In search of Moorish Lisbon

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Our getaway to Lisbon in early March 2006 was intended as a late winter escape from New York’s prolonged freezing temperatures. Lisbon’s temperatures were in the low 60s during the day and the flight from New York less than seven hours, making it ideal for my daughter Katie and me with only four days to spare.

Jet lagged and sleep deprived, on arrival in the early morning in Lisbon we decided on a couple of quick bicas at our hotel, the upscale Pestana Palace. Even with eyes half closed, we could tell we had lucked out in our hotel choice, but more on that later. Suffice it to say that our bicas were served in style even before we had time to toss cold water on our eyes.

“Bica” is Portuguese slang for really strong coffee that needs loads of sugar to cut its bitterness. But it does the trick in keeping you awake and keeping you moving. We needed to keep moving with only four days in Lisbon.

Katie and I decided to spend our first day searching for the city’s Moorish roots. Lisbon’s past goes back much farther than the Moors, who dominated Portugal from A.D. 711 to 1249 and Lisbon itself from A.D. 714 to 1147, when King Afonso Henriques, aided by Crusaders from other parts of Europe, ousted the Moors from their fortress castle atop one of Lisbon’s many hills. Before the Moors there were Phoenician traders, Roman warriors and Visigoth invaders, but it was the Moors from North Africa who most fascinated us.

A Moorish castle

São Jorge Castelo (St. George Castle) is difficult to miss. It sits high on a hill overlooking Lisbon, which is precisely why the Moors built here in the first place in the eighth century atop previous fifth-century Visigoth structures. For over 400 years, this castle served as the center of Moorish power in Portugal.

Visitors enter over a drawbridge spanning a now-dry moat into a maze of courtyards, ramparts, battlemented towers and arched gateways peppered with fountains and fragments of stone statues. There is a narrow parapet linking tower to tower and offering spectacular views of the city in all directions. Surrounding the castle are extensive gardens offering more killer views over Lisbon. One can easily imagine turbaned figures in flowing garments rushing about the stone courtyards tending to the caliph’s business.

Even after the defeat of the Moors in Lisbon in 1147, the castle continued to function as fortress and palace to Portuguese kings for another four centuries. Abandoned in the 16th century, it fell into ruin.

Winding streets

At the foot of the castle lies the Alfama, once the Moorish city that stretched downhill toward the Tejo River. Taking its name from the Arabic alhama, meaning “fountain,” it is a labyrinth of narrow streets, alleyways, steep staircases, and arches punctuated occasionally by squares called largos.

Ancient houses hover over the streets, excluding sunlight except for patches here and there. Wrought-iron balconies and elaborate tilework — some depicting scenes from Portugal’s past — decorate many of the buildings. In obscure corners there are fountains still flowing as well as tiny shops tucked out of the way. Overhead, drying laundry flaps in the breeze.

The Alfama is as alive today as it must have been a thousand years ago — a neighborhood more than a museum piece. The best way to experience it is to meander without a plan, down this staircase, through that alleyway, noting details and peeking into shops and open doorways.

Fortress-church

If you turn right when you finally reach the bottom of the hill, Lisbon’s Cathedral, the Sé, is only a 10-minute stroll away. Its heavy, fortress-like facade, in Romanesque style, says a lot about when it was built. The year it was started was 1150, just three years after the reconquest of Lisbon from the Moors. Supposedly built atop a mosque, the message is clear: we are the conquerors here to stay.

The Cathedral has survived rather well over the past 850 years, even after the devastating earthquake of 1755 that destroyed so much of Lisbon and took 60,000 lives. It’s interesting enough inside with medieval tombs scattered about, but what really is exciting are the archaeological excavations going on in the cloisters.

