Food and drink, Pastry pillows and sweet cheese tartlets: two sweet specialities of Sintra

Pastry pillows and sweet cheese tartlets: two sweet specialities of Sintra

The variety of pastries on offer in Portugal is endless. Everyone knows about the ubiquitous pastel de nata (custard tart), but the pretty town of Sintra (approximately 30km from Lisbon) also boasts two sweet pastries that give the pastel de nata a run for its money: the travesseiro and the queijada de Sintra.

The travesseiro is a rectangular puff pastry shell, sprinkled with sugar, surrounding a filling of egg yolks, sugar, ground almonds and cinnamon. The name ‘travesseiro’ means ‘pillow’ and describes the shape of the pastry. The original convent recipe was revived by the owner of the Casa Piriquita bakery in Sintra

in the 1940s and the café is still famous for its travesseiros today, although they can also be found in cafés and bakeries all over Sintra.

The queijada de Sintra, which translates as ‘Sintra cheesecake’, is nothing like the cheesecake sold in the United Kingdom. It is a small tartlet with a thin, crispy pastry shell filled with a mixture of egg yolks, flour, sugar, cinnamon and queijo fresco (a Portuguese mild, white cheese with a custard-like texture; the closest cheese to it outside of Portugal is ricotta). This recipe dates back to the thirteenth century, when, it is said, the queijada was used as a form of currency. In the late-nineteenth century King Carlos I made queijadadas popular when he came to stay in the Pena Palace, his Sintra summer residence, and asked the Casa Piriquita bakery to make them for him. Like travesseiros, these little tartlets can now be found in cafés and bakeries all over Sintra. The Fábrica das Verdadeiras Queijadas da Sapa on Volta do Duche has been making queijadas since 1756 and its queijada recipe is one of the few in Sintra that is officially recognised by the town council.

A brief introduction to Portuguese art, Art

A brief introduction to Portuguese art

Portugal has a rich and varied art history dating back to the fifteenth century, but little is known of it outside of Portugal. Through the centuries there have been Portuguese artists who deserve to be judged as equal to the great artists from other parts of Europe and below is a brief introduction to some of those artists.

Nuno Gonçalves (active c.1450-c.1491)

Nuno Gonçalves, Painéis de São Vicente, c.1470, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

The Renaissance painter Nuno Gonçalves is acknowledged as the founder of the Portuguese school of painting and the ‘Portuguese Primitive’style. He was the court painter to King Afonso V and in his most famous painting, Painéis de São Vicente (Saint Vincent Panels c.1470) he puts a religious subject in a contemporary setting making it an important record of Portuguese society in the mid-fifteenth century. It was originally part of an altar in Lisbon Cathedral and is now one of the prized exhibits in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. There are six panels, the larger two central ones both show Saint Vicent, the patron saint of Lisbon, in the foreground dressed in red and gold robes and surrounded by the nobility and other important members of Portuguese society, including the royal family and the Archbishop of Lisbon. In the other four panels other sectors of Portuguese society are represented, including knights, monks, a fisherman, a Jewish scholar, a beggar and a city official. However, it is debated who the actual members of the royal family are and in particular the figure in black to the right of the Saint in the third panel, who is generally thought to be Prince Henrique the Navigator, as it was painted during Portugal’s golden Age of Discovery, but there is a convincing argument that it is his brother King Duarte and that Henrique is in fact the kneeling figure in the fourth panel and that depicting him kneeling was a political attempt to humiliate him.

Jorge Afonso (c.1470-c.1540)

Jorge Afonso, Aparição de Cristo à Virgem, 1515, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Jorge Afonso was the court painter to King Manuel I and his son King João III during the Renaissance period. He also had a workshop in Lisbon in which many of the foremost sixteenth-century Portuguese artists trained and worked, including Gaspar Vaz and Gregório Lopes. His work was influenced by the Flemish painters of the time as can be seen in the most famous work attributed to him, an altarpiece painted for the Madre de Deus convent in Lisbon in 1515, sections of which are in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, including the painting Aparição de Cristo à Virgem (Apparition of Christ to the Virgin) in which, on the right half of the painting, the resurrected Jesus, who is naked from the waist up and wearing a red cloth around the lower half of his body, appears before a kneeling, praying Virgin Mary dressed as a nun inside a convent-like building, with what appears to be a cloister in the background. On the left-hand side of the painting, in an exterior scene stand four people three of whom are thought to represent Adam and Eve and John the Baptist or one of the other apostles. Behind them is a turreted castle-like building. The detail in the decoration on the pillars and also in the depiction of the naked human form is impressive.

