Popular arts — Exploring the soul of Lisbon

Popular arts — Exploring the soul of Lisbon

It has been over a decade since I last was in Lisbon. Now, as I reacquaint myself with the steep cobbled lanes of its ancient neighborhoods and the breathtaking views from its miradouros, my eyes are also drawn to something else. Something new has been weaving itself into the fabric of the centuries-old architecture: street art.

A City Enhanced by Street Art

Socially impactful murals flourish around the city.

Lisbon graffiti and street art emerged in the early 1970’s as a form of expression for marginalized voices, and began to blossom with some political mural after the democratic revolution of April 1974. Over the past couple of decades, the genre has evolved into vibrant open-air murals that embrace socially impactful messages. Today, this transformation has become a reflection of the city’s dynamic cultural identity. Lisbon is now recognized as a showcase for some of the best street art in Europe.

Mário Belém – A whimsical celebration of life (2017).

The works are diverse, ranging from traditional graffiti to elaborate, large-scale murals that merge social commentary with stunning visual expression. From the environmentally conscious works of Bordalo II, who creates art from trash to depict endangered species with striking realism, to the faces carved on the walls of the politically charged pieces by Vhils and the colorful optimism of Mário Belém’s whimsical scenes, each is a vivid reflection of Lisbon’s artistic heartbeat.

 

Bordalo II’s  Environmental Message

Bordalo II – Young Panda (2022)

The first piece that draws my attention is a striking young panda beseechingly staring at me from the side of a building high up in the Alfama, right across the street from the Miradouro das Portas do Sol. It could be an effective poster-child for any organization for the preservation of endangered species .

It turns out to be one of the latest creations of Bordalo II, a prominent figure of the Lisbon street art scene, famous for his compelling, environmentally conscious installations. His work is unique not only for its visual impact but also for its powerful message. His giant animals are crafted from salvaged plastics, metals and other urban detritus, to focus on the ramifications of consumerism and environmental neglect.

Bordalo II – Pelicans (2020).

His Young Panda was created in 2022  as part of his “EVILUTION” (not a typo) exhibition, a retrospective of his work of over a decade, reflected through his signature Trash Animals. My attention now peaked, it doesn’t take me long to spot another of his compelling compositions:  Pelicans (2020) in the central Baixa neighborhood. Created of trash cans, car parts and construction materials, they stand at the intersection of Santa Justa and Carmo streets on the wall of the bank that commissioned the work.

A Mosaic of Artistic Expression

Vhils and Shepard Fairey – Universal Parenthood (2017).

Soon, I “discover” more street art at every turn. In the Graça neighborhood, east of the city center, on my way to the National Azulejo Museum, I come across a stunning collaborative work by internationally known local urban art legend, Vhils, and his American counterpart Shepard Fairey (of Barack Obama ‘Hope’ poster fame). In this mural, realized in 2017 as part of the artistic project “Universal Parenthood”, aiming to promote peace, equality and humanity worldwide, Fairey painted half of a female face, while Vhils carved the other half to address the discrimination against women’s rights in  Arab countries.

PichiAvo – Poseidon (2018).

A little farther on, Poseidon, the god of the sea, towers over the Tagus Estuary. This colorful five-story high mural was painted in 2018 on the side of a building overlooking the Santa Apolónia Station, the oldest train terminal in Lisbon, by a group of artists known as PichiAvo.

 

 

Mário Belém – “Better to be lost here somewhere than on my way to nowhere.” (2022).

Then Mário Belém celebrates life with his bright, optimistic mural created in 2017  to mark the 150th  anniversary of the abolition of the death penalty in Portugal. And moments later, another of Belém’s works,  this one in dreamy pastel colors evokes “Saudade” (the Portuguese word for a feeling of yearning).  Painted in 2021 and known under the title “Better to be lost here somewhere than on my way to nowhere,” the mural is a nod to the 2020 pandemic lockdowns.

 

In the Grand Azulejo Style

André Saraivia – Mosaic panorama, detail (2014-2016).

At the corner where the Alfama’s Jardim Botto Marchado meets Baixa’s Campo Santa Clara, a magnificent panoramic work unfolds. Some 188 meters (620 feet) in length and covering an area of 1010 square meters (10,900 square feet), it is the largest piece of street art in the city, made up of over 50,000 small, hand-painted azulejo tiles. Two years in the making and completed in October 2016, it is the work of André Saraivia, a Portuguese visual artist who came to fame for his street art in Paris in the 80’s and has been a central figure on the urban art scene ever since.

Here, through images such as Lisbon’s 18th century Águas Livres Aqueduct, the Eiffel Tower, and New York City skyscrapers, Saraiva (a.k.a Mr. A) captures the story of his personal life and travels.

The Legacy of Fado in Contemporary Arts

Back in the Alfama, my path crosses again with Vhils and one of his works that creates the connection between my newly discovered interest in Lisbon’s street art and my life-long passion for its other popular art: Fado, the poignant melancholy music that is the soul of the city. I was still a child when my parents took me to an open air concert in the suburbs of Paris. On stage a lone woman in a black dress and shawl began to sing. The power and pathos of her voice filled the night and stayed with me forever.

Vhils – Tribute to Amália Rodrigues (2015).

Her name was Amália Rodrigues (1920-1999). She was to become the revered Queen of Fado, whose iconic voice popularized around the world the music of the docks and the poorest neighborhoods of Lisbon. Mainly thanks to her, from these humble early 19th century beginnings, Fado has gone on to be recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2011. In 2015, Vhils paid tribute to Amália Rodrigues by crafting her portrait in traditional paving stones on the sloping edge of a tiny square along Calçada do Menino Jesus. 

 Artists collective – Fado Vadio (2012).

