Sitting outside A Brasileira, the cafe on Rua Garrett in the Chiado quarter of downtown Lisbon (see PC 112), having a double espresso and a couple of naughty Pastel de Natas, I reach for my iPad and scribble. Around me sit tourists from across the world, although as this is the European holiday period the majority seem not to have travelled too far. It’s cloudy and muggy, not typical of normal Portuguese late July weather but this year is anything but normal, with global temperatures in the northern hemisphere significantly above average. The loss of life in a raging fire east of Athens is on everyone’s mind.
It is too airless inside the café so I try my luck at one of the outside tables, conscious that most are taken by smokers. Sure enough, just after I’ve sat down a five-people family group occupy a near-by empty table and packets of Gaulloise are placed on the table, together with the obligatory mobile phones ….. in case Mutti calls from München to check on the family, especially on Otto with his cold. Otto I should add looks 24! I watch the down-on-their-luck trying to cadge a cigarette, or just a light for their carefully cobbled-together roll-up made from picked-up fag ends. Further down the street cardboard from a shop’s merchandise’s boxes are used to insulate another from the little cobbled tiled pavement. The tourists step over the lying form, without so much as a look of sympathy, for this example of street life is in every city, a sad reflection on the world we live in.
The pace of life here is slow. The Portuguese are slow people, at least the modern ones, but you remember how its sailors and adventurers opened up the rest of the world to Europe? No slouch then huh? Recently the singer Madonna, who’s made her home in Lisbon, was reported to be exasperated at the attitude of the Portuguese: “Lisbon is an ancient city and no one is in a hurry to do things.” Maybe she should sing ‘Like a Prayer’ more regularly? The image of the typical Portuguese man or woman hasn’t changed much in decades – the black clothes, the rather bowed legs, the flat cap – and it still projects the country; somewhat rural and backward-looking. Of course sometimes this pace has its attractions, particular for those used to the rush rush rush some of us endure. It reminded me of that observation about how someone was so laid back they almost fell over. But when you come up against this personally, trying to get a builder to come and quote, for instance, it frustrates and irritates in equal measure. And when they do come, they turn up at 8pm and start hammering!!
I had read about Mafra in a general book about Portuguese history, but didn’t inspect the DK entry carefully enough! “Open W-M except on 25 December.” …… ie closed on Tuesday. We visited ….. on a Tuesday; the Palácio de Mafra was closed …… for cleaning ….. but the basilica was open. A thirty minute drive wasted you might think, for Mafra lies about 35kms north of Estoril but actually, apart from the magnificent library with its beautifully crafted marbled inlaid mosaic floor …… (See note)
…… I wondered how many of the 800 rooms one would see on the guided tour? Certainly I could give the room containing hundreds of animals stuffed by taxidermists a hundred years or so ago a miss …… so all we saw was the basilica, built between the king’s bedchamber tower and that of the queen’s. We peered inside; cavernous! Bigger than St. Peter’s in Rome? Maybe? And ‘dusty’ didn’t do it. (Maybe not part of the Tuesday cleaning programme?) Statues to those considered at the time worthy of sainthood or public commendation adorn the alcoves, the domed ceilings intricately laid with coloured marble and actually, for a Catholic Church, plain ….. but it sits in the biggest of buildings.
It was originally designed in 1717 to house 13 monks; I am not sure why thirteen, but it was obviously not an unlucky number then. The extravagance, the exuberance and sheer folly ran away with the Italian architect Ludwig and his client the king, João V. Portugal’s coffers were overflowing with gold from one of their newest colonies Brazil and, after 52,000, yes fifty two thousand builders laboured away for 13 years the result was a monastery for 300 Franciscan monks. For 104 years it was their home and a place for the hunting/shooting/ fishing set to spend their weekends. Actually I think ‘Le weekend’ is a modern concept and those who went stayed for as long as they wanted! Wasn’t it Maggie Smith as Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawley who asked “What’s a weekend?”
Eventually like all good things it came to an end. The monks got their marching orders in 1834 when all religious orders were dissolved …… and the king took all the furniture to Brazil in 1807 when his court fled the advancing French. The palace lay empty; the monarchy ended in 1910 and the then king left for Twickenham ….. so now it’s empty and a hideous example of how to waste money. But I read the Portuguese have been wasting money for decades!
Sintra, which lies south of Mafra, is a little like Disneyland, although I have never been to either the original one or even the French one. A magnet for tourists all the year round, it’s the Portuguese equivalent of Petropolis in Brazil or Shimla in India, built by the monarch in the former case and the British Government in India in the latter case as somewhere to escape the summer heat. I should add that Sintra is normally surrounded by mist and low cloud; and so it was when we went! Lying north of the capital Lisbon it’s close enough for a trip for those taking a city-break weekend. Three palaces and their grounds cover some tens of square kilometres and we visited the Palácio National de Sintra, started in the C14th on the site of a Moorish palace. The best bit was the chimneys for the large palace kitchens and it’s these that give it, for me, a Disney feel; they are gorgeous!
There is also the Palácio da Pena and the Rococo Palacio de Queluz, a C18th development of a hunting lodge, to see but we left those for another time. I find after three hours of looking, peering, visualising and studying, my brain starts to fry and if anyone suggests a coffee, my hand is in the air quicker than you can say disconbobulation.
Richard August 2018
Note: “There is a colony of bats which live in the library and protect the ancient books from insect damage. These small bats are let out at night and can eat twice their weight in insects. This natural form of pest control has been in place for over 300 years.” Now that’s fascinating!!