Castle and Alfama

Castle and Alfama

Lisbon, Portugal – February 19, 2012

As I prepared for the day’s activities, I thought about my perceptions of Lisbon so far.

Two things strike me about Lisbon, Portugal, the colors and the abandoned buildings. The predominant colors are white buildings with red tile roofs, a real clean simplicity to that palette. Interspersed among the white buildings are buildings with amazingly beautiful ceramic tile façades. The second thing that struck me is the number of neglected and abandoned buildings. One can only wonder if this is a result of the current economic situation in Portugal. On second thought, I don’t think so. Many of the abandoned buildings are very, very dilapidated. For example, a roof may be caving in; an exterior stairway may be falling off; etc. That indicates the buildings were unoccupied much longer than just during the economic situation. It is too bad. If more of them were kept up, this would be a fantastic city.

Since Tyler was still feeling under the weather, Leslie and I went out by ourselves today.

After breakfast, we headed to the Martim Moniz Metro stop. When we came back above ground, we found ourselves in a charming plaza. Near a water fountain in the square flew three flags; the Lisbon city flag, the European Union flag, and the Portugal flag.

The plaza at Martim Moniz.We planned to take Tram 28 up the hill to a point near the Castelo de São Jorge (Castle of St. George) and then stroll through the Alfama neighborhood to the castle. It took a while, but we finally found the correct stop to catch Tram 28. The single tram car dates from about the 1920s, made mostly of wood. I believe the capacity of the tram was only 20 people. It very much reminded us of the small tram we rode in Port de Sóller. I found it interesting that inside the car was a reasonably large sign warning one to be on the lookout for pickpockets.

Tram 28 approaching a hill.
Some fellow passengers and the pickpocket sign toward the front of Tram 28.

The tram wound its way through some incredibly narrow, steep, cobble-stoned streets. We were both delighted to have taken the tram because of the inclines. Walking that route would have been a real challenge. We got off of the tram at the Graca stop. From there we could begin to see the fantastic views of Lisbon.

Another tram car near the Graca Stop.
The twin bell towers of the Church of São Vicente of Fora which dates from 1147. Like many buildings in the area, the 1755 earthquake devastated the church.  The dome on the right is the National Pantheon.
A typical building in the Alfama District.
A building in the Alfama District covered in decorative ceramic tiles.  Since the street here is so narrow, the small red light near the lower left is a signal for uphill traffic to stop.  A vehicle is on the way down.
Detail of the ceramic tiles.

We were not quite sure which way to go to get to the castle, but we finally stumbled across a directional sign. Of course, since the castle sits atop a hill, the direction we had to take was straight up! We finally approached one of the castle walls. It was there that I saw by far the most unusual sign I have ever seen. The sign was metal, flat, and attached perpendicular to the wall. The figure was of a little boy peeing! Below that was the word urinal. Sure enough, below the sign and behind two minimal panels, there was a urinal! In my mind, one must really need to go to stand there in public. Luckily, I had no need!

Peeing? Here? Really??
The urinal, complete with a privacy shield…
Another couple walking toward the castle.
Another beautifully tiled building as we neared the castle.
A huge beer bottle in front of a tourist shop.


Nearing the Castelo de São Jorge (Castle of St. George), we found the Arco do Castelo. This particular gate is at the southern end of the castle grounds. The date above the arch reads 1846, so, by European standards, the entrance is a mere architectural babe.

We continued around the corner and bought our tickets to enter the castle. They were discounted by 25% because of the LisboaCards we purchased when we arrived in town. We entered the castle grounds and immediately fell in love with the panoramic views. One could see the 28-meter-tall statue of Christ the King, the April 25th Bridge, the Praca do Comercio, and the Baixa District.

The Ponte 25 de Abril or April 25th Bridge looks very similar to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. No doubt that is because the same company constructed the April 25th Bridge, completing it in 1966.

Many of the views from the castle vantage points include the Tagus River, with headwaters in the northeastern mountains of Sierra de Albarracín in Spain. Some 1,007 kilometers (626 miles) later, it empties into the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon.

The Baixa District is a beautiful section of the city, laid out in a grid. That is new because of the extensive damage of the 1755 earthquake virtually leveling the town. Today’s estimates rate the quake between 8.5 and 9.0, very massive. The shake, accompanied by a devastating tsunami decimated Lisbon. The rebuilding effort settled on a grid system. Today, it is effortless to walk through the district on wide, boulevards; many of them pedestrian-friendly.