Grão Vasco (c.1475-c.1543)

Vasco Fernandes, better known as Grão Vasco (the Great Vasco) was born in Viseu and, like Jorge Afonso, was influenced by the painters of the Flemish school. Although little is known of his early life, it is assumed that he trained in Lisbon or even abroad as there is a high level of technical competence in his work, as shown in the majestic São Pedro (Saint Peter, painted for Viseu Cathedral c.1529), on display in the Museu Grão Vasco in Viseu, in which Saint Peter, dressed in a regal gown and wearing a crown on his head, is seated on a throne looking directly out of the painting. He is blessing the viewer with his right hand with an open Bible on his lap. Behind him in two symmetrical windows are two scenes from the life of Saint Peter: being called by Christ and meeting a risen Jesus as he flees from his own crucifixion. The painting show a mastery of technique in the characterisation in Saint Peter’s facial expression, along with the use of rich colour, detailed decoration and delicate light. Another noteworthy work is from the original altarpiece of Viseu Cathedral which in 18 panels depicted scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, the early life of Christ and the Passion, painted between 1501 and 1506. The 15 surviving panels are now in the Museu Grão Vasco in Viseu, including a panel depicting the Adoration of the Magi (Adoração dos Magos) which is notable for the characterization of Balthazar as an Indian from Brazil shown wearing traditional clothes, a feather headdress and carrying a large arrow. Vasco’s representation, based on written accounts from the recently discovered Brazil, is thought to be the first image of a native Brazilian in Western art.

Gregório Lopes (c.1490-1550)

Gregório Lopes, Martírio de São Sebastião, c.1536-38, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Gregório Lopes trained in the workshop of Jorge Afonso, whose daughter he married, and later became the court painter to King Manuel I andKing JoãoIII. His style shows a transition from the Flemish style favoured by his contemporaries to an Italian Renaissance style as shown in his most famouswork, Martírio de São Sebastião (Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, c.1536-38), painted for the Conventde Cristo in Tomar and now on display in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, which depicts a serene-looking Saint Sebastian in the central foreground of a landscape tied to a post wearing nothing but a cloth around his genital area with arrows in his chest. Either side of him in the foreground are two archers aiming arrows at him, while in the background is a city scene with people going about their daily life. On the extreme right-hand side there is a fire with thick smoke coming from it and a crowd has gathered to watch what is presumably an auto-de-fé. The colours are muted, dominated by shades of brown.

Gaspar Vaz (c.1495-1569)

Gaspar Vaz trained under Jorge Afonso in Lisbon and was a contemporary of Grão Vasco, also coming from Viseu, and their work is often confused, although his style is less technically competent and less detailed, particularly in the depiction of the human form. This can be seen in his painting Virgem da Anunciação (The Virgin of the Annunciation c.1530), done for the Igreja Matriz de Barreiro in Tondela, which now hangs in the Museu Grão Vasco in Viseu. In the centre of the painting the young Virgin Mary is shown seated, looking down with a serene expression on her face as she has just heard the Angel’s message, and her hands together not quite in prayer. A dove in a pool of golden light flutters near her head. A red curtain to the left of the painting contrasts with the brown of the wall behind her and the dark blue clothes she is wearing. While her face lacks character and her long thin fingers are anatomically incorrect, there is a delicacy in the way Vaz has conveyed light and shade in the curtain and her headscarf.

Cristóvão de Morais (active c.1539-80)

Cristóvão de Morais, Retrato de D. Sebastião, c.1571-74, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Cristóvão de Morais studied in Antwerp and later became the court painter to King João III and King Sebastião, painting many royal portraits. His most famous work, which can be seen in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, is the mannerist-style Retrato de D. Sebastião (Portrait of King Sebastião, c.1571-74), which shows the 16- or 17-year-old King dressed in armour with his left hand holding a sword and looking disdainfully at the viewer. Using a limited colour palette, the black background and dark armour dominate the painting, making the areas of colour stand out, namely King Sebastião’s face and hands and the richly ornate gold detail on the armour.

