PC 107 Lisbon

We had a drink in the Hotel Palacio in Estoril, Portugal, to celebrate an anniversary and learned that the bar had been a meeting place for British and German spies during the Second World War. Portugal had of course been neutral, as had neighbouring Spain, but that didn’t stop both Allies and Axis powers using these two countries for nefarious purposes!! The following day we caught the 30 minute train into Lisbon, and slowly climbed through the Alfama quarter to the site of Lisbon’s founding settlement, the Castel de São Jorge.


Castel de São Jorge

The placing of this Moorish castle was perfect and over a thousand years later you can look out over modern Lisbon. The Moors were ousted from Portugal in 1147 (compare with the last Muslim ruler sent into exile from Granada by the Spanish King Ferdinand in 1492). Down on the waterfront you can make out the Praça do Comérco and the statue of King Dom José on his horse. It was during his reign that Lisbon suffered its 1755 devastating earthquake which destroyed much of the city. What you see today is the result of 100 years of rebuilding.


Praça do Comérco

And it was during this lengthy rebuild that Napoleon’s troops rampaged through Spain and threatened Lisbon. The royal family, escorted by the English Royal Navy, fled to Brazil, leaving the British under the Duke of Wellington to resist the French invasion. History huh!! The monarch didn’t return for some 7 years, preferring to rule his empire (Angola, Mozambique, Goa and Brazil) from Rio de Janeiro. Modern Lisbon is littered with statues of kings and explorers – the most dramatic of which is the Monument to the Discoveries (1415 – 1543) overlooking the Tagus River.

monument to discoveries lisbon

Gradual exploration from Lisbon down the west coast of Africa, firstly by Diago Cao in 1483 and then by Bartolomeu Dias, paved the way for Vasco da Gama to cross the Indian Ocean in 1498 and land in India. The Portuguese had a monopoly of what became known as the Spice Trade, ensuring great riches for Lisbon. Ten years later they captured Goa and established a colony. Two years after that Pedro Alvares Cabral reached Brazil and established a Portuguese presence at Recife. (See PC 34).

I saw a review of the book ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ by Pascal Mercier many years ago, liked what I read and bought a Kindle version. It’s the story of a Swiss Classics teacher, Raimund Gregorious, who, on his way to his stale academic job in Bern, prevents a Portuguese woman jumping to her death from a bridge. Nosing around in his favourite bookshop after work, he is drawn to a book by Amadeu de Prada, a Portuguese doctor who explores the philosophical issue of going back over one’s life and asking the ‘What If I had made a different choice?’ sort of question. (Compare with the film ‘Sliding Doors’ with Gwyneth Paltrow). The fact that Gregorious can’t read Portuguese doesn’t seem to put him off!!

Night Train to Lisbon

Very quickly Gregorious senses he may not be living his own life to the full and determines on a whim, or maybe with the image of the mysterious Portuguese woman in his mind (!), to go to Portugal to investigate the life of Amadeu de Prada, who had lived through the right-wing dictatorship of Salazar (1926 – 1968). He catches the overnight train to Lisbon that very evening. I got stuck with this book, restarted it several times, and eventually gave up. But then the story was made into a film in 2013, staring Jeremy Irons as Gregorious, and I loved it!!

Today you can take the night train from Bern but it’s more a ‘day & night’ train and takes 27 hours; it’s over 1600 kms! To get to Lisbon I flew TAP Portugal from Gatwick. I’d been to the city back in 1987 on business and to southern Portugal on a yoga retreat in 2016. My parents had enjoyed holidaying in the Algarve and on Madeira and my maternal grand-father not only loved Portugal but also loved imbibing the famous Mateus Rose, the height of sophistication in the 1960s!!

So the tale plays out in this city, going backwards and forwards from the modern day to those of the dictatorship. If one hasn’t lived under a totalitarian dictatorship as Salazar’s was, it’s hard to really understand what life was like. In the story, Gregorious looks at the difficulties faced by Prada, exploring themes such as loneliness, love, loyalty, friendship and mortality. I’m not quite sure if the classic’s teacher from Bern found what he was looking for, identifying what could have been alternative paths in his own life, but I am reminded of Robert Frost’s poemThe Road Not Taken’:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …….. And, sorry, I could not travel both

And be one traveller, long stood …….. And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth; 

……. and I  …….

I took the one less travelled by ……and that has made all the difference.

We all have choices in life, to take this path or that direction, but whatever choice you make …… that is in my view the right one.

Maybe in time we’ll wander around the back streets of Lisbon at our leisure, trying to understand its unspoken history simmering beneath the surface. And of course get to know some of the places from the story, like Rua Augusta that runs north from Praça do Comérco and is often called ‘the most beautiful street in the world’.

The Portuguese monarchy ended in 1908 with the assassination of the king and, after a serious of weak governments covering almost twenty years, Antonio Salazar created a dictatorship which ran from 1926-1968. During this period the country was virtually a recluse in the world community, industry and commerce dominated by a few very wealthy families. His successor carried on for another six years, but the political mood had changed and the Carnation revolution of 1974 ushered in modern democracy.

More scribbles from Lisbon in the future, no doubt.

Richard 8th October 2017

PS You can’t go to Portugal and not eat Pastel de Nata.

Pastel de Nata

These sweet custard tarts were originally created by the Catholic monks at the Jerónimos Monastery in Santa Maria de Belém, a western suburb of Lisbon, in the C18th. Starching the nuns’ habits required numerous egg whites and making custard tarts was a good way of using the surplus egg yolks. Boy – are they yummy!



4 thoughts on “PC 107 Lisbon

  1. There’s a fellow in Dorch named Fernando selling these custard tarts.  I shall ask him next time if he knows the origins.  A good read as always!  Eddie 


  2. Nice reading. Especially as have taken up with a jorge dos Santos who is from Portugal and remembers the dictatorship despite being also away engaged on military officers life … he has been 30 years on nz yet still has strong accent. Here he was a nurseryman.

    Sent from my iPhone



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