Portugal: Dramatic display brings past alive

By Geoff Cumming

Geoff Cumming visits the centre that shows off Lisbon's turbulent history.

The top of the castle at Belem gives spectacular views around Lisbon, while the surrounding area is one of the city's oldest parts. Photo / Supplied
The top of the castle at Belem gives spectacular views around Lisbon, while the surrounding area is one of the city's oldest parts. Photo / Supplied

If the past is key to understanding Portugal today, a good place to start is the Lisbon Story Centre, a new attraction on Praco do Comercio, the waterfront plaza which has witnessed so much of the country's history.

Opened in former state buildings, a sequence of exhibition rooms with video and audio guides, explains the city's considerable highs and lows and adds considerably to visitors' appreciation of the sites, monuments and architecture that await outside.

Lisbon's ascent began in the 12th century, when Crusaders and mercenaries under King Henrique of Porto invaded on a mission to unite Portugal.

They drove the Moors from the Castelo de Sao George, the fortress on the highest of Lisbon's seven hills, which remains one of the city's defining sights. Henrique's successors made Lisbon the capital of the enlarged kingdom and the castle became the royal palace.

Though the port city was always prosperous, Lisbon really took off with "the Discoveries" from the late 15th century, seafaring expeditions which secured Portuguese dominance in Africa, South America and the Far East, after Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to India. Portuguese ships brought back spices, herbs, tobacco, coffee and gold and Lisbon became the warehouse of the world - acknowledged here with a mock-up warehouse filled with goods and memorabilia. The Discoveries also inspired an architectural movement - Manueline, after Dom Manuel I - which paid homage to the seafarers' exploits and to Nature. Buildings were decorated inside and out with maritime symbols - rope lattice work around entrances, and botanic and animal symbols from exotic places.

Another room highlights the double-edged sword of religion - great art, devout people, churches decorated with Brazilian gold, the Inquisition. But on All Saints Day in 1755, it all came crashing down when the Great Earthquake struck Lisbon as most people were in church.

A recreation of the quake, in a theatre with wall-to-wall video screens and suitably shuddering sound system, is the high point of the permanent exhibition.

Many died as churches collapsed; thousands more survivors were killed when they ran to the harbour and were swamped by a tsunami. Fires then caused further death and destruction.

It is thanks to the Marques de Pombal, the chief minister to the apathetic King Jose I, that the city today retains so much of historic Lisbon. Pombal rebuilt the city in a very orderly fashion (his designs are on show), but was determined to retain and restore important precincts and buildings, including the old castle walls.

Many examples of Manueline architecture survived the quake, including the Tower of Belem, built in honour of da Gama and the other navigators, and the epic Jeronimos Monastery, which contains two museums and a magnificent church.

The historic district of Alfama, on the hill leading to the castle, was also spared major damage. Home to the Moors and later the Jewish r, it's great to wander this network of narrow passageways and alleys. There are cafes on most corners and many squares are decorated for festivals or market-days.

Up on top, the castle and fortifications offer 360-degree views of the city and the Tejo River, with its striking bridges.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Emirates flies three times daily from Auckland and once daily from Christchurch, and all flights provide a direct connection at Dubai with Emirates' daily service to Lisbon. The airline offers first class suites, superior business class and comfortable economy class on all these flights. Economy round trip fares are from $2379 (all taxes included).

* Geoff Cumming travelled as a guest of Emirates.

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