Josefa de Óbidos (1630-1684)

Josefa de Óbidos, Agnus Dei, c.1660-70, Museu de Évora

Josefa de Ayala e Cabrera (better known as Josefa de Óbidos)is Portugal’s most famous Baroque artist and a rare female artist at a time when most artists were men. Josefa lived in Óbidos all of her adult lifeand the name Josefa de Óbidos comes from the fact that she often signed her paintings ‘Josefa em Óbidos’. Her father, Baltazar Gomes Figueira, was also anartist who had spent some time in Seville and became interested in the bodegón style (a still life with objects from daily life, especially food and drink), which he shared with Josefa. She was educated in a convent and although she never took religious vows she lived a nun-like life, remaining chaste throughout her life. Many of her paintings have a religious theme, but she combines it with the everyday and there is a sense of innocence in them far removed from the traditional religious images. This can be seen in Agnus Dei (c.1660-70)) in the Museu de Évora in which the focus is on a lamb with its legs bound lying on a dark table against a dark background. On the table a line in Latin from the Bible, ‘occisus ab origine mundi’ (‘slain from the foundation of the world’) is written. All the light is coming from the lamb which lies serenely awaiting its fate (symbolizing Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God) and the only bold colour in thepainting comes from a Baroque wreath of flowers and grapes that surrounds the lamb. It is very reminiscent of the still lives with food and drink that she is most famous for. These are characterized by a horizontal arrangement of everyday objects in bold colours against a very dark background, as exemplified in the painting Natureza Morta: Caixas, Barros e Flores (Still Life: Boxes, Earthenware and Flowers, c.1660-70) in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon in which two boxes, a glass bowl on a silver stand and a red earthenware jar are lined up horizontally on a table against a black background. There are large red flowers wrapped around the jar, which also extend into the background, and also small white and red flower heads scattered on the table in the foreground. The materials of the wooden boxes, the glass bowl, the silver stand and the red earthenware jug are skilfully conveyed from a palette of red, white and brown and the vibrancy of these colours draw the eye to the painting.

Josefa de Óbidos, Natureza Morta: Caixas, Barros e Flores, c.1660-70, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Domingos António de Sequeira (1768-1837)

Domingos António de Sequeira, O Beijo de Judas, c.1820-30, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, Lisbon

Domingos António de Sequeira initially trained at the public drawing classes in the Caetanos Convent in Lisbon and then continued his training in Rome. On his return to Portugal he became the court painter tothe Prince Regent João (who later became King João VI) and painted many royal portraits and episodes from history in the Neo-classical style. In the 1820s he moved to Paris and then returned to Rome where he remained until his death. During this time he was influenced by the developing Romantic movement and his later works, many of which have religious themes, are in the Romantic style,focussing more on the emotions of the characters rather than on realistic depiction and are considered by many art historians to be his best works, as can be seen in O Beijo de Judas (The Judas Kiss, c.1820-30) in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon. In this painting done in Indian ink and white gouache on brown paper he depicts Jesus being kissed by Judas while being surrounded by the soldiers who have come to arrest him. Jesus is lit up by a bright light that one of the soldiers is holding, while everything else is in shadow and this, combined with Sequeira’s relaxed brushstrokes gives the painting an emotional and disturbing quality.

José Malhoa (1855-1933)

José Malhoa, O Fado, 1910, Museu da Cidade, Lisbon

José Malhoa is one of the main famous Portuguese Naturalist painters. He studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Lisbon and was later influenced by the French Barbizon school and was a founder member of the Grupo do Leão (Lion’s Group), a group of intellectuals, artists and writers who met in the Leão de Ouro café in Lisbon, in 1880. He painted scenes often showing ordinary people from the poorer parts of society, including Os Bêbados (The Drunks, 1907) on display in the Museu de José Malhoa in Caldas da Rainha, which shows a group of peasants in a state of inebriation after drinking the new wine on St Martin’s Day and O Fado (The Fado, 1910) on display in the Museu da Cidade in Lisbon, in which he captures the underbelly of the working-class districts of Alfama and Mouraria at a time when fado was performed ininsalubrious brothels and bars. The painting depicts a poor and dirty prostitute listening with rapture to a man playing the guitarra. In order to get authenticity, Malhoa used real people as models: namely, a petty criminal called Amâncio and a prostitute called Adelaide da Facada (named after a scar she had on her left cheek).

Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro (1857-1929)

Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro, O Grupo do Leão, 1885, Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon

Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro is considered to be the greatest late-nineteenth-century Portuguese painter, who captured the changing Portuguese society at the end of the century in his Naturalistic portraits. He came from an artistic family: his father was an artist and his brother was the caricaturist and ceramicist Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro. He attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Lisbon and then continued his studies in Paris. His work is characterized by his sober use of colour, often painting in brown tones, giving a dark appearance and with broad brushstrokes that lead to lack of definition. He painted many of the major figures of the time, including the writer Eça de Queiros and the Republican politician Teófilo Braga. Along with José Malhoa, he was a member of the Grupo do Leão and one of his most famous works is O Grupo do Leão (The Lion’s Group, 1885) on display in the Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon. The painting, which was done for the café, shows the modern artists of the time (including the aforementioned José Malhoa (seated sideways in the foreground on the left with his hand on his leg) and Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro (sat on the other side of the table on the right, wearing a hat) as well as Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro himself (standing behind Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, wearing a top hat)) sat and standing at a table grouped around a central figure (António Carvalho de Silva Porto, the artist who introduced the Barbizon school to Portugal, sat in the middle on the other side of the table) in an arrangement which makes reference to the Last Supper. It is a huge monochromatic interior scene which is like a photograph in which everyone is caught in a moment looking at the viewer, but is made abstract by the use of light and shadows and blurred lines.

António Carneiro (1872-1930)

António Carneiro, Contemplação, 1911, Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon

António Carneiro studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Lisbon and then moved to Paris where he became interested in the Symbolist movement. On his return to Portugal he became involved in the cultural magazine A Águia (The Eagle) as artistic director from its foundation in 1910 to 1927. He also taught in the School of Fine Arts in Porto, while continuing to paint. He painted a prodigious amount of portraits, but his real interest was in landscapes and over the years his style developed from the early Naturalist landscapes influenced by the Barbizon school to paintings which conveyed an expression of his personal response to the landscape, as can be seen in Contemplação (Contemplation, 1911), on display in the Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon. In this painting a young woman is standing on some craggy rocks overlooking the sea. She is wearing a very large hat and we cannot see her face. The clothes she is wearing are painted in similar shades of light pink and purple to the rocks and sky and she has become part of the landscape. The painting is imbued with a sense of melancholy.

Eduardo Viana (1881-1967)

Eduardo Viana, A Revolta das Bonecas, 1916, Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon

Eduardo Viana studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts inLisbon and then moved to Paris in 1905, where he became interested in the works of Cézanne and the Fauvist movement. On his return to Portugal in 1915, he lived with Sonia and Robert Delaunay, the founders of the Orphism art movement which used geometric shapes in bold colours. This further influenced his style and he began creating works that were abstract, such as A Revolta das Bonecas (The Dolls’ Revolt, 1916), on display in the Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon. In this painting Viana uses circles, rectangles and triangles in contrasting colours to depict deconstructed dolls.

Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887-1918)

Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, Pelas Janelas (Desdobramento – Intersecção), 1914, Museu Coleção Berardo, Lisbon

Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso studied architecture at the School of Fine Arts in Lisbon for a year and then moved to Paris to continue his studies. There he met other ex-pat Portuguese artists, including Eduardo Viana and abandoned architecture to concentrate on painting. He also became friends with the avant-garde artists Constantin Brâncuși, Amedeo Modigliani and Sonia and Robert Delauney and after his return to Portugal at the outbreak of the First World War he set up the group La Corporation Nouvelle (The New Corporation) with the Delauneys, Eduardo Viana and José de Almada Negreiros, in which they were all experimenting with Orphism, influenced by Cubism but with abstract images in bold colours. However, it is hard to define Souza-Cardoso’s style, as he was influenced by many of the artistic movements of the early twentieth century and his work shows elements of Impressionism, Cubism, Futurism and Fauvism. His 1914 work Pelas Janelas (Desdobramento – Intersecção) (Through the Windows (Unfolding – Intersection)), on display in the Museu Coleção Berardo in Lisbon, is a Cubist-influenced painting in which he uses a series of simple geometric shapes in natural shades of blue, green, yellow and orange layered over each other to give perspective.

