Lisbon – Day Two: The Ages of the Sea
The super-soft bedding of the Lx Boutique Hotel made getting up difficult, even though one 90 degree tilt upwards would reveal a picture-postcard view across the city of Lisbon, over the Tagus towards the San-Francisco inspired scarlet-red suspension bridge, the Ponte 25 de Abril and the Rio inspired giant statute of Jesus puncturing the landscape beyond. Having made the leap of faith and breathed in the yellow-hued light of this bright new city, energy levels were replenished by a nourishing breakfast, back in the Japanese restaurant of the night before (which happens to double up as the hotel’s breakfast room) but (perhaps mercifully?) was not Japanese-themed for the morning shift. Rather a few pastries (but a decided lack of the Portuguese speciality pastel de nata) later and we were on our feet, making the climb up the steeply undulating streets of the Bairro Alto (high quarter), the cobbled and bustling shopping district atop one of Lisbon’s two central hills.
The Lisbon of the morning is a different place to the Lisbon of night. By day, the city gains a vibrancy all of its own, as rickety old pre-war yellow and red trams rumble along the endless grid of tram lines crisscrossing the cobbled streets, making that characteristic metallic screech at every bend and corner, locals hang out at little cafe kiosks catching up on the often miserable news, shop keepers linger out on the pavement trying to drum up trade (which, they tell us, is limited) and workers and visitors alike bustle about with energy, but not stress.
We joined that popular bustle, heading around the Bairro and taking in the very juxtaposed landscape, from the bright red walls of the Teatro da Trindade and the intricately pained tiled facades of many a house and shopfront, to the decadent art deco exterior of the Tavares restaurant and the eery skeletal arches of the Igreja do Carmo, once a Carmelite church and one of the largest in Lisbon, but now, as a half collapsed shell, a poignant reminder of the earthquake which destroyed so much of the city in 1755. Delicate details were all around these streets for the drinking – I loved the statue of Eça de Quieros by Teixeira Lopes, showing a novelist inspired by a scantily veiled muse, and the street lamps whose ironwork features the ship which is today the emblem of Lisbon, a boat which, so legend dictates, carried the remains of the martyred St Vincent safely to Lisbon protected by ravens.
While the Bairro Alto could no doubt have amused us all day, our central aim was dedicated to art. North of the city, close to the sprawling Parque Eduardo VII is the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, which houses the vast art collection of Armenian oil magnate, Calouste Gulbenkian and which was bequeathed to the city by the multi-millionaire in the 1960s. The museum comprises a surprisingly rich collection, boasting Picasso, Manet, Turner, Gainsborough and Constable amongst its prized exhibited artists, and including a truly beautiful collection of Lalique glassware by the art nouveau genius René Lalique. This hat pin (below) depicting a dragon fly morphed into the elegant female figure of the belle époque was just stunning. Meanwhile, for the more modern works including Robert Delaunay and José de Almada Negreiros, you only have to head across a very tranquil park to explore this extension of the same collection, all housed within a super-cool iconically 60s designed gallery which also provides visitors with a welcome retro little cafe and those famous pastel de nata which must feature on every self-respecting Portuguese menu.
But for a museum which just keeps on giving, the real highlight from the Gulbenkian foundation, for me, was the temporary exhibition, The Ages of the Sea, which runs from 26 October 2012-27 January 2013. Containing some 109 paintings brought together from across the world, the show, which is supported by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, is based on an historical survey of the visual representation of the Sea and seeks to identify the major themes which led to its extensive and recurrent depiction in Western Painting. Across themes split into six sections – myths, power, labour, shipwrecks, the ephemeral and the quest for infinity, the collection was not short of big names, including Van Goyen, Lorrain, Turner, Constable, Friedrich, Courbet, Boudin, Manet, Monet, Signac, Fattori, Sorolla, Klee, De Chirico, Hopper. The result was an exhibition which literally exuded the salty-sweet freshness of the sea, the bright feeling of freedom when one stands on the edge of a vast sunny coastline, the feeling of trepidation when met with an ocean stirred up by the forces of weather, wind and rain, and the feeling of awe when the land ends and only a vast watery mass spreads from the beach to the very edges of the horizon. Walking around the exhibit was like looking through a hundred windows on the coast from all over the world. It was like taking a hundred holidays all at once, a hundred walks along a beachside promenade, a hundred embraces of the ocean’s advances.
Of the many masterpieces on show, it was the fresher, more modern works which caught my eye. In particular I adored Luís Noronha da Costa’s From Subnaturalism to Supernaturalism, which in close up was such a simple work – one layer of semi-transparent paint over another – but stepping away revealed a peaceful seascape at sunset; I loved too Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso’s The Sloop, an unusual take on a ship wreck in a stormy sea; and I was captivated by the unusual coastal scene painted by Edward Hopper, better known for being the painter of introspective loners in cafes.
But perhaps the greatest picture of them all was the real landscape of Lisbon with which we ended our day. Heading back down to the centre, through the impressive expanse of the Praça dos Restauradores (albeit littered as it is with drug sellers who approached us 8 times) and up the steep slope of the Calçada da Gloria (up which a popular tourist tram climbs slowly at fairly regular intervals) we were greeted with the greatest of all rewards for our exhausting trek up hill – in the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, we found a little fountained square which presented such a stunning vista across the Baixa and over to the Castelo de Sao Jorge that it was worth a thousand paintings.
So what way to end this day packed full of such new discovery that we felt like Vasco da Gama himself? Why, two glasses of that other Portuguese speciality of course – Port – which we enjoyed in the elegant surroundings of the Solar do Vinho do Porto, a Port bar with some 200 ports on the menu, set within a grand 18th century mansion. We went for the tried and tested method of selecting port by the names which most prominently jumped out at us – and it worked a treat. Our first choice, a 10 year old tawny port was delicate on the palate and golden in colour, while a vintage ruby to follow was dark, deep and rich. No wonder then that one port led to another, and then a deliciously decadent dinner followed in the Restaurante Olivier just down the road, with a 10-course tasting menu as a starter and another bottle of the good stuff. I could get used to this.
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- Lisbon – Day One: Decadence and Decay (daily-norm.com)