There are Fado-inspired works of all kinds throughout the Alfama. Another notable one is Fado Vadio, created by a collective of neighborhood artist at the Escadinhas de São Cristóvão (Stairway of Saint Christopher), in the Mouraria district. Story has it that the building where the Fado Vadio mural is located is owned by a public company that encouraged the project because it didn’t have the funding to restore the wall.The paint was donated and the artists completed the work in 48 hours. 

The Fado Tradition

Classic and Portuguese guitars accompany the Fado vocalist.

The singer of Fado (Portuguese for “fate”) speaks of the harsh realities of everyday life, sometimes with a sense of resignation, sometimes with hope and resolve.The performer can be either a female or a male vocalist, typically accompanied by a guitarra (10- or 12-string guitar) and a viola (6-string guitar). Often enhanced by gestures and facial expressions, Fado aims to evoke the deep sense of saudade of the Portuguese soul.

São Miguel D’Alfama Fado restaurant.

There are countless Fado restaurants scattered around the city, their offerings ranging from long, traditional evening meals interspersed with professional Fado by advertised performers, to casual local eateries where up-and-coming Fadistas give impromptu performances. The best places can still be found in the two most traditional neighborhoods: the Alfama and the Bairro Alto.

 

Owner Fátima Moura is always on hand with welcome smile.

On my long ago first visit to the city, I came across the São Miguel D´Alfama, and it has remained my personal favorite ever since. Located in one of the oldest houses in the Alfama (witness the ancient Roman pavement floor and the massive brick arches), it has been a family business since 1945, with the current owner, Fátima Moura, having inherited it from her mother. This is an authentically Lisboate place where local patrons usually far outnumber the tourists, the menu features well priced traditional local fare, the Port wine is excellent and the Fado exceptional.

São Miguel D´Alfama – An address to remember.

Contrary to most Fado clubs and restaurants who consistently feature the same one or two “names” every day of the week, each evening is a surprise at the São Miguel: it’s the Fado equivalent of a jam session. The only constants are the two guitars that traditionally accompany the singers. Established local stars and rising talents alike drop in and discretely visit with their friends while they wait for their turn to perform a set (usually four songs) before moving on.

 

The  Fado Museum

For those who still want to learn and hear more, the Museu do Fado opened in 1998 to document, preserve, and promote Fado history from its origins to its current form. In practical terms, it’s a collection of music scores, records, posters, musical instruments, and other arttefacts. It also features a wide array of music samples from different eras that help understand the evolution of the genre.

André Saraivia – Panorama (2014-2016)

 Good to Know

VisitingThe Museu do Fado, Largo do Chafariz de Dentro 1,  1100-139 Lisboa is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. It is closed on Monday, January 1, May I and December 25. Sao Miguel D’Alfama 9,Rua de São Miguel 9 – Alfama 1100-542 Lisboa. See website for opening hours and reservations. 

Location, location, location!

Lisbon

The Unique Museums of Lisbon

The Unique Museums of Lisbon

Shaped by the diverse people who settled here over two millennia, Lisbon is home to an exceptionally varied cultural heritage that is reflected in over 50 museum sure to address just about every field of interest. Three of them, however, especially illustrate the uniqueness of the city.

The National Azulejo Museum

Early Azulejo displays

Originally introduced to Portugal in the Moorish era (circa 10th century A.D.), the distinctive glazed Azulejo tiles are Portugal’s most ubiquitous art form, adorning public buildings, grand palaces and humble homes alike.

Housed in the former Madre de Deus Convent, founded in 1509, the National Azulejo Museum’s collection of ceramics is one of the largest in the world. With more than 300 items on display, it traces the evolution of the azulejo from 16th century handicraft to modern-day decorative art.

The Chickens Wedding.

The exhibits are aligned in chronological order, and many of the images are of a religious theme, but there are some notable exceptions, such as “The Chickens Wedding” or “The Cortege of Neptune and Amphitrite,” (circa 1670). 

One of the museum’s highlights is “The Panorama of Lisbon”, a composition of 1300 tiles, 23 meters (75 feet) in length, of Lisbon’s cityscape in 1738 — before the devastating earthquake of 1755. The composition is especially fascinating as certain buildings are still recognizable (Se Cathedral, São Jorge Castle, Belem Tower) while other areas are completely different.

The Lady of Life altarpiece.

Also of note is the exceptional, 1498 tiles  “Our Lady of Life” altarpiece, regarded as one of the key pieces of 16th century Portuguese production.

 

 

 

 

Nave of the Madre de Deus church.

Besides its unique  Azulejo showpieces, the collection includes ceramics, porcelain and earthenware from the 16th  to the 21st century. In the conventual part, the Church of Madre de Deus, a brilliant example of Portuguese Baroque abundantly decorated with sculptures, paintings and tiles, is also included in the visit.  The nave has been fully restored and is remarkable  for its over-the-top gilt work.

 

 

 

The Gulbenkian Foundation

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum .

Assembled over a lifetime by Armenian oil tycoon and philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian (1869-1955), his eclectic art collection is considered  one of the most important private collections in the world. At the time of his death it totaled over 6,000 world-class artifacts, spanning 5000 years of history from Antiquity to the early 20th century, and covering virtually all phases of Eastern and Western Art.

Solar barque of Djedhor – Egypt. Bronze (сirca. 380-343 ВС).

In his will, he created the Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian Foundation, to preserve and display it in Lisbon, where he had spent the last 13 years of his life. Located at the northern edge of the city, and specifically designed as a showcase for the collection, the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum opened its doors to the public in 1969. Its galleries are distributed chronologically and in geographical order to create two independent circuits within the overall visit.