José de Almada Negreiros (1893-1970)

José de Almada Negreiros, Retrato de Fernando Pessoa, 1964, Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon

José de Almada Negreiros was a Modernist artist and part of the avant-garde Futurist movement. He was an artist in the fullest sense of the word, for, as well as paintings, drawings and murals, he also wrote novels, poems and essays, could turn his hand to acting and dancing and designed theatrical sets. During the Salazar dictatorship (which lasted from the 1930s to the 1970s) he managed to walk a fine line between his government-approved public works and his private works that were critical of Portuguese society at the time. He is most known for his richly coloured paintings with abstract geometric elements, as seen in the Retrato de Fernando Pessoa (Portrait of Fernando Pessoa, 1964), which can be seen in the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon and is a replica of a portrait he created in 1954 for the Irmãos Unidos restaurant in Lisbon, a restaurant that the Modernists would meet in. In the portrait of Portugal’s greatest Modernist writer, Fernando Pessoa is portrayed sitting at a café table with a cigarette in one hand and his other hand resting on a piece of writing paper which is lying on the table with a pen across it. Also on the table is a coffee cup and two books, the cover of the top one reads ‘Orpheu 2’ (the name of the Modernist literary magazine that Almada Negreiros and Pessoa created together in 1915 and of which only two editions were ever published). The predominant colours in the painting are bold reds and oranges in geometric patterns on the floor and back wall, with the solitary figure of Pessoa, in the middle of the painting, dressed in black with his distinctive hat, glasses and moustache.

Júlio Pomar (1926-2018)

Júlio Pomar, O Gadanheiro, 1945, Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon

Júlio Pomar studied at the School of Fine Arts in both Lisbon and Porto, but did not complete the course. In the 1940s he was influenced by the Neo-realism movement and around the same time joined the Portuguese Communist Party, and both of these influences were reflected in the themes of his work. Many of his works were considered politically subversive by the Salazar regime. By the early 1960s, when he moved to Paris, he had begun to move away from Neo-realism and was experimenting with other styles and even other media. Over his long career he produced works in various media, including painting, drawing, ceramics, sculpture and collage. The painting O Gadanheiro (The Reaper, 1945), on display in Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacionalde Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon, is an example of Pomar’s Neo-realism period. The painting is a portrait of a farm labourer cutting wheat with a scythe. However, the image is distorted with parts of the man’s body being out of proportion. In the foreground, the scythe dominates the painting as it moves through the wheat, which along with the storm clouds in the background, gives a sense of menace. The subject matter was politically subversive as, by putting the worker at the centre, it drew attention to the social and political situation of the working class in Portugal at the time.

José Escada (1934-1980)

José Escada, Le Rève Argente, 1967, São Roque Antiguidades e Galeria de Arte, Lisbon

José Escada was a painter and three-dimensional artist. He studied at the School of Fine Arts in Lisbon and then was part of the Movement for the Renewal of Religious Art (MRAR) and the Café Gelo Group with other artists in the late 1950s, before moving to Paris where he lived for 10 years. His paintings were abstract and later he created three-dimensional cut-outs and collages, inspired by Matisse, in which he explored the relationship between shape, light and shadow, as can be seen in Le Rève Argente (The Silver Dream, 1967), on diplay in the São Roque Antiguidades e Galeriade Arte in Lisbon. The relief is composed of cut-outs in aluminium emerging from the background creating concave and convex patterns, in such a way that the viewer gets a different viewing experience depending on where he or she is standing. In the late 1970s his work became more figurative and autobiographical, as can be seen in O Atelier (The Studio, 1979, private collection), a personal and intimate interior showing the artist’s view from his desk as he works of the room that has become his world.

José Escada, O Atelier, 1979, private collection

Paula Rego (b.1935)

Paula Rego, Self-portrait in Red, 1962, Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea, Lisbon

