THE BEST OF “NEW” LISBON
We spent yesterday exploring the Alfama, the oldest part of Lisbon; today was all about the “new” parts of town (i.e. the parts built during the 18th and 19th centuries). We walked through the Baixa, Bairro Alto and Chiado, stopping to admire the views at the top of every hill and soaking up the atmosphere along the way. For the afternoon we went a little further afield and went to see Queluz National Palace, the mini-Versailles of Portugal built in the late 1700’s. It was a day filled with grand monuments and made us realise how much there is to see and and do in this town!
Most of what we saw today was rebuilt after the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which is estimated to have had a magnitude of around 8.7. Around 100,000 people perished, making it one of the deadliest earthquakes in history, and 85% of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed. In rebuilding the city the Portuguese Prime Minister chose to raze the damaged buildings and lay out a completely new street plan. In less than a year, the city was cleared of debris and construction began on a new city made up of big squares, large avenues, and widened streets. The resultant “new” areas of Baixa, Bairro Alto, and Chiado have an almost Parisian feel to them – a marked difference to the chaotic, maze-like layout of the Alfama.
We started our morning stroll through “new” Lisbon in the Bairro Alto and Chiado. Perched on the hills opposite the Alfama, these are Bohemian, artsy neighbourhoods where we saw lots of boutique shops selling bespoke goods and fashionable young hipsters sipping lattes at trendy cafés.
Down the hill is the Baixa, or “Lower Town”. This is one of the main shopping, dining, and entertainment districts in Lisbon and stretches from the riverfront back to the main train station (Rossio Station). With its leafy boulevards, elegant squares, pedestrianised streets, cafes, and pastry shops, there’s an easy charm to the Baixa that we really like.
Our stroll through the Baixa started right down on the riverfront, at Praça do Comércio (i.e. Commercial Square). This is one of the most majestic squares in Lisbon and was once the known as Palace Square as the royal palace was located here for 400 years, until the 1755 earthquake that completely destroyed it. At the centre of the square stands the equestrian statue of King José I, the ruler in power at the time of the earthquake (who, incidentally, didn’t hang around to help rebuild Lisbon – he took himself and his court off to Brazil, still a Portuguese colony at the time, and left the mess to his Prime Minister to sort out!).
From Praça do Comércio we walked under the impressive triumphal arch and down Rua Augusta, one of Lisbon’s main pedestrianised shopping streets, all the way to Rossio Square.
Rossio Square is often described as the heart of the city and is lined with cafés and shops. With its ornate fountains and grand central monument, it’s a pretty square and made a great place to stop for lunch.
After lunch we headed up to Rossio Station, itself a pretty spectacular building, and caught the train out to see Quelez Palace.
Queluz Palace was built in the 18th century and became the official royal residence after the 1755 earthquake. Modelled after the French palace of Versailles, it’s a sprawling Rococo affair located in what is now an outer suburb of Lisbon.
The palace has belonged to the Portuguese state since 1908 and most of it is open to the public for visits (some parts are closed off and used to host foreign heads of state visiting Portugal). Touring through the various rooms of the palace we could see that this must once have been quite a grand estate, though it’s a little shabby around the edges today.
One of the highlights for us was the ballroom, lined with mirrors and adorned with crystal chandeliers and gilded statues. Apparently this is where formal dinners are held when foreign dignitaries visit Portugal.
Also interesting was the royal bedroom, a square room with a domed ceiling and a circular floor decorations designed to give it a circular appearance.
there were a dozen or so other rooms open for viewing, all demonstrating the lavish style in which the Portuguese royals lived thanks to the wealth garnered from Portugal’s colonies in Africa and South America, as well as their world-wide maritime shipping and trade network.
The beautiful formal gardens were lovely too, with hedges, fountains, and flowers laid out in the French style.
Certainly compared to some of the stately homes we saw in the UK, or the grand chateaux we saw in France, Queluz Palace is quite a small, simple palace (if there is such a thing), but it was still interesting to learn a bit more about Portuguese history and their royal family (not that Portugal has a royal family any more – their last king was assassinated in 1908 and a republic declared not long after). Exploring the “new” parts of Lisbon and Queluz Palace has whet our appetite for more grand architecture however so we’ve decided to take our selves to Sintra tomorrow to see more epic castles and beautiful palaces!