If there’s one adjective I would use to sum up Lisbon, it would be ‘colourful’. Houses and apartment blocks are either painted in bright pastel hues, giving the illusion that streets are rainbows with a special pastel filter, or decorated with tiles of intricate multi-coloured designs. It’s even more delightful to witness if you are meandering up and down the narrow, cobbled alleyways, getting occasional glimpses of the glorious buildings atop Lisbon’s many hills (although it has to be said the steepness of said hills, is a mild dampener on that delight if you are as unfit as me).
Given the local aesthetic it is perhaps unsurprising that there are some fantastic must-see sites for lovers of art or architecture of history. Here are three of my favourite:
Igreja de Sao Roque
This church, built in the late sixteenth century, doesn’t have the most promising looking of facades, given that I have been talking about how colourful Lisbon is. But as the old saying goes, you should never judge a book by its cover, so go on in and prepare to be blown away with frankly one of the blingiest churches in Europe (it’s also one of the earliest Jesuit churches in the world). The ceiling has a giant painting of angels in heaven in the trompe-l’oeil style spanning across it. Large oil paintings sit in the gaps between the windows running along the top, like a film reel with added culture, and each chapel running along the side of the church has its own ostentatious décor, like they are family members in competition with each other. My favourite has to be the one pictured below for St John the Baptist – which just gleams like it is a giant, multi-coloured jewel.
Must be said though the multitude of creepy, not quite realistic cherubs and cherub heads used to decorate various columns is a tad disturbing.
Just a short, downhill (phew) walk from the Igreja de Sao Roque and next to a little plaza overlooked by tall, colourful apartment blocks is something worth seeing that is on the completely opposite end to the above, in terms of ostentation. You see Carmo Convent (or the Convent of our Lady of Mount Carmel, is in fact lying in ruins; no roof to speak of, just dramatic gothic arches and scattered archaeological artefacts such as tombs and bits of masonry neatly lined up along both long sides. The Roman Catholic convent and accompanying church was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755.
However, there’s something reverent and peaceful about the way the pale stone arches reach up towards the sky and a group of tourists can normally always be found sitting near the entrance just soaking in that view. (And trying to coax the resident cat into cuddles – it’s a lost cause though, it only has eyes for the cleaner.)
And in case you still need some mental stimulation rather than zen restfulness – there is a little museum. It contains various artefacts from Portuguese history ranging from crudely cut tools from early settlers in the area to ornate stone sarcophagi with crests and the life of St Francis carved on them. There are also some non-Portuguese items such as a pair of creepy South American mummies. Small but – well not sweet, the mummies are gross – scintillating is how I’d describe the museum.
Calouste de Museau Gulbenkian
This recommendation comes with the caveat that I did not bother to visit the modern collection housed in a different building on the site. I dislike modern art and I didn’t have too much time, so I stuck with browsing the Founders’ Collection – aka the old artefacts.
And after an unpromising start with sparse rooms where a few small Egyptian statues and Roman coins barely stood out against the cool marble walls, bam, the museum then hit you with a plethora of colour and textiles. Persian carpets, oriental vases, (my favourite item was a giant oriental screen, where each panel pretty much had horses on pulling expressions that can only lead me to assume the artist should have had the same fame as Thelwell), tapestries, oil paintings and ornate, fussy, 18th century European furniture.
I wish I could go back to soak it up further, and there’s no greater compliment for a collection than that.