Paula Rego is arguably the most internationally known Portuguese artist, having lived and worked in London since the early 1950s, where she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art and later became Artist-in-Residence at the National Gallery. She grew up in the Fascist dictatorship of Salazar’s Portugal in a middle-class family where wealthy women were encouraged to do nothing and many of her paintings reflect this repressive society. Her works are often disturbing and funny at the same time and her art is a place where she can explore her desires, fears and memories, as can be seen in the surrealist Self-portrait in Red (1962), on display in Museu do Chiado – Museu Nacional de Arte Contemporânea in Lisbon, which contains fragmented autobiographical elements far removed from traditional self-portraits. The background is bright red with a collage of fragmented images painted or glued on, including a figure of a young girl in the centre surrounded by images of grotesque children’s story-like characters. In her later works Rego has used a more figurative style in which women are often portrayed with manly features and the themes of domination, sexuality, fear and grief recur. In The Family (1988, Marlborough International Fine Art), painted as her husband was dying of a degenerative illness, the mannequin-like man is seated on the bed being dressed, undressed or even sexually abused by two of the three females in the room. The characters are distorted and complex emotions, ranging from tenderness to anger, are suggested, giving a sense of unease.

Paula Rego, The Family, 1988, Marlborough International Fine Art, London
'The Inquisitors’ Manual' by António Lobo Antunes, Portuguese literature

‘The Inquisitors’ Manual’ by António Lobo Antunes

The Inquisitors’ Manual (O Manual dos Inquisidores, 1996) is an epic, sprawling novel set in the second half of the twentieth century, centring on Senhor Francisco, a Minister in Salazar’s government, in the years before and after the 1974 Revolution. With not one narrator, but many, the novel depicts a Portugal under the strict regime of the dictatorship and the years after the Revolution when many people’s lives still seemed to be marked by poverty and drabness.

The opening of the novel is an initially confusing stream of consciousness by Senhor Francisco’s son, João, weaving between the past and present as he prepares to divorce his snobbish wife while thinking back to his early life with his father. The narration is reminiscent of the first part of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury where snippets of information are given that are expanded on later and which the reader tries to piece together to get a fuller version of the truth. The boy João has observed his father abusing the female members of his staff, taking a mistress and introducing him to a secret sister he didn’t know he had. Later in the novel these characters will get a chance to tell their stories in a series of ‘reports’ and ‘commentaries’ to an unseen author. Some characters reveal the fear they feel in giving this information (a legacy of the dictatorship’s harsh censoring of information), such as the steward’s daughter whose commentary includes parenthetic comments to the author, ‘(he won’t get better, will he? Swear to me he won’t get better, because if he gets better he’ll beat my brains out)’ (p21*). More and more characters are introduced to give their interpretations of the previous ‘report’ and to put João’s memories into context. Through this we learn about the unrequited love Senhor Francisco’s housekeeper, Titinia, has for him; a woman who can’t understand why he never made a pass at her, although the reader can deduce why when another character describes her as dressing ‘the way nuns dress when not in their habits’ (p223). We also hear the story of a young woman from a poor background who Senhor Francisco pursues and makes his mistress due to the resemblance she bears to his wife Isabella, who left him for another man when João was very young. At first it all goes well for her, as Senhor Francisco moves her and her mother into an expensive apartment in a fashionable part of Lisbon, but things start to go badly wrong firstly in the disapproving attitude of the caretaker of the building who makes it clear that she and her mother do not belong in the apartment block, and later when Senhor Francisco insists she dresses in the old-fashioned, torn clothes his wife discarded when she left him. When Senhor Francisco tires of her she has to return to the drab life she lived before. The most tragic character in the novel is Senhor Francisco’s illegitimate daughter, Paula, who is raised by a poor childless widow and only meets her father a few times in her life, but despite this lack of contact, she is labelled in her neighbourhood as the daughter of one of Salazar’s ministers; before the Revolution she is seen as someone to avoid as everyone she gets involved with is arrested and beaten up by the secret police, and after the Revolution she is ostracised and worse for being the daughter of a fascist. She unsuccessfully tries to get a share of her father’s farmhouse and estate from her half-brother, but he has already lost it to his ex-wife’s family who are building a luxury holiday resort on the land. Paula’s ambition, in a speech that is repeated like a mantra, is to have  ‘a slightly better life than what my godmother was able to give me … an apartment in Lisbon, no matter if it’s small, no matter in what neighbourhood, and not to have to pinch pennies all month long, not to have to shop at the cheapest supermarket, to be able to go occasionally to a restaurant and eat a lunch I didn’t have to cook myself, to go to the movies on Saturday and forget that when I turn the key in my door there’s no one waiting from me on the other side, no one for me to take care of, to buy clothes for, to go on holiday with me in July to southern Spain.’ (pp228-9).