 

The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

A treasure trove of Islamic and Oriental art,

The galleries of the Eastern circuit include Egyptian and Greco-Roman art, Mesopotamia, the Islamic Orient, Armenia and the Far East. The display of Islamic and Oriental art is an impressive treasure trove of carpets, robes, tapestries, tiles and glassware, mainly from 16th and 17th century Persia, Turkey, Syria and India. It is followed by  porcelain, jade, paintings and lacquered boxes from China and Japan. 

Quillebeuf – Mouth of the Seine. Turner (1833. Oil on Canvas).

The section on Western Art features a wide-ranging number of pieces reflecting various European artistic trends from the beginning of the 11th century to the mid-20th century, starting with illuminated medieval manuscripts, ivory and wood diptychs, and further on Italian Renaissance majolica ware and tapestries. Then comes a stunning art gallery featuring the works of some of the most important painters of all times, such as Domenico Ghirlandaio,  Francesco Guardi, Rubens, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Manet, Turner, and Monet.

French 18th century silverware.

French 18th century decorative arts have a special place in the museum, with outstanding gold and silver objects and furniture, as well as paintings and sculptures. The visit ends with a dazzling collection of Art Nouveau  jewels and glass by René Lalique, displayed in its own room.

 

 

 

The National Coach Museum 

The richest collection of royal coaches in the world.

Created by Queen Amélia of Portugal to preserve the important collection of vehicles belonging to the Royal House, the National Coach Museum opened in 1905 in the old riding ring of the Palace of Belém. However, since 2015, what is considered the richest collection of royal coaches in the world, can be appreciated nearby in a newly built museum close to the bank of the Tagus, within walking distance of the Jerónimos Monastery and the Monument of the Discoveries.

Coach of Philip II – 1619 (Dim. 5,86 x 1,95 x 2,50 meters).

The museum gives a full picture of the development of vehicles from the late 16th through the 19th century, including coaches, carriages and sedan chairs. Each carriage is more extravagant than the next, illustrating the ostentatious wealth of the Portuguese elite of the time. The oldest, used by Spanish newcomer Philip II of Portugal (also Philip III of Spain) in 1619, is notable for its exterior austerity, so as not to stoke resentment among his new subjects, but still luxurious inside.

Coach of King José I   (Dim. 6,40 x 2,27 x 2,92 meters)

One of the most outlandish, used in an embassy to France’s Louis XIV, depicts cherubs with bats’ wings. There are also several Baroque 18th century carriages decorated with paintings and exuberant gilt woodwork, such as a ceremonial coach given by Pope Clement XI to King João V in 1715, and the three coaches of the Portuguese ambassador to Pope Clement XI,  built in Rome in 1716, including one decorated with allegorical scenes representing Portuguese military and maritime triumphs.

Mail Coach – 19th century (Dim. 5,00 x 2,10 x 2,98 meter).

The display primarily focuses on ceremonial carriages but also includes a few used for a broader purpose, such a mail coach from the 19th century and even a prisoners’ transport coach, as well as a few miniature carriages designed for children.

Panorama of Lisbon, Azulejo cityscape (1738).

Good to Know

Visiting  — National Azulejo Museum, R. Madre de Deus 4, 1900-312 Lisbon, is located 2.5 kilometers (1.5 mile) east of the city centre, an interesting walk through residential neighborhoods, or via the 759 bus. It is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. Closed on Monday, January 1, Easter Sunday, May 1,  June 13 and December 25Calouste Gulbenkian Museum,  Avenida de Berna, 45A, 1067-001 Lisbon is located 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) north of the city center, close to Praça de Espanha. It can easily be reached by bus (lines number 713, 716, 726, 742 and 756), or metro (blue and red lines – station São Sebastião ). It is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday and January 1, Easter Sunday, May 1, December 24 and 25. The National Coach Museum  Avenida. da Índia 136, 1300-300 Lisbon, is located in Belem, approximately a 30 minute drive west of the city center and easily accessible by tram number 15 (from the Cais do Sodré station, in the Praça do Comércio). It is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday, January 1 , Easter Sunday, May 1.June 13 and December 25

Getting Around  — When getting around Lisbon outside of the city center or what you consider easy walking distance, you may want to consider using your favorite ride-hailing app. I used mine frequently throughout my recent week-long stay and found it both efficient and exceptionally cost-effective.

Location, location, location!

National Azulejo Museum

Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

National Coach Museum

Belém — The Other Face of Lisbon

Belém — The Other Face of Lisbon

At the point where the estuary of the Tagus River meets  the Atlantic Ocean, Belém, the western-most district of Lisbon, tells the epic story of Portugal’s maritime past.

It is from there that navigator Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) set out in 1497, on the voyage that opened the sea route from western Europe to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope. And it is there that three years later, his triumphant return set the stage for the development of the lucrative spice trade, with Portugal establishing control over key trading ports and routes.

The Manueline Era

The Jerónimos Monastery is a fine example of extravagant Manueline architecture.

For the next century, this monopoly on trade in the East became the source of inordinate wealth for the Portuguese crown, which in addition to further voyages of exploration, financed grandiose architectural projects back home. King Manuel I, whose reign (1495–1521) coincided with this windfall, engaged in a construction spree of monasteries and palaces fitting for Portugal’s status as an emerging European powerhouse. 

The iconic webbed vault of Santa Maria de Belém.

A lavish architectural style emerged, a uniquely Portuguese late Gothic style with elaborate stonework featuring motives inspired by both maritime and Christian themes, which would become known as Manueline style. Although it actually continued for some time after the death of the monarch, it is the prosperity of his reign that the style celebrates. The Tower of Belem and nearby Jerónimos Monastery are two of the most iconic monuments of the era.

