Lisbon, Saint George's Castle, Lisbon

Saint George’s Castle, Lisbon

Photo 00119_Castle from Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara
St George’s Castle from Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcantara, Lisbon
Photo 00186_Castle from Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara
St George’s Castle from Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara, Lisbon

From its position on the top of a hill to the east of the city of Lisbon, St George’s Castle (Castelo do São Jorge) has wonderful views over the Baixa district and the River Tejo and dominates the Lisbon skyline, being one of the most photographed buildings from the miradouros of São Pedro de Alcântara and the Santa Justa elevador, particularly at sunset and after dark. However, the history of the castle is as interesting as, if not more than,  the present-day building. It is located on what was an ancient settlement on top of a hill above the Alfama district. There has been a fortress on the site since before the Moorish times, but the structure of the current castle, with a wall encircling the former Moorish city, including the Santa Cruz district which remains within the castle walls, was built by the Moors in the tenth century. In 1147 the king, Dom Afonso Henriques, formed an army made up of crusaders from Britain and France to overthrow the Moors, promising them the spoil (in a plan similar to that employed by Dom Sancho I in Silves in 1189). Despite the attack on the castle, the Moors held Afonso Henriques’ army off for four months, but eventually the Christian army gained entry, overpowering the Moors, and then going on to ransack the city and murder anyone who got in their way. There is a legend that a knight called Martim Moniz lay down in the doorway so that the Moors couldn’t shut it, thus allowing Afonso Henriques’ army to enter. Martim Moniz died in the process, but is considered a hero and there is a small bust of him on a wall in the castle and he even has a square named after him in Lisbon. From 1255 the castle housed the Royal Palace of Alcáçova and was the residence of the king, until the beginning of the sixteenth century when the royal residence was moved to the Praça do Comércio. In the fourteenth century Dom Fernando I built a 5400-metre-long wall around the castle, with 77 towers, parts of which are still standing today. At the entrance to the castle, just before the main gate, the Porta de São Jorge, is a small statue in a glass case on the wall of the eponymous St George (São Jorge). He has no physical connection with the castle, but it was dedicated to him by Dom João I at the end of the fourteenth century, after his marriage to Philippa of Lancaster, as a symbol of unity between England and Portugal, as Saint George was an important saint for both countries.

After the Royal Palace was moved to the Praça do Comércio the castle was used at various times as a prison, military barracks, hospital and even a theatre.

Although the famous earthquake of 1755 badly damaged the castle, it did not completely destroy it. In the twentieth century parts of it were renovated under the direction of the Salazar regime, but today it is essentially a shell. There are a few parts of the castle that have some interest, mainly the ramparts and towers, plus parts of the former Royal Palace of Alcáçova, but most people visit the castle for the views and it is true that the view that greets you from the Praça das Armas, the large tree-lined terrace with a statue of Dom Afonso Henriques in the centre, is stunning. From here there are undisturbed views of the Santa Justa elevador and the Convento do Carmo; Rossio square and Praça da Figueira in the Baixa; and the 25th April Bridge crossing the River Tejo, with the monument of Cristo Rei on the opposite bank.

From here it is a short walk to the castle itself, walking over a bridge which crosses a dried-up moat into the interior of the castle.

Sections of the ramparts can be walked on, giving more views of the Baixa and the river, plus Graça Church, São Vicente de Fora Church and the National Pantheon and giving access to the remaining towers, including one which has a camera obscura in it projecting 360° views of Lisbon on the walls.

As well as this, there is an archaeological site and a few wells, sculptures and fountains dotted around the grounds and a small museum in a section of what was the Royal Palace of Alcáçova, displaying objects found on the archaeological site, some of which date back to the seventh century BC. The other remaining parts of the Royal Palace now house a café and the Casa do Leão restaurant (meaning ‘House of the Lion’ and named after the fact that lions were kept there in the fifteenth century. Nowadays peacocks have replaced lions in the grounds.).

The walk to the castle is a wonderful opportunity to wander through the steep narrow streets of the old Moorish quarters, zigzagging up the steep hill to the top. A place where time seems to have stood still.Photo 00680


Castelo do São Jorge, Porta de São Jorge, Rua do Chão da Feira, Lisbon

Opening hours: November to February 9am-6pm; March to October 9am-9pm

Entrance: €8.50 (as of 2017)

Public transport:

28 tram from the Baixa or Largo do Martim Moniz: stops at the Miradouro de Santa Luzia (it is an uphill walk to the castle from here)

737 bus from Praça da Figueira: stops near the entrance to the castle

Elevador Baixa-Castelo: the trip is done in two lifts. The first lift goes from Rua dos Fanqueiros in the Baixa to Rua da Madalena. The second lift goes from the Pingo Doce supermarket in Largo do Chão do Loureiro to Costa do Castelo. It runs from 9am-9pm daily.