What has been unearthed is a compendium of the city’s history: remnants of a 2,600-year-old Iron Age settlement, the cobblestones of a Roman street, Visigoth walls, a Moorish courtyard with pink-and-white plaster walls still visible and medieval stonework. Compressed into this small area lies layer upon layer of Lisbon’s past. It’s an intriguing 15-minute history lesson. For us, this was the perfect place to end our first day in Lisbon. It was also time to seek out a café for another bica and, maybe, add a pastry.

Other sights

On our second day we visited three of Lisbon’s major attractions conveniently grouped together in the area called Belem (Bethlehem): the splendid monastery and church of San Jeronimos, built in Gothic and Renaissance styles in the 16th century and sheltering the tomb of Vasco da Gama, one of Portugal’s great explorers; the modern Monument to the Discoveries, honoring Portugal’s most prominent kings and explorers, including da Gama, Magellan and Cabral, and the exquisite 500-year-old Torre de Belem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We ended this day with a short stroll downtown from the Praça do Comercio, the grandiose square on the waterfront, to the Rossio, Lisbon’s main square lined with hotels, cafés and shops where we found plenty of places to have a bica.

Museums

Day three we spent in two great museums: the Gulbenkian, arguably Portugal’s best, one man’s private collection of Egyptian statues, Greek vases, Roman coins, Islamic carpets and European art masterpieces donated to the country, and the National Museum of Azulejos, full of lovely tiles including one 115-foot-long mural depicting Lisbon as it looked in 1738, 17 years before the great earthquake which destroyed much of the city.

Castles and palaces

We spent the final day of our much-too-short trip outside Lisbon exploring three special palaces: the 18th-century Queluz, set in lovely formal gardens; the 14th-century National Palace in Sintra with its two distinctive tall white chimneys, and the 19th-century Pena Palace, also in Sintra, with an incredible facade of gargoyles, Moorish arches and fantastical turrets and a stodgy Victorian interior.

The resort towns of Cascais and Estoril can be visited on the way back from the palaces if you hire a private car and driver for the day as we did.

A palace of our own

What made this trip extra special was our stay at the Pestana Palace Hotel, located near the Belem area of Lisbon, about a 10-minute cab ride from the Rossio.

Centered on the 19th-century Valle Flor Palace, the Pestana Palace Hotel consists of 190 rooms, including four Royal Suites located in the original palace. The other rooms are located in two long wings that enclose a lush subtropical garden, an outdoor swimming pool with grotto, and a spa offering a long menu of treatments, including a seaweed facial, hot-stone body massage and a body scrub with marine salts (Katie tried a hot chocolate facial that she labeled “heavenly”).

The Pestana Palace’s two elegant restaurants are located in the original palace. One serves dinner in gilded splendor and the other, equally plush, offers buffet breakfast.

Rooms are understatedly luxurious, many with balconies or terraces. But to live like a king — or, at least, a marquis — consider one of the Royal Suites with living rooms and separate bedrooms, opulent period furnishings and huge, old-fashioned bathrooms with claw-footed bathtubs and modern shower cubicles. Three of the four Royal Suites come with terraces overlooking the hotel gardens and/or the Tejo River and the 25 of April Bridge, Lisbon’s equivalent of the Golden Gate.

Rates begin at Ä430 (about $515), but Petrabax, the company we booked through, gave us a rate that was about half that.

The Pestana Palace is located in a lovely residential area of Lisbon at Rua Jau 54; visit www.pestana.com.

If you go. . .

Arrangements for our 4-day trip were made by Petrabax, based in New York. Airfare for two from New York, transfers, four nights with buffet breakfasts at the Pestana Palace and a day-long private tour to Queluz, Sintra, Cascais and Estoril cost $1,906.

Petrabax, in business for over 20 years, can arrange either escorted or independent tours to Portugal, Spain and Morocco, including stays at the wonderful paradores and pousadas, as well as to other European countries.