Approaching the Arco do Castelo, the arched gate to the castle grounds.
Detail of the Arco do Castelo.
The Tagus River is below the walls of the castle.
Some buildings near the entrance to the castle grounds.
View of the 2.27 kilometer (1.4 miles) April 25 Bridge from the castle.
A canon pointing out toward the Tagus River.
A ceramic tile mural detailing several of the sights visible from the castle.
One can easily see the Praça do Comércio (Commercial Plaza) from the castle.
This canon is guarding the Baixa District of the city…
The red-tile roofs of the Baixa District below the rampart.
Looking toward the Convento do Carmo (Carmo Convent) in the center-left of the frame. It is a ruin of a medieval convent, founded in 1389, in the Baixa District.  It remains in ruin as part of the 1755 earthquake.
A canon with the bridge in the distance.
Looking from the rampart toward the castle.
Our hotel is somewhere out there…


The castle itself is a ruin; however, there is a restaurant and a couple of museums. The overall castle site is quite large. Inside the castle, one can go up into and on top of the towers. As well, one can walk along the castle walls. From those heights, one can see virtually the entire city.

The Romans fortified the hilltop on which sits the Castelo de São Jorge as early as 48 BC. That was the point at which the Romans referred to Lisbon as a municipality. Some of the current fortifications date from the 10th Century. The castle may very well qualify as the oldest site we have ever visited.

Walking through the grounds, I went through an archway and saw the flag of Portugal flying on the wall. I stopped for a photo. Then I saw the flag of the City of Lisbon. I decided to take the stairs to the top of the wall to take some pictures. Once on top of the wall, I decided I would go to the top of the tower flying the Lisbon flag. As I looked up those stairs, I was surprised to see several people with what looked like some climbing gear. It looked like several ropes went over the side. I thought they must be repelling from the tower. I walked to the other side of the tower and discovered a tightrope stretched between two towers. Shortly after that discovery, a woman in her early 20’s clipped a safety line on the tightrope and walked across. I thought it was stunning. I went to a different vantage point and watched a man walk back in the other direction. As soon as he finished, they quickly dismantled everything and ran away. From that, I surmised their “show” was not legal.

A couple admiring a sculpture in the castle gardens.
Detail of the sculpture.
The bridge leads to the entry to the Castelo de S. Jorge (St. George Castle).
Part of the south wall of the castle.
The Portuguese flag flying from one of the towers.
Detail of the flag.
The flag of Lisbon flying above one of the towers.
Looking at Lisbon through the castle wall.
Beginning her tightrope walk from one tower to another.
A little more than halfway across the space.
One of the guys walking in the opposite direction.
The walkway at the base of the towers.
The twin bell towers of the Church of São Vicente of Fora with the Tagus River in the background.

We left the castle, but we were still within the compound walls. We were surprised by the number of feral cats that were there. We also saw a peacock and a couple of peahens. As we continued along, we came across a group of about 15 men and women dressed in medieval garb. They were waiting to enter a museum as part of a presentation. We would have gone into the museum and witnessed the show/performance; however, since it was undoubtedly going to be in Portuguese, we decided we would understand very little. For that reason, we opted out.

A feral cat on the castle grounds.
A peacock and peahen.
We may have stumbled upon the royal court?
A maiden helping to straighten part of the woman’s headdress.
Trying to get the maiden’s attention.
The maiden joins the procession.
More couples walking by our position.
The last of the group.
A sculpture in the gardens.

We then began to make our way to the exit from the castle grounds. Near the exit, we came across el Magnífico. The sign near him read “el Magnífico, Moedas do Mundo, Coins of the World.” His name was Flurin. He was about 30 years old. Beside him on a display board were numerous coins from which he had sawed out part of the design. For example, in a U.S. quarter, he would saw around the eagle, removing everything else. That would leave the eagle and the circular edge. We bought one for Tyler that Flurin made into a key chain.

El Magnífico and his coins for sale.
El Magnífico (Flurin) cutting his next coin.


When we left the castle grounds, Leslie and I began to wind our way through the narrow streets of the Alfama District. We have been to many places in Europe with narrow streets. However, I have to say these were the most cramped and most maze-like streets we have yet encountered.

On our walk, we found a store, Erva Loira. The name of this store translates to Blonde Herb. I don’t understand that since the vast majority of the store dealt in handmade jewelry. What was not jewelry was handmade clothing and belts. We went into the store. I believe Leslie looked at every single piece of jewelry in that store and she tried on most of them! The store was owned by and the jewelry designed by the young lady that helped us, Marta. She was a slender lady in her mid to late ’20s. She spoke excellent English. She said she had lived in Barcelona for several years before coming to Lisbon.

Her jewelry creations were unique and colorful. Leslie ended up with a necklace made with a thin silver wire. At either end is a long silver bead capped off with a red bead.