Elevador Baixa Rua da Madalena
Elevador Baixa, Rua da Madalena, Lisbon
Lisbon, Two iconic images of Lisbon: Ponte 25 de Abril and Cristo Rei

Two iconic images of Lisbon: Ponte 25 de Abril and Cristo Rei


Picture 2026 0001Surely two of the most iconic images of Lisbon, alongside the yellow trams, must be the suspension bridge, Ponte 25 de Abril, which crosses the River Tejo linking the city of Lisbon with Almada on the Margem Sul (South Bank) and the statue of Jesus Christ which dominates the skyline of the Margem Sul. Up until the end of the nineteenth century the area on the Margem Sul has been compared to the Wild West in terms of lawlessness as it was so cut off from Lisbon, but, in part due to the opening of the bridge, nowadays it has become an extension of Lisbon, with industrial and suburban areas and popular beaches within easy reach. The bridge was inaugurated in 1966 with its original name of Ponte Salazar, after the Prime Minister and dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. The name was changed to Ponte 25 de Abril after the 1974 Carnation Revolution. The bridge is 100 metres high and, where it crosses the river, is 2 kilometres long. The top level of the bridge (at 70 metres above the river) has a six-lane highway. The lower level of the bridge is a railway track, which was only added in 1999, giving direct access to the south of Portugal by train from the centre of Lisbon. Before this was added travellers had to catch the ferry to Barreiro train station on the south bank and board the train there. The design of the bridge is reminiscent of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, which is not surprising as it was built by the same company who built the Bay Bridge. It is also often compared to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and is as symbolic for Lisbon as the Golden Gate Bridge is for San Francisco.picture 00001 (731)Picture 2036Across the river, just behind the bridge on the top of a hill, is the famous statue Cristo Rei (Christ the King) designed by Francisco Franco, who was clearly inspired by the statue of Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was inaugurated in 1959, during the time of the ultra-Catholic Salazar dictatorship. The statue of Jesus Christ with his arms outstretched is on top of a 82-metre pedestal and standing at 28 metres can been seen from many parts of Lisbon. At the bottom of the pedestal is a chapel, Capela de Nossa Senhora da Paz (Chapel of Our Lady of Peace). At the top of the pedestal, by Jesus’s feet, is a viewing platform,  which can only be reached by a lift, offering marvellous views of Lisbon and Belém; it is even said that on a clear day it is possible to see the Pena Palace in Sintra.


Sanctuário Nacional do Cristo Rei, Alto do Pragal, Almada

To get there from Lisbon catch the Transtejo Cacilhas ferry from Cais do Sodré to Casilhas and then catch the 101 bus to Cristo Rei (it is the last stop). It is also possible to walk there, passing through the small city of Almada: allow an hour.

Opening hours: early-July and September 9.30am-6.45pm; late-July and August 9.30am-7.30pm; September to June 9.30am-6pm (daily).

Price: chapel is free; lift to the viewing platform €6 (as of 2017).





Lisbon, Loja das Conservas, Lisbon

Loja das Conservas, Lisbon

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Photo 00057It is no secret to anyone who has visited Lisbon that sardines play a big part in the diet. They are at their best around the time of the Festival of Santo António (12th-13th June) when grills cooking fresh sardines appear all over the city and the air becomes thick with the smell of smoky fish oil. However, the export of tinned sardines has for a long time been an important part of the fish industry in Portugal and a shop set up by the National Association of the Preserved Fish Industry, the Loja das Conservas on Rua do Arsenal, sells tinned sardines in beautifully designed tins, along with tinned tuna, cod, and eels; salmon, whiting and sardine pâtés; and bottles of oil and wine, all stylishly displayed. Who would have thought tinned fish could be so sexy?


Portuguese cinema, To Die Like a Man (2009)

To Die Like a Man (2009)

To Die Like a Man (Morrer Como um Homem) is a film directed and co-written by João Pedro Rodrigues, which was nominated for the Prix Un Certain Regard at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. The film opens with a close up of a soldier putting camouflage on his face and marching with his platoon into a wood, where he goes off with another soldier to have sex. Shortly after, disgusted by what he has done, he shoots the other soldier outside the house of two refined transvestites. The theme of the film, the confusion of one’s own sexual and gender identity, is encapsulated in the opening minutes of the film.