Petrabax can be reached at 97-45 Queens Blvd., Ste. 618, Rego Park, NY 11374; phone 800/634-1188 or 718/897-7272, fax 718/275-3943 or visit www.petrabax.com.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

Our getaway to Lisbon in early March 2006 was intended as a late winter escape from New York’s prolonged freezing temperatures. Lisbon’s temperatures were in the low 60s during the day and the flight from New York less than seven hours, making it ideal for my daughter Katie and me with only four days to spare.

Jet lagged and sleep deprived, on arrival in the early morning in Lisbon we decided on a couple of quick bicas at our hotel, the upscale Pestana Palace. Even with eyes half closed, we could tell we had lucked out in our hotel choice, but more on that later. Suffice it to say that our bicas were served in style even before we had time to toss cold water on our eyes.

“Bica” is Portuguese slang for really strong coffee that needs loads of sugar to cut its bitterness. But it does the trick in keeping you awake and keeping you moving. We needed to keep moving with only four days in Lisbon.

Katie and I decided to spend our first day searching for the city’s Moorish roots. Lisbon’s past goes back much farther than the Moors, who dominated Portugal from A.D. 711 to 1249 and Lisbon itself from A.D. 714 to 1147, when King Afonso Henriques, aided by Crusaders from other parts of Europe, ousted the Moors from their fortress castle atop one of Lisbon’s many hills. Before the Moors there were Phoenician traders, Roman warriors and Visigoth invaders, but it was the Moors from North Africa who most fascinated us.

A Moorish castle

São Jorge Castelo (St. George Castle) is difficult to miss. It sits high on a hill overlooking Lisbon, which is precisely why the Moors built here in the first place in the eighth century atop previous fifth-century Visigoth structures. For over 400 years, this castle served as the center of Moorish power in Portugal.

Visitors enter over a drawbridge spanning a now-dry moat into a maze of courtyards, ramparts, battlemented towers and arched gateways peppered with fountains and fragments of stone statues. There is a narrow parapet linking tower to tower and offering spectacular views of the city in all directions. Surrounding the castle are extensive gardens offering more killer views over Lisbon. One can easily imagine turbaned figures in flowing garments rushing about the stone courtyards tending to the caliph’s business.

Even after the defeat of the Moors in Lisbon in 1147, the castle continued to function as fortress and palace to Portuguese kings for another four centuries. Abandoned in the 16th century, it fell into ruin.

Winding streets

At the foot of the castle lies the Alfama, once the Moorish city that stretched downhill toward the Tejo River. Taking its name from the Arabic alhama, meaning “fountain,” it is a labyrinth of narrow streets, alleyways, steep staircases, and arches punctuated occasionally by squares called largos.

Ancient houses hover over the streets, excluding sunlight except for patches here and there. Wrought-iron balconies and elaborate tilework — some depicting scenes from Portugal’s past — decorate many of the buildings. In obscure corners there are fountains still flowing as well as tiny shops tucked out of the way. Overhead, drying laundry flaps in the breeze.

The Alfama is as alive today as it must have been a thousand years ago — a neighborhood more than a museum piece. The best way to experience it is to meander without a plan, down this staircase, through that alleyway, noting details and peeking into shops and open doorways.

Fortress-church

If you turn right when you finally reach the bottom of the hill, Lisbon’s Cathedral, the Sé, is only a 10-minute stroll away. Its heavy, fortress-like facade, in Romanesque style, says a lot about when it was built. The year it was started was 1150, just three years after the reconquest of Lisbon from the Moors. Supposedly built atop a mosque, the message is clear: we are the conquerors here to stay.

The Cathedral has survived rather well over the past 850 years, even after the devastating earthquake of 1755 that destroyed so much of Lisbon and took 60,000 lives. It’s interesting enough inside with medieval tombs scattered about, but what really is exciting are the archaeological excavations going on in the cloisters.