A gate at the exit from the castle grounds.
A wall and flags near the east entrance to the castle.
A typical street near the castle.
A photographer and tourists in the area near the castle.
The entry to a shop near the castle.
A narrow, four-story home near the castle.  Note the two red doors have different addresses.  I am not certain how that works out for the residents…
Marta working on jewelry in Erva Loira.
Carnival leftovers in between the cobblestones.
A larger tiled building.

A block or two past the jewelry store we found a restaurant, Bellissimo Cafe. We decided to sit there in the sun and have lunch. It was one of the best lunches we have ever had. We started with a plate of fried “stuff.” On the plate was some sort of fried pork in the shape of link sausage. Also, there was fried shrimp and fried cod, both of which had been finely minced, battered, and then fried. I liked all of them. Leslie only enjoyed the shrimp.

Following the “stuff,” we had a bowl of Portuguese soup. The soup had a light-colored broth and contained navy beans, two types of sausage, and some pork fat. It was delicious. For the main course, I had a sanwich mixto (ham and cheese sandwich), and Leslie had a BLT. Both of them came on giant slices of bread. They were both toasted much like a panini.

While we were at the restaurant, people of several nationalities stopped to eat; Great Britain, Finland, France, and Poland. The main waiter was able to speak to everyone in their native language. He was quite a character.

Enjoying lunch at the Bellisimo Café.

More people heading toward the castle.


When we finished lunch, we hailed a taxi very near where we had entered the castle. We went to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum). The museum is in a convent dating from 1509, the Convent of Madre de Deus (Mother of God). The museum first opened in 1965. Our Lonely Planet guidebook lists the museum as a “Don’t Miss” site. WOW, is that ever an understatement! The vestry, upper choir, and St. Anthony’s Chapel are still intact and amazing to see.

We are fortunate to have seen many churches in our travels. St. Anthony’s Chapel ranks as the most ornate. The gold-gilded altar, the scale of the construction, the ceramic tile murals, and the numerous paintings mean there is hardly a piece of the plain wall visible.

Ceramic tiles on display at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum).
Dating from 1560, this depiction of St. Anthony is the oldest we saw in the museum.
A coat of arms.
This scene is called Our Lady of Life.
Detail of a field of tiles.
Detail of a field of tiles.
One of the hallways is currently a work area.
A depiction of St. Mark.
A depiction of St. Luke.
The stairs to enter St. Anthony’s Chapel.
View from the pews toward the altar. The altar space is visible through the large arched opening.
The barrel and coffer ceiling of the chapel.
A tile mural in St. Anthony’s Chapel.
The raised ambo in the chapel.
The very ornate altar.
Looking up at the cupola in the chapel. This is above the altar area.
A statue of Mary and Jesus on the altar.
A different view of the statue.
Detail of one of the murals.
The vestry of the chapel.
Some of the tiles in the vestry and an inscription. I believe the inscription may refer to two kings being buried here in 1627 and 1628.
Detail of some of the tiles in the vestry.
Individual motifs from the late 1700s.
A depiction of Alexander fighting the Persians (1745).
Paintings in the upper choir of the chapel.
A large painting of Mary and Jesus in the upper choir. Yes, that is a skull and bones at the lower left.
Detail of the skull and bones in the upper choir.
A painting in the upper choir.
A beautiful mosaic.
Columns in the courtyard of the museum.
The upper choir. The opening at the far end of the room is toward the chapel and altar.
Closer detail of the set of bones.
The chapel as seen from the upper choir.
A painting of the Last Supper in the upper choir.
A display area in a room off of the upper choir.
An ornate Nativity scene.
The wood inlaid floor.
Tiles from Oceanario de Lisboa (1998).
Section from Avenida de Cueta (1970-72).
Butterfly and Ears of Corn (1905).
Detail from Butterfly and Ears of Corn (1905).
Our Lady of Life as seen from an upper viewing area.
A wood and gold fountain dating from the second half of the 18th Century.
Jesus in the Midst of the Church Doctors (1760).
A ceramic tile map of the Commercial Plaza in Lisbon.  Because of the grid pattern, one knows the tiles date from after the 1755 earthquake.
Repetitive Pattern Relief (2006).
Detail of Repetitive Pattern Relief (2006).

Since the museum is noted as a “Don’t Miss” site in the Lonely Planet guide, my advice to visitors is not to try to cram it into a day with other sightseeing. To truly explore all the museum has to offer, one should plan to spend most of the day.

When we left the museum, we headed back to the hotel for a siesta.

For dinner, the three of us went to Pizza Hut of all places! Leslie and I enjoyed the wine we had, Vinha das Garcas, Vinho Tinto 2008. After dinner, it was back to the hotel for our last night in Lisbon.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.