 

 

The Tower of Belém

The Tower of Belém was a defensive bastion.

In the early 16th century, with the discovery of Brazil (by Pedro Álvares Cabral – 1500) immediately following the successful voyage of Vasco da Gama, Lisbon was fast becoming a worldwide center of commerce, and a wealthy city in need of protection. While previous monarchs had addressed this issue by building a defensive tower at the tip of the southern peninsula of the Tagus estuary, King Manuel I undertook the construction of the Tower of Belém on the northern bank, thus creating a crossfire between the two banks to prevent enemy ships from entering the estuary.

The lower part of the bastion features 17 openings for canons.

Built in 1515-1521 on a small outcrop at the edge of the Tagus River, it is divided into two parts. Its bastion is an  irregular hexagon jutting toward the river, with watchtowers at each of the corners of its open terrace. Then on its north face, a 30-meter (100-foot) rectangular tower comprises five levels, including its terraced rooftop. The lower level of the bastion features a large fan vault and 17 openings for canons. 

The decorative elements blend stylized templar crosses and ornate Moorish turrets.

The Tower of Belém is a foremost example of Manueline style. The elaborately ornate complex is a blend of decorative elements: stylized templar crosses emphasize Manuel’s role as Grand Master of the Order of Christ while maritime motifs, twisted ropes friezes and armillary spheres, mark the building’s association the great navigators, and the distinctive turrets evoke the Moorish era. Although it was originally intended as a defensive bastion, the tower soon became the point of embarkation and disembarkation for Portuguese explorers, as well as the ceremonial gateway to Lisbon. Today, the Tower of Belém is considered one of the most remarkable monuments in Lisbon and a landmark of Portuguese identity.

The Jerónimos Monastery

The Jerónimos Monastery’s ornate roofline.

South Portal entrance of the Jerónimos Monastery .

Founded by Manual I in 1499 in honor of Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India, the Jerónimos Monastery is recognized as the finest example of monastic Manueline architecture and one of the premiere landmark in Portugal. Construction began in 1501. Built entirely in pale local limestone, the sprawling masterpiece took one hundred years to complete, under the successive direction of some of best architects and master builders, both national and foreign, of their time. Behind the endless facade (300-meter, or 990-foot) long punctuated by the extravagantly ornate 32-meter (105-foot) high south portal, the cloisters and refectory are a dazzling world of stone decoration.

 

 

 

The Cloister

Stunning lacy stone architecture of the cloister.

The vast two-storied square cloister mesmerizes for its lacy architecture and the wealth of its ornamentation. There is barely a surface that is not adorned with some sort of Manueline sculpture. Coats of arms and the cross from the Military Order of Christ assert the growing world power of Portugal, while nautical elements such as sea creatures and coils of rope and knots pay homage to the Navigators.

 

The Refectory

 

Azulejo wall frescoes decorate the refectory/

The refectory is another of the monastery’s highlights, with its low, multi-ribbed vaulted ceiling, azulejo wall panels and, outside its entrance door, the Lion Fountain where the monks washed their hand before meals.

 

 

 

 

The Church of Santa Maria de Belém

Slender columns support the soaring webbed vault.

Adjacent to the monastery, the Church of Santa Maria de Belém is a startling contrast, sublime in the simplicity of its hall-style layout, with the soaring nave and side aisles of equal height. Its unadorned floors and walls are a perfect setting for the six slender, intricately carved columns that lead the eye to the improbably high web of its spreading ribbed vault.

Sarcophagus of Vasco da Gama.

It was always the intention of  Manuel I, that in addition to being the physical embodiment of the Age of Discoveries, the grand monastery would be a pantheon for himself and his line. The royal tombs rest in side chapels, on marble elephants. The tombs on the left side of the choir belong to King Manuel I and his wife Maria of Aragon, while those  on the right side belong to his son King João III and his wife Catherine of Austria. However, pride of place goes to Vasco da Gama, whose sarcophagus is positioned just inside the main portal.

 

The Monument of the Discoveries

The Monument to the Discoveries represents an idealization of the Portuguese explorations.

A 10-minute walk east from the Tower of Belem, the 52 meter (170 foot) vertical slab of white concrete of the Monument of the Discoveries rises ostentatiously from the bank of the Tagus. Built in 1960, iit is intended to evoke the prow of a caravel (the ship used in the early Portuguese explorations). Its design features ramps on either side, each holding 16 statues that amount to a veritable 16th and 17th century Who is Who in the discovery and appropriation of the “new worlds”. The ramps joint at the river’s edge, with Henry the Navigator standing at the tip of the prow.

Southern facade of the Jerónimos Monastery and Vasco da Gama Square.

Good to Know

  • Getting there —The easiest way to get to Belém from Lisbon’s city center (approximately a 30 minute drive) is to take the tram nº 15 at the Cais do Sodré station, in the Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square). Note — Be especially aware when riding this tram. It is popular with pickpockets as it is always packed with tourists.
  • Visiting —  Jerónimos Monastery and the Tower of Belém are open October through April from 10:00 am to 5.:30 pm and May through September from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. Closed on Mondays, January 1, Easter Sunday, May 1, and December 25. Advance entry tickets may be purchased through their respective websites and strongly recommended.  Monument of the Discoveries is open daily, October through February from10:00 am to 6:00 pm and March through September from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on January 1, May 1, December 24, 25  and 31.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Belém

A City of Exotic History and Breathtaking Vistas — Lisbon, Portugal

A City of Exotic History and Breathtaking Vistas — Lisbon, Portugal

The long history of Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, revolves around its strategic position at the mouth of the Tagus river. From ancient times onward, its sheltered estuary reaching out the Atlantic Ocean made the city an important seaport for trade between the Mediterranean Sea and Northern Europe. And the steep hills rising from its northern bank provided  a protected living environment for its inhabitants.

