguese kings on pedestals above tile work depicting the founding of the Monastery.  Apparently the monks here were renowned for their ability to make life size statues out of clay.  All the monastic rooms are well preserved and full of Gothic arches.
The kitchen is entirely lined with tile, including the ceiling, and has another one of those huge chimneys.  Water from the rivers were diverted into the kitchen (and other parts) for cooking and cleaning.  There was even a large basin to capture any fish that might flow through.  The refectory had a special narrow side door that was sometimes used to test monks thought to be becoming too corpulent.
Dining room door
If they couldn’t pass through the door, they couldn’t have supper!

Cloister detail
I will post soon about the last two towns in Portugal!

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Lisbon week 4

Museo do Oriente
We finally have hit a patch of sunny weather.  I really can’t complain, considering what a late spring most people are getting, but it is nice when the sun shines.  Because of the nice weather, we finally took a ferry ride to the south side of the river, the town of Cacilhas.  There we discovered a re-created sailing frigate which was built around 1840 and used into the 20th century.  It was an enjoyable tour below decks, even if there were lots of cannon.  We also enjoyed a pleasant “tea” in a sunny nearby square with many stalls selling various items. 
Maoist Happy New Year

The City Museum alerted us to the fact that there is an old Roman theater here, which we found more or less across the street from the Cathedral.  Like most of the archaeology here, the site is a mish mash of buildings both pre- and post-earthquake, but they have been able to clear things out down to some of the seating, orchestra and proscenium.   It is quite high up the hillside and would have had a spectacular backdrop of the Tagus River.

Our museum viewing continues.  The Chiado Museum downtown highlights art from 1800 to 1975.  Its opening greeting to visitors is a complaint about lack of space and that they can only show a small portion of their collection at any one time.  However, I think that means they may rotate exhibits frequently, which could have the benefit of bringing people back to see what is new.  The paintings go from quite classical representational art to modern non-representational.  During the 20th century, they also frequently get more political – republican, anti-fascist, etc.  
Easter Parade at Puppet Museum

Within walking distance of our apartment is the Orient Museum.  It looks at both the cross-cultural dissemination of art between Portugal, India, China and other parts of the East, and the classic and folk art of those areas before contact.  It included displays from places like East Timor and Korea.  One of the temporary exhibits was Maoist propaganda posters, including some of the Maoist movements in Europe/Portugal. 
Bordalo Pineiro Museum
We are definitely starting in on some of the more obscure sights, which is the advantage of being here a month.  We went to the Marionette Museum, which is also fairly close by.  It has puppets and masks from around the world, but particularly highlights Portuguese Puppet Theater.  The 19th and early 20th century had quite a tradition of traveling puppet theaters.  A unique part of the tradition was that the puppeteers would place reeds in their throats to make a distinctive puppet voice.  The exhibit included some modern semi-life size puppets, and there was a temporary exhibit about a Claymation TV show.  It was a very interesting small museum. 

Another small, interesting museum was devoted to Fado music and singers.  The beginnings in the 19th century are still obscure, at least to me.  Fado seems to come somewhat from sailors nostalgic for home, and also has some Brazilian roots.  We had audio phones to guide us through the exhibit, and they were actually pretty helpful.  One could also dial up songs to listen to, which is of course what I wanted.
Santa Justa Elevador

We went to the church of São Roque and the museum next door of religious art and artifacts.  We were reminded that the Church was far too rich for far too long.  And for a change of pace, we went to the Museum of Rafael Bordalo Pineiro, a 19th century ceramicist, artist/caricaturist and social commentator.  His ceramic pieces are huge and baroque and quite amazing.  His political cartoons reminded us of Thomas Nast from approximately the same time period in New York. 
Downtown from Santa Justa Elevador

Because of all the hills in Lisbon, there are about 6 funiculars (called elevadores) from down town, and we finally this week rode two of them.  One was like the little trams, except that, because of the slope, one end is close to the ground and the other a meter or 2 above, so that the floor of the tram is horizontal.  As is standard, I guess, one tram goes up while the other comes down, and they pass in the middle.
Cascais beach and terrace bar
The other was an actual elevator, designed by a student of Eiffel, and a classic 18th century iron work.  It seems to stand isolated, but there is a long catwalk which takes you from the top of the elevator across to the hilltop streets.  There are, of course, great views from both hills.

We took another train excursion, this time to Cascais, a beach town to the west past the mouth of the river.  The weather there was actually milder and less windy than Lisbon, and it was a pleasant town to wander around. 
Cascais Mouths of Hell
It does not have a long stretch of beach, just some sandy coves, and an extensive marina.  We walked along the coast to an area called As Bocas do Inferno, because there are caves and arches in the cliff through which the waves can crash.  It was a fairly calm day, but we could still get an idea of the effect.  There is a large stone citadel in the town still used by the military, which we walked around, and a nice villa in the town park with azulejos and fountains. 
Fronteira house and garden
We took an expedition (bus – metro – bus) out to a stately home of the Marques da Fronteira.  We went in the afternoon, and it turned out that there were only guided tours of the house in the morning.  However, the gardens were still open, and they are a fine sight also.  The walls inclosing the formal garden are all decorated with tile scenes depicting the twelve months of the year, and the twelve astrological signs, and the leisure life of the inhabitants. 
Fronteira garden
There is a big pool with a balcony done in azure tiles with niches for busts of all the kings.  So we had a pleasant hour wandering around.
Fronteira garden tile

Finally, on our last day in Lisbon, we returned to Belém and the Jeronimos Monastery, this time to go into the cloisters.  I am glad we did because they are really magnificently decorated in the Manueline style.  Every column and arch is slightly different, at least on the ground floor.  There are also side rooms – the chapter house, refectory, etc.  One of the rooms has been turned into a monument to the historian and writer Alexandre Herculano (1810-1877), which I think is pretty nifty.  He was involved in an early (1830s) struggle against an absolute monarchy, but also important in the creation of a modern Portuguese identity. I can't believe we almost skipped this, because they building is really iconographic for Portugal.  We took lots of pictures, so they are at the end of this post.
Throne room

After lunch, we completed our palace tours by going to the royal palace at Ajuda, just a short bus ride up from Belém.  It was first occupied by King Luis I in the second half of the 19th century.  The palaces we saw in Sintra were just summer residences – this was the real thing.  There were ball rooms and waiting rooms and a throne room and then lots of family rooms – blue, red, yellow, oriental – and bedrooms, all ornately decorated.  It was huge and quite an experience.

Now we are off for 10 days north of Lisbon by train and bus to Leiria, Coimbra, and Tomar. 



Tomb of Alexandre Herculano