The soldier, Zé Maria (Chandra Malatitch) is the son of the film’s protagonist, Tonia (Fernando Santos). Tonia is a bulky middle-aged transvestite with a mass of blonde curly hair, who works as a drag queen in a seedy Lisbon nightclub. She is aware her career is coming to an end, as a younger more female-looking drag queen (Jenni La Rue) is starting to gain the popularity that Tonia formerly had. With this is mind Tonia has decided to have a sex change and become a woman. However, having made this decision the rest of her life is in turmoil. She is in a masochistic relationship with her younger drug-addicted boyfriend, Rosário (Alexander David), and has a difficult relationship with Zé Maria, whose sense of being abandoned by his father is symbolized in a scene where he carefully places some items in Tonia’s fish tank, including one of Tonia’s stiletto shoes and a photograph of himself as a child with his father, before asking his father to give him a place to hide from the police. Tonia’s only positive relationship is with her pet dog and later with a stray dog that she adopts, although even her pet dog has betrayed her by taking some of her beloved possessions, including her rosary (despite her non-conformist lifestyle, she is a devout Catholic) and burying them in her garden.

In an attempt to get Rosário away from the drug dealers of Lisbon Tonia suggests a trip to the country to visit Rosário’s brother. On the way they come across the secluded house of the transvestite couple from the opening scenes of the film, the prima donna-ish Maria (Gonçalo Ferreira de Almeida) and her dowdy partner, Paula (Miguel Loureiro), whose relationship isn’t portrayed as a positive one. Paula makes very little effort to look like a woman but plays a submissive role to Maria, who dresses in feminine clothes but has an aggressive personality, which raises more questions of gender roles within sexual relationships. Later, when Tonia realises that the blood that has been leaking from her silicon breast implants is, in a way, her body rejecting being a woman and is a sign that she is seriously ill, she decides to die as a man with all vestiges of femaleness removed.

What could have been a depressing film is lifted by the humanity given to the character of Tonia through the script and direction of Rodrigues and by the sympathetic performance of Fernando Santos. The film is long and a surreal scene where Tonia, Rosário, Maria and Paula sit in the woods by the house at night without moving while the screen turns red and a disconcerting song about sorrow, weeping and carrying a cross to Calvary (‘Calvary’ sung by Baby Dee) is played over the top, makes the film, which runs at over two hours, seem much longer. The film could have been improved by some editing, but it is a compelling watch.

Algarve, Silves - a Moorish legacy

Silves – a Moorish legacy

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Silves Cathedral and Castle, Silves

Silves appeared to be asleep when we stepped off the bus on the riverfront road. As we walked along the riverfront past the market and the smoky outdoor-grill restaurants to the charming white thirteenth-century Ponte Romana (Roman Bridge), which crosses the River Arade, there was still nothing to dispel the thought that Silves was a pretty, but unexceptional small Algarvean city. Tour operators run boat trips up the River Arade from Portimão to Silves, but the water level was very low on the hot June day that we were there and I couldn’t see how a boat would make it as far as Silves (I later found out that the river is affected by the tide and boat trips can only run at high tide). The river played an important role in the history of Silves. The Phoenicians established a port there around 1000 BC, followed by the Romans (who named the city Silbis) and then the Moors, who turned Xelb (the Arabic name for Silves) into a thriving city of artists and artisans. The city lost its importance when the river silted up.

A short walk from the Ponte Romana we stumbled across some magnificent gardens, which raised Silves above the level of an ordinary small city. The Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad is a peaceful park with a tranquillity pool containing calming sculptures, created by António Quina in 2001, honouring the Arabic people who lived in Xelb during the time of Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad, an eleventh-century governor of Xelb, by depicting scenes of their daily life. The statues are incorporated into the reflective pool and the pastel colours of the marble and stone of which they are made blend with the water, making them look like reflections. There are two seated figures, one of whom could be Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad (who was also a poet and is considered to be among the best of the Andalusian poets), observing the other figures. Placed in the water are tablets made of steel with Arabic writing engraved on them. The whole scene is very meditative. Further in the tree-lined gardens are fountains and benches. Apart from someone walking their dog, surprisingly there was no one else about.