The steep streets of the Alfama pitch toward the sTagus

Throughout the ages, this privileged location drew successive waves of invaders. First came the Phoenicians (7th century B.C.) followed by the Romans and the “barbarians” of medieval times (Vandals, Visigoths et.al.). Then came the Moors (8th century A.D.), and finally the Christian Crusaders who evicted them (12th century A.D.) to establish Portugal as an independent state. All of them left cultural imprints that gave Lisbon its unique, exotic charm.

 

An Historic Earthquake

The majestic Commerce Square archway marks the entrance of the modern city.

In 1755 a powerful earthquake and tsunami leveled the lower parts of Lisbon, setting the stage for a major urban redesign: the Baixa (lower city) district. At its center, on the grounds of the former royal palace, the new Praça do Comércio (Commerce Square) came to life, a sprawling open space bordering the waterfront to the south.The three landward sides of the square are surrounded by uniform Neo-classical buildings. At the center of the northern side,a soaring archway leads to the grid of commercial streets and open squares of the business center.

The Soul of the City

Saint George’s Castle dominates the skyline of Lisbon.

The ancient soul of Lisbon still clings to its hillsides, as it has for over a millennium, in the  jumble of picturesque balconies and striking vistas that can be enjoyed from the miradouros, the inviting terraced belvederes that dot the scenery. 

Its oldest neighborhood, the Alfama – from the Arabic al-Hamma, (public baths) is a warren of narrow streets and alleyways dating back to the Muslim conquest. Built to abut the Roman fortification walls and small fortress that would later be expended into the sprawling Castelo de Sao Jorge (St George’s Castle) that dominate the skyline, it has retained the labyrinthine layout of its Islamic settlement days.

The Cathedral de Sé

The Cathedral de Sé towers over the Alfama rooftops.

Meandering up narrow cobbled streets so steeps they sometimes morph into stairs, you pass the stark monolith of the cathedral, Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa (or Cathedral de Sé for short). Its soaring interior is a severe mixture of Romanesque, Gothic and more recent styles. For history and archeology buffs, the most interesting part of the complex is its Gothic cloister. 

 

The Santa Luzia Miradouro overlooks a mosaic of red-tiled roofs.

Here, excavations started three decades ago in the central courtyard of the cloister have revealed a Roman street with shops on either side, as well as traces of later Visigoth buildings. Then in 2020, the remains of a Moorish complex were uncovered, confirming the previous existence of a mosque on the site. Regrettably, on this recent visit, the cloister was temporarily closed to the public.

 

 

Largo de Santa Luzia

The Miradouro at Largo de Santa Luzia.

It’s another ten-minute walk up to one of the most romantic viewpoint in the city: the Miradouro at Largo de Santa Luzia. Against the backdrop of the small Baroque church, the terrace captures the everlasting essence of Lisbon. Its long pergola is covered with centuries-old bougainvilleas, under which the parapet at the edge of the terrace is clad in traditional blue azulejo tiles.  Beyond it, a spectacular mosaic of red-tiled roofs and white-domed churches cascade down to the shimmering blueness of the Tagus.

Santa Luzia bas-relief of the storming of Saint George’s Castle.

After you tear yourself away from the stunning views, take a quick look at the two Azulejos bas-reliefs that decorate the church’s exterior. The first one depicts the storming of St. George’s Castle by the troops of Alfonso Henriques in 1147, while the second shows an early panorama of the harbor.

 

Castelo de São Jorge

The battlements of Castelo de São Jorge..

Climb a few minutes farther to reach Saint George’s Castle, the great medieval fortress stretched across the crest of the hill. The oldest fortifications on the site date back to the  2nd century B.C., when the Roman made it a defensive outpost. The Moors expended it to a foreboding keep encircled with imposing walls in the 10th century, which did not prevent its take over by the Portuguese in the 1147 Siege of Lisbon. Since then, the castle has variously served as a royal palace, military barracks, and the home of the National Archive before its current incarnation as a one of the most visited national monuments in the city,

View of the Graça district from St. George’s Castle.

If you decide to brave the lines and visit, expect to be dazzled once again by the views from the battlements, from various perspectives to the horizon. As for the interior, unless you are fascinated with medieval defensive architecture, the only overwhelming feature of the castle is the height and thickness of the walls surrounding its two internal courtyards.

 

 

Saint Vincent Outside of the Walls

São Vicente de Fora hovers over the roofs of the city.

But the climb is not yet over. It’s another 15 minutes to reach another remarkable Alfama landmark, one that despite appearing as a gracious white silhouette above the roofs of the city, is often overlooked by visitors: the monastery of São Vicente de Fora. Built in the late16th century, it is one of the most important Mannerist (i.e. Late Baroque) buildings in Portugal. Named for the patron saint of Lisbon, and built on the site of a previous sanctuary outside of the city walls, it became known as Saint Vincent Outside the Walls.

The sacristy of Saint Vincent Outside of the Walls.

Over the centuries the monastery acquired a wealth of artworks, many of them still in place. Most notably, under the striking barrel-vaulted ceiling of the church, the stunning baldacchino-shaped main altarpiece is an 18th century Baroque work by the great Portuguese sculptor Joaquim Machado de Castro. The sacristy is also exceptional for its ornate inlaid marble decor of floral motifs.

Azulejo frescoes line the walls of the abbey.

Within the monastery, the walls and stairs are decorated with over 150 Azulejo mosaic frescoes depicting scenes that range from religious and historic events to hunting and activities of life in the countryside. The terraced rooftop is also open to visitors. With its 360 degrees panoramic view over the city and the river, it is it considered one of the best kept secret viewpoints in Lisbon.