What has been unearthed is a compendium of the city’s history: remnants of a 2,600-year-old Iron Age settlement, the cobblestones of a Roman street, Visigoth walls, a Moorish courtyard with pink-and-white plaster walls still visible and medieval stonework. Compressed into this small area lies layer upon layer of Lisbon’s past. It’s an intriguing 15-minute history lesson. For us, this was the perfect place to end our first day in Lisbon. It was also time to seek out a café for another bica and, maybe, add a pastry.

Other sights

On our second day we visited three of Lisbon’s major attractions conveniently grouped together in the area called Belem (Bethlehem): the splendid monastery and church of San Jeronimos, built in Gothic and Renaissance styles in the 16th century and sheltering the tomb of Vasco da Gama, one of Portugal’s great explorers; the modern Monument to the Discoveries, honoring Portugal’s most prominent kings and explorers, including da Gama, Magellan and Cabral, and the exquisite 500-year-old Torre de Belem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We ended this day with a short stroll downtown from the Praça do Comercio, the grandiose square on the waterfront, to the Rossio, Lisbon’s main square lined with hotels, cafés and shops where we found plenty of places to have a bica.

Museums

Day three we spent in two great museums: the Gulbenkian, arguably Portugal’s best, one man’s private collection of Egyptian statues, Greek vases, Roman coins, Islamic carpets and European art masterpieces donated to the country, and the National Museum of Azulejos, full of lovely tiles including one 115-foot-long mural depicting Lisbon as it looked in 1738, 17 years before the great earthquake which destroyed much of the city.

Castles and palaces

We spent the final day of our much-too-short trip outside Lisbon exploring three special palaces: the 18th-century Queluz, set in lovely formal gardens; the 14th-century National Palace in Sintra with its two distinctive tall white chimneys, and the 19th-century Pena Palace, also in Sintra, with an incredible facade of gargoyles, Moorish arches and fantastical turrets and a stodgy Victorian interior.

The resort towns of Cascais and Estoril can be visited on the way back from the palaces if you hire a private car and driver for the day as we did.

A palace of our own

What made this trip extra special was our stay at the Pestana Palace Hotel, located near the Belem area of Lisbon, about a 10-minute cab ride from the Rossio.

Centered on the 19th-century Valle Flor Palace, the Pestana Palace Hotel consists of 190 rooms, including four Royal Suites located in the original palace. The other rooms are located in two long wings that enclose a lush subtropical garden, an outdoor swimming pool with grotto, and a spa offering a long menu of treatments, including a seaweed facial, hot-stone body massage and a body scrub with marine salts (Katie tried a hot chocolate facial that she labeled “heavenly”).

The Pestana Palace’s two elegant restaurants are located in the original palace. One serves dinner in gilded splendor and the other, equally plush, offers buffet breakfast.

Rooms are understatedly luxurious, many with balconies or terraces. But to live like a king — or, at least, a marquis — consider one of the Royal Suites with living rooms and separate bedrooms, opulent period furnishings and huge, old-fashioned bathrooms with claw-footed bathtubs and modern shower cubicles. Three of the four Royal Suites come with terraces overlooking the hotel gardens and/or the Tejo River and the 25 of April Bridge, Lisbon’s equivalent of the Golden Gate.

Rates begin at Ä430 (about $515), but Petrabax, the company we booked through, gave us a rate that was about half that.

The Pestana Palace is located in a lovely residential area of Lisbon at Rua Jau 54; visit www.pestana.com.

If you go. . .

Arrangements for our 4-day trip were made by Petrabax, based in New York. Airfare for two from New York, transfers, four nights with buffet breakfasts at the Pestana Palace and a day-long private tour to Queluz, Sintra, Cascais and Estoril cost $1,906.

Petrabax, in business for over 20 years, can arrange either escorted or independent tours to Portugal, Spain and Morocco, including stays at the wonderful paradores and pousadas, as well as to other European countries.

Petrabax can be reached at 97-45 Queens Blvd., Ste. 618, Rego Park, NY 11374; phone 800/634-1188 or 718/897-7272, fax 718/275-3943 or visit www.petrabax.com.