Lisbon and Evora: Old Cities, Old Streets, Old Bones

“I’m in Lisbon. I’m in Lisbon. I’m in Lisbon.”

This is what I had to keep telling myself after the man at the information desk at the Lisboa-Santa Apolon train station refused to grab me a map or help me once I arrived because he wasn’t the tourismo, and the tourismo was closed.

This is what I had to keep telling myself after I (clever me) figured out how to get from the train station to the Bairro Alto neighbourhood (where my hostel was) on the metro ALL BY MYSELF but, because I was looking at a flat little depiction in my Lonely Planet, did not realize my 20-minute hike from the metro to the hostel with my 40 lbs. of backpack would be almost exclusively uphill, or up stairs, in weather that was much MUCH hotter than it was when I left Guarda.

This is what I told myself when I checked into the hostel and realized all the other beds in my mixed dorm room were occupied by men and something got stuck in the door lock mechanism and I almost locked myself in the dormitory.

But hey, I was in Lisbon. And after a rocky start to the relationship, I eased into both the city and hostel life (lots of interesting people, drinks on the patio, a full moon for my last night). My only regret is that I did not stay longer.

On Sunday morning I set out on foot for the Alfama, Lisbon’s old Moorish district. My companion for the day was Ori, an Israeli life-coach who was also staying at my hostel and who, like me, was travelling for a month through Spain and Portugal (though he did Spain first). We got lost several times and wandered up and down through the twisting labyrinth of the district but the entire experience was enriched by our conversation. We discussed religion, politics, and world affairs, among other things, and I was particularly interested in hearing the Israeli side of the story regarding Israel’s boarding of the Gaza-bound flotilla last year. It was also interesting to be called upon to describe the Canadian viewpoint of these same events and others regarding that area of the world (as if there’s only one viewpoint, but I did my best).

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon

As tourists, Ori was most interested in the “points of view” (referred to as miradouros) from the high points of the city (it’s a very hilly city, so there are many), and I was interested particularly in the Castelo de Sao Jorge. It seemed a bit much to cough up the 7€ admission for the castelo (why oh WHY did I leave my student card at home?!), but once inside I did not regret it. The castelo is actually HUGE, and its outer walls contain not only the fortress itself, but also a museum, a garden, and restaurants. I was not all that interested in the museum (I saw enough old bronze swords and Iron Age loom weights in Guarda’s museum) but the sheer amount of battlements and towers open to the public (almost all of them) was enough to keep me entertained for a full hour, climbing up every staircase I saw, passing through every archway, and peering through every arrowslit. As I explained to Ori: ‘Nothing captures the imagination quite like a castle.’

Se, Evora

Yesterday’s day trip to Evora was also, well, plain old fun. I visited the medeival Se, of course (I’ve seen the Se in every Portuguese city I’ve visted so far) and the old Roman temple standing beside it. I peaked in at the Roman ruins contained within the Evora town hall, ate lunch in the square out front, walked along the Aqueduto da Agua de Prata (Aqueduct of Silver Water), and spent the siesta strolling through the Jardim Publico (public garden) and eating a pastel de nata (a sweet custard tart that Portugal is famous for). Not a terrible way to spend an afternoon.

Roman Temple, Evora

Something that was rather amusing about the university town of Evora is that I happened to visit just as the October semester was beginning and I got to see groups of freshmen undergoing a bit of hazing and public humiliation at the hands of their older peers. My favourites included the young man dressed as Miss Piggy forced to order at the cafe, and the group dressed as Crusaders and Turks, singing what seemed to be ABBA’s hit “Thank You for the Music” in Portuguese.

After siesta was over I visited the Igreja de Sao Francisco, but to be honest I was more creeped out by this church than uplifted spiritually. There comes a point when the more gold and statues you stuff into a place the less the incredible balance and heightened sense of tranquility created by the architecture can have its desired effect. I think the Igreja de Sao Francisco reached that point, and then some. But it’s still quite a sight, and I’m not surprised the Lonely Planet listed this church as Evora’s most well-known.

Bone Chapel, Evora

If I thought I was creeped out by the Igreja that was nothing compared to how I felt visiting the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) adjacent. That’s right, a chapel whose walls and ceiling were made completely of the bones of and skulls of long-gone Evora residents. Even though I felt really weird about it I paid the extra so that I could take photographs. The only way I can morally justify taking photos of people’s bones is the purpose of the chapel itself, emphasised by the inscription above the chapel door: “We whose bones are here, wait for yours”. This was a place built to remind us of the impermance of our lives, and the futility of our vain pursuits. The image is meant to be taken with you.

Even so, old bones. It’s just……creepy.

I’d hate to leave you with a startling mental image of your own mortality so instead I will leave you with a mental image of what I saw as I rode the train back into Lisbon: a full moon rising over red tile roofs, the Rio Tejo sparkling beneath, and a sense of heat and magic and colour breathing from the entire city. De nada.



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