Any world weary traveller in southern Europe will, at some point, have had their fill of churches. After a while, you’ll think, “if I’ve seen one, I’ve seen them all”. Having visited Rome, churches are a hard sell for me. However, a few of the churches in Lisbon have something truly special to offer.
Convento da Orden do Carmo
My personal favourite is the Carmo Convent, in the centre of Lisbon. It’s better known as the roofless church, having been destroyed in the 1755 earthquake. Since, it has had parts restored, but its nave remains exposed to this day. The Carmo Convent’s entrance opens up to a marble square in the Chiado neighbourhood. The entrance is decorated by an impressive archivolt, whose stature contrasts with the simplicity of its surroundings. From the outside, it doesn’t look like anything particularly special, but once you’ve stepped inside, it is breath-taking.
We visited on a clear sunny day, and it was beautiful. But, I could also imagine it being mysterious and alluring under foggier conditions. The walls of the interior of the church, having been exposed to the elements for so long, had been stripped of all finishing and were rough and weather-worn. The arches that line the aisle stand without purpose, supporting only the sky above. It was odd, looking at this building which was destroyed, only to be partially rebuilt. A memory of one of the greatest natural disasters to have fallen upon Europe.
Mostly, it reminded me of the hall of images, a room in the ruins of a palace in C.S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Boy”. In the story, an English schoolboy accidentally finds himself in a palace of powerful magic on a dead world with a dying sun. I supposed the odd lighting – harsh sunlight on what was designed to be an interior – added greatly to the convent’s enigma.
Carmo Archaeological Museum
The Museu Arqueológico is located inside the Carmo Convent, within its nave and apse. Today, this area is covered, but I could tell from the wear and tear of its walls and floors that the roof was a recent addition. Personally, I think it has a beautiful interior – I liked the contrast between the rich wooded casings that housed the museum’s exhibits and the weather beaten stone work.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there are a few really ancient finds in this small museum, including artefacts that date back 3,500 years and – their show stopper – two 16th century Peruvian mummies.
Igreja de São Domingos
The Igreja de São Domingos is colloquially known as the ‘burnt church’. It is one of Lisbon’s largest churches, and it stands at the bottom of where several hills meet, in the bustling heart of the city. Quite conveniently, it is located beside “A Ginginha”, the famous hole in the wall bar where Portugal’s signature booze is sold for around a euro a shot.
The Igreja de São Domingos has been destroyed three times, in 1531 and 1755 by earthquakes, and in 1959, when a fire blazed through the church, gutting it completely. Although it has since been refurbished, its walls, columns and floors still bear the mark of its devastation. The marble columns are left unadorned, and blisters and cracks from the fire still scar the architecture in the central nave. The simple orange pink plaster covering its ceiling impart a sense that the roof is ablaze, while the gray walls and tiles remind one of ashes. The interior of this church is definitely unsettling.
To add to the general sense of tragedy, right outside the church (and beside the ginginha bar) is a monument in memory to the thousands of Jews who were killed in the Lisbon massacre in 1506, with the first murder happening just outside the church.
Basilica da Estrela
The Basilica da Estrela was the first attraction on our Tram 28 tour.
The church is built in the simple Neoclassical style with some Baroque elements and its facade, although impressive, is fairly simple, with only a few ornamentations. If you look down at the steps leading up to its entrance, you’ll notice they are made of marble, with little bits of fossils trapped in the polished stone.
The interior of this church is truly beautiful. Unlike many other churches, whose now white interior is simply the result of having the original gaudy paint faded and stripped off, the Basilica da Estrela is coloured with the use of coloured marble. This limits its palette to a very tasteful pink, blue-grey and yellow ochre. Instead of flamboyant ornamentation, its architects have favoured simple, geometric panels using different coloured marble at intervals. Inside, you feel that Da Vinci’s principle of the golden ratio has been applied.
Jardim da Estrela
Across the street from the Basilica da Estrela is the Jardim da Estrela. I suppose this park is a sort of botanical garden, featuring exotic plants from all over the world. Many of the trees and plants were reminiscent of those we’d seen in the gardens of the Pena Palace in Sintra. Among the many strange and exotic plants we saw was the dragon blood tree from Yemen, which has a vivid red sap. There were also baobab trees from Madagascar, a huge banyan tree from the East-Indies and of course, many exotic species from Brazil.
Igreja de São Roque
Located in the central district of Bairro Alto, the Igreja de São Roque’s plain neo-renaissance facade belies its opulent interior. It is the richest cathedral in all of Lisbon, this much is obvious the moment you step into its glided interior. Its eight chapels on either side of the nave are all lavishly decorated with gold leaf and heavily ornamented with carvings and statues of saints.
The chancel, the cathedral’s primary alter, is almost entirely covered in gold as well. On the upper level is a tempera painting representing Christ as the saviour of the world. Below is an alter piece which houses a 17th Century statue of Madonna and Child. The Igreja de São Roque is a very important Jesuit church, being the first one in Portugal and one of the earliest churches of the order in all of Europe. Personally the interior is a little too overdecorated for my taste, but because there’s so much of everything, this cathedral will certainly have something for every one to appreciate.
In the parish of Belém, a few minutes’ drive from downtown Lisbon, is the Jerónimos Monastery. It’s right across the Belém Tower, and it’s definitely one of the main attractions in the area. The most noteworthy thing about this monastery is its beautiful architecture, designed and built in the late Gothic Manueline style.
Its design reminded me strongly of what I had seen in the Quinta de Regaleira, in Sintra. My favourite example of this were the columns in the Church of Santa Maria, which were designed to look like the stems of plants reaching out from the ground to hold the roof above.
The other noteworthy artefact in this place is the tomb of Vasco da Gama, one of the most celebrated European explorers who was the first to link the continent to Asia via ocean routes. His tomb is engraved with beautiful vines that at times look like ship ropes – a subtle and clever nod to his achievements. The tomb is supported by six lions, an exotic motif, and one perfectly suited for a man who gave his life to exploring the unknown.
Pastéis de Belém
This is clearly not a church, but I thought it would be worth mentioning here since we’re talking about Belém and this pastelleria is only a few minutes’ walk from the Jerónimos Monastery. This not so little pastry shop serves, according to our tour guide, the best Pastel de Nata in all of Lisbon – and therefore, in all of Portugal. I couldn’t agree more.
These Portuguese custard tarts were certainly a league above the others I’ve tried – I’m not sure what it is – I think the filling is eggier and fluffier and the crust flakier and more crispy. There was a large queue for takeaway tarts when we entered, but our guide suggested going all the way in. If you walk past the first dining room into the second, you’ll find space there and will be served quickly.
The Se de Lisboa, or Lisbon Cathedral, is located at the beginning of the Moorish wall, overlooking the Alfama district. It is built where the main mosque in Lisbon once stood when the city was under the Moorish rule. It is a mixture of styles, with its facade a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic influences. I especially love the circular rose window above its entrance, framed by two massive towers – the arrangement reminds me of the Notre Dame, which also has similar features and proportions.
The interior of this church is beautiful in its mix of styles. The Gothic vaults in the ambulatory are particularly beautiful when lit by the light coming in from the glass windows high above. The main chapel and the tombs of King Afonso IV and this family are in the Neoclassical and Renaissance style.
The highlight of this cathedral however is the archaeological dig in the cloisters. Here, the ground has been excavated to reveal centuries of history, hidden beneath the ground under the Se de Lisboa. Archeologists have found not only the foundations of the mosque which the cathedral was built upon and other buildings from the Moorish times, but also remnants of Roman architecture buried deep underneath.