 

The hills of Lisbon rise from the bank of the Tagus River.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — The Humberto Delgado Airport supports regularly scheduled flights from most major European cities and beyond. It is a mere 7 kilometers (4.5 miles)  from the centre of Lisbon.
  • Getting around — The best way to get around the web of narrow cobble streets of the center of Lisbon is on foot. If walking is a challenge or to go farther afield, the city offers an extensive public transportation network of buses, metro and tram.
  • Visiting — The Lisbon Cathedral open to visitors Monday through Saturday – closed on Sunday. Opening hours vary with the seasons. Consult  website for details .The Castelo de Sao Jorge  and the Monastery de Sao Vincente de Fora  are open daily throughout the year. Consult respective websites for seasonal schedule.

Location, location, location!

Alfama

A journey back to the origins of art — The Chauvet Cave

A journey back to the origins of art — The Chauvet Cave

In the southeastern corner of the Massif Central, the ancient highlands of central France, the Ardèche River carved its scenic way through the limestone plateau over millions of years.

The cliffs of the Ardèche Gorge are dotted with caves.

Before rejoining the Rhone River on its way to the Mediterranean, it created the largest natural canyon in Europe: the Ardèche Gorge. The cliff walls are dotted with caves, some of them still holding remnants of the lives of the prehistoric people who occupied them.  The most famous by far is the Grotte Chauvet (Chauvet Cave).

 

 

 

Discovering the Origins of Art

The Pont d’Arc is the iconic sight of the Ardèche Gorge.

The oldest known stone age art gallery in the world, and one of the most important, the Chauvet Cave was discovered on December 18, 1994, by three speleology enthusiasts, Jean-Marie Chauvet, Éliette Brunel and Christian Hillaire. They had been aware  for some time of a small cave in the cliffs, a few hundred meters from the iconic Pont d’Arc. Although the rear of the cave was obstructed by a heavy rock slide, they had noticed a trickle of air escaping from a small hole, indicating that there had to be a cavity behind the fallen rocks.

The find brought to light some of the most remarkable  prehistoric cave paintings in the world.

On this day, the three friends decided to attempt to unblock a crawlspace — and found themselves facing a dark, empty space. Using their speleological ladder, they descended into a vast chamber with a soaring roof, filled with glimmering concretions that appeared to branch off into further chambers. Fascinated by the breathtaking geological wonders around them, they pressed on in single file, exploring almost the entire space. They were on their way back when, on a rocky pendant, the beam of Éliette’s headlamp caught the image of a small ochre mammoth. “They were here!” she cried out. 

The three friends had just brought to light, along with some of the best preserved prehistoric cave paintings in the world, an important evidence of Upper Paleolithic life.

Who Were They…

… these Stone Age artists that left us such sophisticated images of their time?

These elaborate paintings bear witness to the sophistication of early Cro-Magnon humans.

Based on the latest (2016) radiocarbon dating, the cave appears to have been used by humans during two distinct periods: the earlier, around 36,500 years ago, during the Aurignacian era (i.e. the early wave of anatomically modern humans thought to have spread from Africa through the Near East into Paleolithic Europe where they became known as Cro-Magnons). Although the cave shows subsequent signs of occupation between 31,000 and 30,000 years ago, all the artwork dates back to the Aurignacians. The entrance was then sealed by a collapsing cliff some 29,000 years ago until its discovery in 1994, which helped keep it in pristine condition.

The World’s Oldest Art Gallery

The cave features unique lion frescoes.

The artists who produced these paintings used techniques rarely found in other cave art. Many appear to have been made only after the walls were scraped clear of debris and concretions, leaving a smoother and lighter surface upon which the artists worked. Also, a three-dimensional quality and the suggestion of movement were achieved by incising or etching around the outlines of certain figures.

A pair of woolly rhinoceroses butt horns,

Hundreds of animal paintings have been catalogued, representing at least 13 different species, including some rarely or never found in Paleolithic paintings. Rather than depicting only the familiar herbivores that dominate Stone Age cave art, i.e. horses, aurochs, elks, reindeers, etc., the walls of the Chauvet Cave favor rhinoceroses and predatory animals, such as lions, leopards and hyenas. The art is also exceptional for its time in that it includes animals interacting with each other, such as a pair of woolly rhinoceroses butting horns in an apparent contest for territory rights.

The latter occupation of the cave left little but a child’s footprint, the charred remains of ancient hearths and carbon smoke stains from torches that lit the caves. The footprint, however, may be the oldest human one anywhere to be accurately dated.

The Domain of the Cave Bears

Cave bears also occupied the Chauvet space.

The artists weren’t the cave’s only occupants. Cave bears, a prehistoric species approximately twice the size of a modern day grizzly and believed to be largely herbivorous, were clearly present when these painting were being done. The soft clay still holds paw prints, some with traces of pigment on them. There are also unmistakeable claw-marks on some of the animal paintings and “nest” indentations throughout, where bears apparently slept.

A bear skull was found displayed on a stone slab.

Over 150 cave bear skeletons were found throughout the cave, and most dramatically, a bear skull was perched on a stone slab in the center of one of the chamber, placed deliberately by some long-gone cave inhabitant with opposable thumbs. Although one can only speculate as to its significance, it suggests a form of relationship between man and bear.

 

 

Disclosure and Protection

The cave also holds ocher paintings of hyenas and leopards.

Conscious of the exceptional value of their discovery, the three speleologists immediately alerted the Regional Archeology Curator, who reached out to the prominent French Paleolithic prehistorian Jean Clottes, then General Inspector for Archaeology at the French Ministry of Culture, to authenticate the find. 

The artists also left us ocher stamped handprints.

