Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Bridges and Tunas

I didn't get to do my beach walk after all. The weather during the week wasn't suitable for it. I got soaked! However the sun came out on the weekend. I stayed in Lisbon and did lots of things I failed to do on my previous two visits to that city!

First I caught a tram to Belém, just west of the city, and went inside the Torre de Belém, perhaps the most characteristically 'Portuguese' building in the whole of Portugal. Apparently it is the only surviving example of 'pure' Manueline architecture. Not entirely sure what that means! It's an impressive structure, though. It seems that most Manueline buildings were completely destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755. The few that remain were patched up in other styles. But the Torre de Belém survived intact. It stands on the shore of the Tejo river, lapped by the waves, and is rather sweet in a stony sort of way!

Then I took a little orange ferry across the broad Tejo to the south side of the river. I walked to the Cristo Rei, the enormous statue of Jesus that looms over the vast Ponte 25 de Abril bridge. Taking the lift to the viewing platform, I had a fantastic view of Lisbon across the river. Lisbon's Cristo Rei was modelled on the famous statue in Rio de Janeiro but on a more modest scale. Still impressive, despite that!

The following day I visited the famous Gulbenkian museum, a delightful collection of artworks from various periods of history around the world. The collection is small but the individual items are extremely interesting. The Greek and Roman jewellery and glass is especially attractive. But my favourite items were the examples of Persian art, although they made me feel nostalgic for my Iranian girlfriend. I was also impressed (and slightly disturbed) by the art nouveau jewellery of René Lalique. His bizarre designs, including a gorgon's head paperweight and a brooch that is a hybrid of dragonfly and woman, are intricate and beautiful but somehow unhealthy. The very essence of decadence!

On the last day of my stay I visited the Parque das Nações, site of the EXPO'98, before catching the bus back to Porto. Suddenly I thought I was in Brasilia, surrounded as I was by futuristic pavilions, domes, cable cars and pylons, with another immense Lisbon bridge, the Ponte Vasco da Gama, surely one of the longest bridges in the world on the horizon. It's astounding! Not that I'm obsessed with bridges or anything like that!

And yet my most abiding memory of Portugal this time wasn't a structure of any kind. It was a group of university girls in Porto, dressed in black capes, standing under the balcony of my hotel room at midnight singing songs to each other (and accidentally serenading me in the process!). These groups are called tunas and apparently stroll the city near the end of the academic year playing musical instruments and singing. It is all very old fashioned and romantic and precisely the sort of thing I love!

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