Lisbon's museums open doors to Portugal's rich culture
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LISBON, Portugal -- Strolling along the broad Tagus River, its bridges vanishing San Francisco-style in the mist, I see a landscape that tumbles down the hills from blue skies and red-tiled roofs.
I'm falling in love.
With these romantic views, grand public squares, and tiled walkways, I decide that Lisbon is the most gracefully decorated city on Earth. That must be why the Portuguese capital, about the same size as metro Pittsburgh, boasts double the number of museums: Lisboans are all about the visuals.
For the past five centuries, the city has believed in a trinity of vivid traditions: its sailing ships, its iconic ceramic tiles, and the grand, sad music of fado, the music that makes Lisboans happy to cry.
"We are a small country," shrugs the curator at Lisbon's new Tile Museum modestly. But its understated pride shows through in three new city museums that gave me a vivid introduction to this sophisticated port city.
The Gulbenkian Museum, a private art collection, may be the best known museum in town. But the new museums speak to the city's soul. The Orient, with an accent on Portugal's age of exploration, and the Tile Museum, housed in an opulent 16th-century convent, both opened in 2008. The Electricity Museum, an edgy answer to our local Mattress Factory or London's Tate Modern, has just hosted a blockbuster exhibit on the queen of fado, Amalia Rodrigues. None is in the Old City, the capital's charming pedestrian center. But that was just the excuse I needed to navigate the super-efficient transit system and savor the Tagus waterfront from three different perspectives.
The river, now bristling with cranes and cruise ships, is the heart of Portuguese naval history. It was from here that the greatest explorations of the 16th century weighed anchor. Sailing 5,000 miles, the Portuguese reached Goa, India, in 1510, Malacca in 1511, and Macau, China, in 1513. Within a century, they had extended their reach to Indonesia, Japan and the Philippines.
The man who forged the way was Vasco da Gama, who opened the Indian Ocean for the spice trade. He's the namesake of both a soaring bridge and a contemporary development topped by curved glass "sails" in the city's Parc de Nacoes, a newly revived neighborhood. But his legacy remains at the harbor. Overlooking the waterfront from a sleek contemporary building, the Orient Museum holds up a mirror to East and West, showing how each changed the other.
The Orient illuminates the peaceful, prosperous era it calls the "oriental utopia," when Portuguese traders amassed fortunes and treasures. Dramatic darkened galleries spotlight the brilliant collection of "Presence in Asia," with its ornate Chinese screens, tapestries, gold jewelry, painting and ivory pieces. Each carefully selected rarity aims to show the fusion of east and west: Christian art from the school of painting taught by the Jesuits in Macau; Romantic Asian landscapes by painter George Chinnery, capturing Chinese life in the Portuguese trading capital; China trade porcelain. While the museum also mounts contemporary exhibits, this permanent collection is its heart.
Catching a midday bus to the eastern side of town, I was surprised by the number of passengers headed for the Tile Museum. In fact, they weren't; the siesta break sends workers and school children home at lunchtime, giving the city four rush hours instead of two. When I reached the opulent Madre de Deus convent, I had the museum almost to myself.
Inside, the Tile Museum captures the city's most iconic craft. Centuries before the 1755 earthquake that pulverized Portugal, Moorish conquerors adorned the city with geometric tiles called azulejos. Renaissance, artists added colorful fruits and flowers to the motif, applied throughout wealthy homes. In the 18th century, the style evolved into the delicate hand-painted blue-on-white designs that are a symbol of the city.
Works by Eduardo Nery and Querubim Lapa show how contemporary artists interpret the tradition. (The trend is citywide. Lisbon's Metro stations, its pedestrian walkways, its shop facades, and even the city's Oceanarium, with its pixellated shark image made from thousands of ceramic tiles, put ceramics on public display.)
The collection includes a poignant historical image. A huge panorama of Lisbon, assembled in tile panels 35 feet long, depicts the city at the height of its wealth and power, in early 1755. A few months later, the earthquake left 100,000 dead.
The widespread devastation of the terramoto, similar to the tragedy of current-day Haiti, shocked Europe and destroyed most of Lisbon's waterfront palaces and storehouses. The Madre de Deus convent survived, but rebuilt its ground floor. That's why the convent has two ornate chapels, one a half-story higher than the other, both encrusted in gilt and sculpture. A cloister has been converted into a cafe with greenery, flowing fountains and a menu with the sweets that Lisboans love.
The city's most famous sweets are baked in Belem, two miles west of the city center. To the locals, they are as much a cultural treasure as the district's famous Jeronimos Monastery, built in 1450. "You must have the good cakes!" advised a shopkeeper, carefully wrapping a few ceramic blackbirds for my luggage. I promised I would -- but first, I made my way to the Electricity Museum, housed in a power generating plant a few blocks from the monastery.
The 1914 structure retains an industrial Gothic vibe. But as I enter the vast open galleries, usually reserved for installation art, I heard a haunting song, accompanied by a metal-stringed guitar. The voice was unmistakably that of Amalia Rodrigues, who defined the plaintive style of fado music. During a 50-year career, the Lisbon native sang the lyrics of the most famous Portuguese poets; when she died in 1999, the nation declared a day of mourning. The crowds viewing an exhibit on her life, with film clips, costumes and recordings, testify to her appeal to avant-garde artists as well as traditionalists.
From bittersweet fado to sweet pastries was only a 10-minute walk. I took my place in the long, happy line outside the blue awning of the Pasteis de Belem. The traditional sugary cakes, crunchy and filled with custard, were served Lisbon-style, with a small glass of sweet wine. And like the city's charming museums, they left a taste of Lisbon's grace and warmth.
First Published February 14, 2010 12:00 am