Within two weeks, mindful to avoid the mistakes made at Lascaux, where tourists access had irreparably damaged the cave, immediate protection measures were taken, and decision made to permanently seal off the cave from the public. To access it, selected scholars, preservation experts, maintenance workers and rare guests visitors must comply with the latest protocols to ensure the preservation of the site.

 

 

 

The Identical Twin

Just as challenging as the protection of the cave was the answer to a pressing questions: how could humanity’s first true masterpiece be shared with the general public?

Chauvet 2 is an exact replica of the original down to minute details.

An ambitious project came into being in 2007 as a joint effort of the Regional Government, the French State and and the European Union, to create the largest and most authentic replica of a decorated prehistoric cave ever made. 

All the artwork is reproduced in full size.

Creating the identical twin of the greatest early-human masterpiece, with its floors, walls, vaults, and a whole realistic underground landscape to host human and animal remains, was a massive challenge. Five years of research and thirty months of construction were needed to accomplish this cultural, technological and scientific feat.

Due to the technical impossibility of reproducing the cave in its entirety, the most remarkable elements were identified first. Using a digital 3D survey of the original, a new cave with a floor area of 3,000 square meters (32,000 square feet) and 8,200 square meters (88,000 square feet) of walls and ceilings was created. The team came up with innovative solutions, using scenographic techniques that had never before been implemented on such a large scale. Despite the Chauvet Cave 2 being two and a half times smaller than the original, the surface of the walls was accurately reproduced to within millimeters. The paintings, engravings and most notable elements, as well as essential paleontological and geological features were reproduced in full size.

The visitors senses are further stimulated by the sensations of silence, darkness, temperature, humidity, and acoustics reproduced to match the original cave.

Timeless Landscape

Chauvet 2 discretely blends into the surrounding wilderness.

Located approximately one mile from the original, Chauvet Cave 2 was designed by the architectural firm Fabre & Speller (Clermont-Ferrand/Paris) and landscape architect Franck Neau (Paris) as a discreet imprint on the wilderness of its 20 hectare (50 acre) wooded site. 

The site features five complementary parts: the Cave, The Aurignacian Gallery (permanent exhibition centre), a pedagogical centre, temporary exhibition space, and a restaurant-gift shop. A stroll through the grounds leads visitors towards the cave and a panoramic viewpoint located on the side of the building, where visitors can get an idea of the breathtaking views shared by their early ancestors.

In one stunning frescoe, over 50 drawings of horses, aurochs, reindeers and lions mingle across 15 meters (50 feet) of limestone wall.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Due to its remote location, Chauvet Cave 2 is best accessed by car: from the North by A7 and A49 via Exit 18, or from the South by A7 or A9 via Exit 19. Then take N7 and D4 to Vallon-Pont-d’Arc. It is a  2.5 hour drive  from Lyon, Marseille or Montpellier, 1.5 hour from Avignon, Nîmes or Valence. Free parking on site for cars, buses, and campers.
  • Visiting — Grotte Chauvet 2, 4941 Route de Bourg Saint Andéol, 07150 Vallon Pont d’Arc, can be visited year-round. Opening hours vary with the seasons and are clearly indicated on the website, where tickets must be purchased in advance. Contact:  tel.+ 33 (0) 4 75 94 39 40,  e-mail.
  • Note — Photography by visitors is prohibited throughout the cave. All interior images in this article are used by permission ©-Patrick-Aventurier—Grotte Chauvet 2- Ardèche.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Grotte Chauvet 2

Italy — The Memorable Museums of Bologna

Italy — The Memorable Museums of Bologna

Home to the oldest university in continuous operation in the western world (founded in 1088), the northern Italian city of Bologna has remained over the centuries a center of culture and art. In the historic center alone, more than thirty museums illustrate the rich artistic heritage of the city. The following are my personal favorites.

The Archeological Civic Museum

Bust of Nero erected by the people of Bononia as as a sign of gratitude to the Emperor (circa 1st century B.C.).

Founded in September 1881 by merging two separate collections belonging respectively to the University and the City of Bologna, and locating them in the 15th century Palazzo Galvani, a few steps from Piazza Maggiore, the Museo Civico Archeologico (Archeological Civic Museum) holds one of the most important archaeological collection in Italy. It is above all a major witness to the local history, from prehistoric times to the Roman age, as announced by the monumental torso of Nero dominating the central loggia of the internal courtyard. Of exquisite workmanship, the statue, depicts a figure garbed for a triumphal procession, wearing a short tunic, a loose cloak over its shoulder, and an anatomical cuirass decorated with marine creatures and the Gorgon’s head. 

Etruscan cremation crater (circa 450 B.C.) used to receive the ashes of the deceased.

The Etruscan wing constitutes the most important part of the museum. It documents the development of the local culture and especially the religious and funerary rites of Etruria, with Bologna, then known as Felsina, as its capital. A majority of the pieces, dating back from the middle of the 6th to the 4th century B.C., came from the 1869 discovery and subsequent excavation of an Etruscan necropolis on the grounds of the Certosa Cemetery, just outside the limits of the historic city.

The museum also features an interesting Egyptian collection, and for numismatic buffs, the most important collection in Italy of Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins.

The National Gallery of Bologna

Alterpiece by 14th century Bolognese master Jacopino.

To continue the journey through the artistic development of the region, the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna (National Gallery of Bologna), is an essential next stop. Located in the 17th  century former Jesuit novitiate of St. Ignatius, a few minutes from the Two Towers, it opened to the public in1885.  Entirely renovated in 1997, it is now considered one of the most modern and important National Galleries in the country. Its collection includes works from some of the leading Italian artists of the Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque periods, such as Raphael, Perugino, Tintoretto, Titian, the Carraccis, Guercino and Reni.

