Anna Kuznetsova from St Petersburg was here for ten days. She had studied Portuguese at university in St Petersburg but had only seen Lisbon long ago and visited me in Porto, so she wanted to make a small tour of the most famous tourist sights. She chose a famous convent at Tomar, two palaces at Sintra, the Gulbenkian Museum and Coach Museum in Lisbon, and a monastery at Alcobaça. I found out about coach routes and times and booked rooms in pensiones, and we spent five days sightseeing.
Tomar was a charming small town with a medieval centre below the convent. Narrow streets criss-crossed each other, there were practically no cars, lots of empty apartments and houses that immediately made me wonder if I shouldn’t spend my nest egg on a second flat there for the summers and friends to stay. We drank fresh squeezed orange juice at different cafes, and had a delicious candle-lit, white-linen-tablecloth dinner at a restaurant that was really a house in a walled garden. Our rooms at the Residencial Luz were so small that when I sat on the toilet my legs banged against the wall. The bedside lamp didn’t work, but I expected that from other pensiones. Who cared? The rooms only cost 19 euros each.
Originally the Convent of the Order of Christ was a stronghold built in the 12th century for the Knights Templar. After the order was dissolved in the 14th century, the Portuguese branch became the Knights of the Order of Christ, which supported Portugals’ maritime discoveries until the 15th century. The Convent of Christ of Tomar is one of Portugal’s most important historical and artistic monuments and has been in the World Heritage list of UNESCO since 1983.
A rough path with the delicious smell of dry grass and wild flowers in the hot sun wound round the hill, leading to the convent at the top which overlooked the town. It was partly a defensive castle, mostly in ruins, with the later religious building superimposed on top, very extensive, all of granite.
Laundry courtyard where the lesser monks washed the robes. Courtyards for welcoming guests, for stabling horse. Cloisters for walking in. Long corridors with cells either side. Each cell had three doors: one from the corridor for entry, and two mysterious doors faced each other on the side walls of the cell. That was explained when we saw the [Latin name for heating room]. It had a big central hearth and wall vents led hot air from the fire from one cell to another through the doors on the side walls of the cells.
The toilet wing had its own cloister, and some kind of lavatories were built into it. On the opposite side of the convent was a medical and pharmacy cloister. Library. In the scriptorium we saw chests and shelves for scrolls instead of books.
An intriguing eight-sided chapel had been used by the knights templar who used to ride into it on their horse. Later one end of the chapel was extended to make a renaissance church. In the reign of King Manuel I, a new series of art inspired by the sea was created, and the Templars’ Church is decorated with paintings and sculptures of exceptional quality.
The west façade of the chapter house contains an amazing Manueline window, depicting waves, ropes, fantastic animals, angels, kings, armillary spheres and the Cross of the Order of Christ, all carved in stone.
Anna and I were almost the only people there and sat in one of the sunny cloisters drinking tea, briefly superimposing our own lives on the disappeared life of the convent.
In Lisbon we stayed in Pensione Prata where I lived when I first arrived in Portugal. I was glad to see Alda again and to have my old room back, unchanged – brown linoleum and faded green curtains, white walls, white painted iron bed, dim bedside lamp that did work, wash basin and bidet but no shower. Anna raised her eyebrows when she was told that the bathroom was down the passage from her room.
Sintra was half an hour’s train ride from Lisbon. You don’t need my description of the Moorish fortress where we gritted our teeth to climb the hilly path to reach it, or of the nineteenth century palace of Pena used by the last of the Portuguese kings, or the sumptuous National Palace of Sintra. Look them up on internet.
The Moorish castle was constructed during the 8th to 9th century, during the period of Arab occupation of the Iberian peninsula; it was the central place in an territory that was primarily agricultural, and necessary to protect its population.
The palace of Pena was built on the remains of a medieval monastery overlooking the town of Sintra. For many decades the ruins remained untouched, but Ferdinand II decided to transform it into a summer residence for the Portuguese royal family. The commission for the Romantic style rebuilding was given to Lieutenant-General and mining engineer, Baron Eschwege, an amateur German architect. The private sitting room of the last king was adorned with his bourgeois taste – his very own but rather smudged and amateur paintings of country scenes.
The Palace of Sintra is the best preserved medieval Royal Palace in Portugal, having been inhabited more or less continuously at least from the early 15th up to the late 19th century. The shuttered windows were mostly closed against the hot sun, because this was a summer palace near the sea, away from the sweltering heat of Lisbon.
In Lisbon itself we went to the Gulbenkian museum, built to house the art collection of Calouste Gulbenkian, a great benefactor to Portugal. What I really loved there were some Assyrian granite bas reliefs, more than life-sized. They were so delicately carved that the contrast between inert granite and their flowing lines was superb. Our combined four legs soon got museum tiredness. We fell asleep for half an hour in the comfortable leather armchairs at the entrance and didn’t even have the energy to go into the lovely enclosed garden.
The coach museum was a surprising choice for Anna’s other Lisbon sight, but we both enjoyed it. I had seen it before and was glad to go back. It has regal, noble and ecclesiastical coaches from the time they were first invented until the nineteenth century; even one that Queen Elizabeth travelled in when she paid a visit to Lisbon.
An unplanned visit in Lisbon was to the Palace of Ajuda where an exhibition by Joana Vasconcelas was scattered among regal furnishings. Scattered is not the right word as some of her weird sculptures dwarfed the original furniture.
A helicopter was fitted out in pink plush and pink leather and feathers.
A monumental pair of shoes in the throne room was made of stainless steel saucepans and lids.
A blue crocheted wasp hovered in the queen’s bedroom, as an ironic comment on the wilful queen.
The ‘glass lustres’ of an enormous chandelier reaching from the ceiling to the floor were actually sanitary tampons.
The final stop was at Alcobaça, solely to see the monastery and church where King Pedro I was buried, his feet facing the feet of his beloved Queen Inez.
He had secretly married her, and she was murdered on the order of his father. After he became king, Pedro had her posthumously crowned queen. The people responsible for her murder were made to kiss her decayed hand before they were executed.
In the monastery attached to the church there was a huge – I mean really huge – kitchen. Two stories high, with enormous tiled chimneys, and a system of water supply where the stream outside had been diverted to run through the kitchen, filling floor tanks on the way. The water also ran behind a wall to supply sinks.
We spent the night at Alcobaça in a real hotel with a proper bathroom. At the moment Anna saw the room she felt free to say, ‘You don’t usually believe in spending much on hotels do you!’