By our standards, Thursday was absolutely frenetic–we actually accomplished four things. The Castle of St. George, a ferry ride across the Tagus River, the House of Spikes and the Cathedral of Lisbon are not too much for this intrepid couple. Of course, there were a few stops along the way for refreshments and a pretty good cheeseburger.
We walked up to the fort, which is just 10 minutes from our apartment. St. George’s Castle is imposing, dating all the way back to pre-Roman times. The museum inside the castle displays artifacts tracing the history of the location and its fortifications from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Moors and the Christians. Pottery shards and bits of coins (there’s a term for you) give an idea of daily life during each major period of occupation.
Most of the castle is open space on the ground and lots and lots of steep, narrow steps up to the towers that offer expansive views of Lisbon and its surroundings. You can figure out why the Romans, Moors and Christians all wanted to use this location for defense. But mostly the fort is static, with areas that would benefit from some explanatory narrative.
An hour in the fort was plenty, so we walked all the way back past our apartment to the expansive Commercial Plaza for a bit of lunch and exploration. Our cheeseburger in a restaurant behind the plaza was just fine, washed down with the local beer.
We caught the ferry just in time. The ticket operator refused my credit card, saying that only Portuguese credit cards were accepted. Dubious. I have never heard that before.
The ferry ride is pleasant if uneventful, as it crosses the wide Tagus River to the southern suburbs. The community across the river is dominated by several high rise apartments with little commercial activity. We had to disembark from the ferry and go back through the turnstiles for the return ride. As boat rides go, this one is fine but without significant interest. Still, at 5.10 euros, it’s worth the price of admission.
Our next mission was to find and visit one of Lisbon’s signature house museums, the Casa dos Bicos or House of Spikes. It is so named because the facade is completely studded with pyramids of stone.
We were concerned about finding the place until we realized that it is located on the very route we have walked at least a half dozen times between our apartment and the Commercial Plaza. We had never noticed, because we were picking our way through the rubble of riverfront construction and never looked up.
The House of Spikes, built in 1521 by the son of the viceroy of India, is one of the few structures that survived the earthquake of 1755. Well, mostly survived. The upper two floors of the four-story facade collapsed, and they were never rebuilt when the structure was restored. It was not until the early 1980s that the upper floors were rebuilt.
But the most interesting aspect of the building beyond its unique facade is the archeological display on the ground floor. The excavations are displayed underneath the floor and show several phases of development back to Roman times, when the site was used as a fish sauce production center. The details of that operation are best left to Google for yourself.
And entry is free, although the sign on the front door says 3 euros. Even at that, Casa dos Bicos should be on your list of top attractions in Lisbon.
Our final assault on Lisbon’s historic attractions was the Cathedral of Lisbon, just around the corner and up the hill from the Casa dos Bicos. The cathedral was built on the site of an old Moorish mosque that was taken down (aka demolished) when the Christians took back the city in mid-12th century.
The main body of the cathedral is clearly Romanesque, with large columns supporting rounded arches. Oddly, there is no main altar. It was either removed or lost, but it is hard to believe that late medieval and Renaissance Lisbonians did not include a massive altar to impress the church-goers.
A small fee of 4 euros admits the visitor to the rear cloister and the nine chapels behind the altar. The chapels were built many years after the main church, because they are clearly Gothic in architecture, featuring thin columns that support pointed Gothic arches, with beautiful thin stained glass windows.
The cloister behind the chapels is actually another dig, where archeologists have found old foundations of Roman and Moorish buildings that formerly occupied the site. A metal walkway allows visitors to peer down into the ruins. Along the perimeter of the cloisters is a string of tombs, of which many of the residents sadly are not identified.
Having accomplished so much in one day, we triumphantly decided to see if we could find our way back to our apartment the “back” way without retracing our familiar route back down to the river. Miraculously, Google Maps was right on target, as we approached our apartment from the opposite direction.
But not before stopping at a real wine store to pick up a bottle of Dåo, the same Portuguese red wine we had enjoyed the night before in our otherwise disappointing meal at Santo Antonio de Alfama. The bottle was 4.50. Did I mention that wine is every inexpensive in Portugal?