Lisbon highlighted

I arrived in Lisbon (after foggy delays) for a short holiday and found that I could not connect my IPad at the (very nice) apartment I had rented. I huffed and I puffed and felt I was being denied a fundamental human right, then I caught sight of myself, smiled, and had five happy days virtual free (with one happy exception)! I was not even tempted by an internet cafe!

I had been to Lisbon twice before but only for conferences and so had only glimpsed its possibilities (including a reception at one of the world's largest aquaria) but now I was free to explore in fine 'winter' weather that allowed you to dine outside even at night!

I walked, and walked and walked. One of the deep pleasures was traversing up hill and down, winding through passageways, being arrested by views, squares, buildings, often beautifully decorated with the city's trademark tiles, getting lost and re-orientating yourself by a positioning towards the Tagus. 

Like most of my city visiting what most I wanted to do was trawl through art galleries and Lisbon has fine ones. The two most notable (from my perception) being the National Museum of Ancient Art and the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum.

The former is housed in an extended palace and is a cross between the National Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum (to use a London analogy). The inescapable highlight is Heronymus Bosch's 'The Temptation of St Anthony' : graphic, lurid, lewd and morally uplifting and whatever one makes (or could make) of its complex symbolism, you can only admire its sense of careful construction, craft and intelligence. 

My own favourite was a Japanese screen from the sixteenth century depicting the arrival of the Portuguese both as traders and missionaries. It was a beautiful depiction of 'otherness' of how Japanese eyes saw these intruders and how different the Europeans looked through differing eyes than their own. It was a screen that you could look at only through the eyes of tragedy, knowing what would soon befall this encounter as Japan closed its doors in self-preservation and with cruel persecution. I was reminded of that great historical novel of the period, by Shusaku Endo, 'Silence', that graphically explores that divided cultural failed embrace. 

The latter is housed in a purpose built temple of subdued modernism in its own park. Gulbenkian was an oil man and the eclectic collection was driven by his own diverse, compelling tastes. The finest individual painting (to my mind) is the portrait of an old man by Rembrandt (above) that is marked by both the painter's inordinate skill with light, the bearing and texture of bodies, especially the old, and his compassion. It was doubly striking for being placed next to a portrait of an old woman by Rembrandt's older contemporary, Franz Hals. This is a fine and accomplished painting of rare technical skill and composure but the woman remains an object of a seeing art not the subject of an artistic seeing, bathed in what can only be described as love. Love etches reality into shape.

The finest part of the collection was for me the room of Persian and Ottoman ceramics, carpets and silks. The sheer, shimmering beauty of design forged into the dexterous use of diverse materials. You felt inhabited by a whole - a space once practical and visionary. Those Persians knew their pots and their weaving! They knew that any civilisation should be aesthetically judged by what is used as well as by what is displayed. One of the temporary exhibitions at the Museum was 'The Splendour of Cities: The Route of the Tile' and even here is was the Persian tiles (used for the exhibition's publicity) that radiated out seizing one's attention. 

The city held many other pleasures - Natas (the custard tarts with crinkly pastry), fresh grilled sardines, the aged trams that saved my ageing legs from some of the hills; and, on Sunday, a botanical garden so empty and still that for a moment you could imagine yourself transported to the 'bush' of the particular tree you found yourself contemplating.


  1. So please that you liked our Lisbon treasures, the museums, and you only covered two, are quite remarkable and often an oversight with many travellers to the city. I must admit that I love the Arte Antiga as it houses more of the national treasures that are a jumping off point to many of the other sites that I show my tour guests such as the microcosm of the golden Belem Monstrance to the macrocosm of the Manueline south door of the Jeronimos Monastery. A visit to the tile museum's Lisbon pre 1755 earthquake panel is a start to a fast forward from the past to the present when I show the monuments that are still standing later in the trip.


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