Thursday the 21st
We crossed the boarder into Portugal. Our trip manager was beaming! We were entering the “best country in the world,” – an unbiased assessment by a guide of Portuguese heritage of course. His excitement multiplied as he explained the delicious dishes we were going to experience, the humble lifestyle we were soon to witness and the history of this illustrious country. Our sightseeing took place around central Lisbon, the capital city of Portugal since the 13th century and a self-sustaining port responsible for an immense quantity of exports. The waters edge in the centre was lined with appropriated docks where shipping containers had been replaced with waterfront restaurants, all part of a government scheme to restore a city in decay. Therefore, it is renowned for its port – both of the nautical and alcoholic kind. The rich national history is one concerned with its neutral orientation during wartime. This propaganda-free direction meant that individuals of all political perspectives resided in Portugal, giving the country a reputation of being populated by spies. Of equal significance to national reputation is the recent championship of Portugal in the Euro Cup. Even those who know little of football, such as our guide for the walking tour that morning, was proud of this sporting success. Another characteristic feature of Portugal is bullfighting, yet there are some remarkable differences in the rules of this sport which make it unique it from the Spanish version. Matadors dressed in popular attire worn by the noblemen of the 18th century must skilfully manoeuvre the bull whilst on horseback. These bulls, although raised for the fight, are not killed in the ring but will nonetheless be sent to the slaughter. Evidently, Lisbon is a city filled with personality! Apart from its culture, the landscape bears an equally remarkable character. Smooth cobblestone streets are arranged in patterns of white limestone and black basalt. Canary yellow cable cars provide a fast route to all the touristic highlights which were also on our itinerary for the walking tour today.
Our first destination was one of pilgrimage: The Christ the Redeemer. An imitation of the statue in Rio de Janeiro, the icon stands at 28 metres atop the highest panoramic point in the district of Almada. It was commissioned and funded by the Catholic Church of Lisbon and was believed to be a token of thanks recognising the church for keeping the country free from the horrors of war. Shortly thereafter, we attended the Discoveries Monument. This statue, made of cement and rose-tinted stone, is dedicated to Henry the Navigator to honour his contribution to the exploration era, and features more than thirty busts of other individuals that similarly played important historical roles. The monument stands in front of a mosaic world map and compass which denotes the world as known by the explorers of the 15th century, which was donated by South Africa. Lastly, we were taken to the Belém Tower, or Tower of Saint Vincent. This fortified tower played a role in the discoveries age also as a maritime defence system and today is registered as one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
Our large company divided itself into its established friendship groups and departed in search of lunch and for further sightseeing dependent on individual interests. We had been advised to stop by Pastéis de Belém, a bustling store which had been in the business of custard tarts since 1837. Rather than waiting for table service, we fast tracked into the take-away queue which doubled out the door to picked up a serving of warm tartlets. Sprinkled to personal desire with cinnamon sugar, the oozing custard slowly seeped from the crisp shell as soon as a set of teeth were sunk into the tantalising treat. We took some time to soak in the city and relax in the sunshine outside the white walls of the Mosterio dos Jerónimos. This monastery had once been inhabited my monks who comforted sailers upon their return from the harsh seas, and now was home to 15th century nobles. The tomb of poet Luís Vaz de Camõs, whom documented the exploits of the navigators, and of explorer Vasco da Gama, who mapped out a revolutionary trade route that allowed the nation to dominate this industry, were open to the public under the angelic ceilings of the monastery. The building was renowned for its religious superstition, as it escaped damage caused by a natural disaster in 1755. An earthquake devastated the coastal region of Portugal on All Saints Day which resulted in fires and tsunamis in the near vicinity. The monastery, however, fared no such destruction therefore this was seen as a miraculous Act of God!
We were permitted no more than an hour to refresh for dinner and return to the coach which would take us back to the centre of Lisbon. Although a large part of our day had been reserved for travelling, everyone was exhausted beyond belief and many of us decided to journey to the city a few hours after our group. The busyness of our schedule in combination with the draining heat and increasingly late nights was taking effect on our group and many had fallen sick from exhaustion. The vitamins and rest I had prioritised had saved me from such effects, but I was nonetheless as tired as everyone else and plonked down onto the uncomfortable bed without a second thought. Few people made it to the bus for dinner that night and most called it a day as soon as we arrived back at the hotel from our sightseeing tour. As for me? I closed my eyes for a short fifteen minutes – and didn’t wake up again until the next morning.