From the Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad we climbed a steep cobbled street to discover Silves’ Moorish past. Silves today is a complete contrast to the Silves of the 11th century, when it was the capital of al-Gharb, the Arabic name for the Algarve region which was under Moorish rule from the eighth to the thirteenth centuries. Xelb was a walled city with an outer wall protecting the centre. We entered the historical centre through a very narrow doorway, the Torreão da Porta da Cidade (Turret of the City Gate), a surviving section of the twelfth- or thirteenth-century outer fortification, which leads from the Praça do Município, a charming square which houses the city hall and still has a pillory at one end. Once we passed through the Torreão da Porta da Cidade the noise and bustle contrasted with the peacefulness of the riverfront. So, this is where all the tourists were!

It was a short walk to Silves Cathedral. Built on the site of the former Grand Mosque in the thirteenth century, it is an austere building, cool and dark inside with rose-pink granite columns. The cathedral was the bishopric until 1577 when it was moved to Faro. It still has tombs of former bishops, along with crusaders who died during the battle against the Moors.

From here we walked to Silves Castle, with its distinctive red sandstone walls, which can be seen from miles away and which is one of the best-preserved castles in the region. During the Moorish period the castle housed the governor of city, including the aforementioned Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad. There is not much evidence of the castle interior left, except for a huge vaulted water cistern, intriguingly named Cisterna da Moura Encantada (Cistern of the Enchanted Moorish Girl) after the legend that at midnight on the festival of St John a Moorish princess who has been put under a spell appears in the cistern in a silver boat with golden oars looking for the prince who can break the spell. At the entrance to the castle is a large statue of King Sancho I, the Portuguese king associated with the Christian recapture of Silves from the Moors. In 1189 he gathered an army of Portuguese soldiers and crusaders to invade the city. It is believed that the population of 30,000 took refuge in the castle and managed to survive due to the water in the cistern. Eventually, when the water ran out, they agreed to meet with King Sancho I, who promised they would be safe if they allowed the city to pass over to his control, but he had also promised the crusaders the spoils of war and they ransacked the city, killing 6000 Moors. Although the Moors won back the city in 1191, they been weakened to the point that the city fell to the Christians in 1249. On a lighter note, from the castle walls we got wonderful views of the surrounding fields of orange, almond and carob trees; all of which are a legacy of the Moors. Silves celebrates its Moorish past every year in August when it holds a Medieval Festival in the historic centre, the streets leading from there and the Praça Al Mouhatamid Ibn Abbad, which lasts 10 days and includes parades with people dressed in Moorish costumes, jousting and street entertainment, market stalls and street food and even a banquet in the grounds of the castle. A fee to enter the historic centre is charged on these days, but I am told it is worth it.

From the castle it was a short walk to the Archaeological Museum. The museum contains a variety of objects found in the Silves area dating back to pre-historic times. The highlight is a well-preserved well dating from Moorish times, around which the museum has been built. It was only discovered in 1980 and is the focal point of the museum. After a much-needed cool drink in a small café in Largo Jerónimo Osório, near the cathedral, we walked back down Rua do Cemitério past the entrance to the municipal cemetery, heading to the eastern outskirts of the city, where we discovered a large cross on a piece of wasteland on the side of the N124. The Cruz de Portugal (Cross of Portugal), which depicts the crucifixion of Christ and the descent from the cross in a mixture of Gothic and Manueline styles, is a late-fifteenth/early sixteenth-century symbol which was placed on routes of pilgrimage. It is believed to have been donated to the city by Manuel I as a thank you for interring the body of João II at Silves cathedral before his body was taken away for burial at Batalha. Not realising how far from the bus terminus we were we had a hurried walk back to the riverfront road to catch our bus back to Lagoa, which I’m pleased to say, we caught!

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Cruz de Portugal, Silves


Silves can be reached by bus from Albufeira, Armação de Pêra, Lagoa and Portimão – the bus terminus is near the market on the riverfront – and by train from Faro and Lagos (the Algarve line) – the railway station is 2km south of the city.

Silves Cathedral (Sé de Silves), Rua da Sé, Silves. Open to the public Monday to Friday 9am-5pm (except public holidays).

Silves Castle, Rua do Castelo, Silves. Open April, May, September and October 9am-8pm; June to August 9am-10pm; November to March 9am-5.30pm (closed 25 December and 1 January). Entrance costs €2.80 or a combined ticket for the Castle and Archaeological Museum €3.90.

Silves Archaeological Museum (Museu Municipal de Arqueologia de Silves), Rua da Porta de Loulé, Silves. Open daily 10am-6pm (closed 25 December and 1 January). Entrance €2.10 or a combined ticket for the Castle and Archaeological Museum €3.90.

(Times and prices as of June 2017.)