A custom-designed hall in the center of the Pinacoteca holds the Mezzaratta frescoes.

At its core is a unique display of frescoes and sinopias from the decorative cycle of the church of Mezzaratta, a small church just outside the city. Here, the main artists working in Bologna in the 14th and 15th centuries competed, and sometimes cooperated to create a sequence of scenes from the sacred texts.

Polyptych by brothers Vivarini (circa 15tth century).

The frescoes, hidden for many years by plaster and damaged by humidity were detached beginning in 1949 and moved to the Pinacoteca. They are housed in a dedicated hall where one room holds the final masterpieces, while the next room displays the sinopias (preparatory drawings used by artists during the design phase, tracing the elements of composition directly on the first layer of plaster) that were found under the frescoes. The display of these sinopias, allows visitors to appreciate the entire creative process, from conception to final results.

Museum San Colombano

Painted 18th century grand piano from the Tagliavini Collection.

Also a short walk from the Piazza Maggiore, the Church of San Colombano is an ancient monastic complex founded in the 7th century and expended over time. Deconsecrated in 1798 and restored in recent decades, it now houses the collection of musical instruments donated by Bolognese Maestro Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini (1929 – 2017).

Early portable pipe organ.

This unique collection consists of over seventy pieces, mainly harpsichords, spinets, pianos, organs, clavichords and some wind instruments dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. The instruments are still in working order, and used regularly for free concerts. At the time of my recent visit, an artist was practicing on an ancient spinet, while in another part of the complex a  sumptuously decorated 18th century grand piano was being tuned.

A cycle of 17th century frescoes decorates the Oratory.

The Oratory — In addition to the musical treasures on display throughout its various spaces, the complex itself is a peerless work of art. Built in the 1590’s, the upper floor Oratory is decorated with a cycle of 17th century frescoes inspired by the stories of the Passion and the Triumph of Christ by a group of artists led by Ludovico Carracci, including Guido Reni, Francesco Albani and Domenichino.

The chapel was built around a 1399 painting of the Virgin.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Prayer — The chapel was also built in the 1590’s, around an image of the Virgin painted by Lippo di Dalmasio in 1399  on the outside wall of the Church of St. Colombano. The task of frescoing the new chapel was  entrusted to the best pupils of the Carracci brothers.The painted scenes are inspired by episodes from the New Testament.

Detail of the 13th century Christ Crucified discovered in the Crypt of the San Colombano complex.

The Crypt — In 2005, the restoration works of the San Colombano complex revealed the existence of a late medieval crypt. Here, a fresco portraying “Christ crucified between Our Lady and St. John” was the most signifcant discovery. Despite having been severely damaged, the painting is still of high quality, not only for the realism of the subject’s expression but also in the use of colors, all of which survived centuries of underground burial. The work is attributed to Giunta Pisano, a pivotal Italian artist of the 13th century.

The Certosa Monumental Cemetery

The 19th century Neoclassical Seventh Cloister.

Detail of early 20th century Art Nouveau tomb.

Bronze sculpture on mosaic backdrop by Pasquale Rizzoli, the Magnani Chapel is a fine examples of Italian Liberty style.

One of the oldest and largest cemeteries in Europe, the Certosa di Bologna was established in 1801 on the grounds of an ancient Carthusian monastery just outside of the historic city limits. By the 1830’s, in addition to using the remaining structures of the existing monastery, the cemetery began to be enriched with new spaces and cloisters, until it took the labyrinthine aspect of an open-air museum, with exceptional decorations and funeral monuments. 

Not to be missed are the Third and Seventh Cloisters. The Renaissance Third Cloister was the first to accommodate tombs of the new public cemetery. Many of the monuments  here were entrusted to the most respected sculptors and painters of the period. 

Built in the later part of the 19th century, the grandiose Neoclassical Seventh Cloister features a central nave with a soaring barrel-vaulted ceiling. Here the monuments, which memorialize a number of of nationally famous local figures (including the Marconi family), are a comprehensive repertory of 19th and 20th century Bolognese sculpture, and include a number of remarkable Art Nouveau tombs.

Also worth noting at the center of the complex, two monumental stone domes mark the two vast underground circular areas of the Ossuary of the Great War. It contains the remains of 2,906 Italian soldiers (of which about 500 are from the city and province of Bologna) and 140 Austro-Hungarians.

Good to Know

  • Getting there By Air: There are scheduled flights to Bologna International Airport from most major European cities. By train: High speed trains connect the center of the Bologna to Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice in approximately two hours. There are also direct high-speed train connections between Bologna and Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. By road: The A1 highway efficiently connects the city with Florence and Milan.
  • Getting Around — The center of Bologna is best explored on foot, following its amazing network of porticoes. To visit further afield, the city’s bus network is extensive and efficient.
  • Visiting — Museo Civico Archeologico /, Via dell’Archiginnasio 2, 40124 Bologna. Open Wednesday through Monday from  10:00 am to 7:00pm. Closed on Tuesday, May 1, December 25  and 31. Contact: tel. + 39 051 2757211, e-mail . Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Via delle Belle Arti 56, 40126 Bologna. Open Tuesday and Wednesday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, and Thursday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday and December 25.  Contact: tel. +39 0514209442, e-mail. Museum San Colombano — Collezione Tagliavini , Via Parigi 5, 40121 Bologna. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:00 to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: tel. +39 05119936366, e-mail. Certosa di Bologna , Via della Certosa, 18 – 40133 Bologna. Open March 1 to November 2 from  7:00 am to 6:00 pm and November 3 to  February 28/29 from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Contact: tel. ++39 051 6150840, e-mail.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bologna, Italy