We learn through the eyes of other characters that she isn’t very pretty, João describes her as ‘a girl with glasses and no makeup, no satins and no lapdog, a sad-looking typist or switchboard operator’ (p49), and as the years pass her hair is greying, none of her lowly ambitions are realised and she remains desperately lonely until she manipulates a situation with an intellectually challenged colleague in order to have a baby.

This is a book about a Portugal damaged by almost 50 years of dictatorship, represented by Senhor Francisco who abuses everyone he is involved with but ends his own days in a care home humiliatingly unable to even urinate unaided. From the beginning it is clear that this is an important novel, not just in Portuguese literature, but in world literature. Antunes is a masterful writer who captures the intimate lives of ordinary people through their thoughts and memories, their hopes and their drab realities, expertly weaving the past and present with not a single extraneous word (although the sensitive translation into English by Richard Zenith should not be overlooked). Like Faulkner, who gave a voice to the people of the southern states of the USA, Antunes gives a voice to the people of Portugal. Antunes is the natural successor to José Saramago and Portugal’s hope for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

*António Lobo Antunes, The Inquisitors’ Manual, trans. by Richard Zenith (New York; Grove Press, 2003)

Rua do Quebra Costas: encapsulating the essence of Coimbra, Uncategorized

Rua do Quebra Costas: encapsulating the essence of Coimbra

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‘A Tricana de Coimbra’, Rua do Quebra Costas, Coimbra

A street that connects the lower part of the original walled city of Coimbra with the higher part has the witty name of Rua do Quebra Costas (Back-breaking Street), due to the steepness of the hill (despite the addition of steps in the nineteenth century to ease the climb, allegedly at the instigation of writer and former alumnus of Coimbra University Almeida Garrett). It is in one of the historically important areas of Coimbra, linking a medieval arch with the Sé Velha (Old Cathedral) and including two sculptures that embody Coimbra.

At the bottom of the hill is a Manueline archway, the Porta da Barbacã (Barbican Gate), which as the name suggests, was the outer defence of the old walled city. On the front of the arch is the royal coat of arms and a sculpture of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.

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Porta da Barbacã, Coimbra

A little further up the hill is a second arch, the eleventh-century Arco de Almedina, which was part of the original city wall and has a bas-relief image of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus on the interior of the arch, with the royal coat of arms and the Coimbra coat of arms either side of it. This second arch leads into the Rua do Quebra Costas.

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Arco de Almedina, Coimbra

Just after the Arco de Almedina is the first of two sculptures in homage to Coimbra, a fado guitarra, sculpted by Alves André in bronze in 2013. The sculpture conveys Coimbra as a woman with a small teardrop-shaped head and the body of a guitarra standing on an academic gown with flowers beneath her.

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Fado guitarra sculpture, Rua do Quebra Costas, Coimbra

A little further up the hill is the Fado ao Centro, a fado centre that offers an introduction to Coimbra fado.

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Fado ao Centro, Coimbra

Coimbra fado is different from Lisbon fado in several ways. While Lisbon fado is focussed on the singer who conveys the message through the emotion they express in their dramatic performance, Coimbra fado is more linked to the university and generally performed by male-only students and graduates dressed in their academic gowns. In Coimbra fado the guitarra takes a central role. The instrument is different to that played in Lisbon fado, being smaller with a distinctive teardrop-shaped decoration at the head and having a slightly different sound. The lyrics cover themes of love and student life, but are also often about the city of Coimbra. Lines from Coimbra fado songs are inscribed on the sculpture:

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Fado guitarra sculpture, Rua do Quebra Costas, Coimbra

Coimbra é de Portugal
Como a flor é do jardim
Como a estrela é do céu
Como a saudade é de mim.
(Coimbra is of Portugal
As the flower is of the garden
As the star is of the sky
As the yearning is of me.)
(From Coimbra, Menina e Moça (Coimbra, Girl and Young Woman))

Do Choupal até à Lapa
Foi Coimbra os meus amores
A sombre da minha capa
Deu no chão abriu em flores.
(From Choupal to Lapa
Coimbra was my loves
The shade of my cape
Became the ground covered with flowers.)
(From Ó Coimbra do Mondego’)

Coimbra terra de encanto
Fundo mistério é o seu
Chega a ter saudades dela
Quem nunca nela viveu.
(Coimbra land of charm
Yours is a deep mystery
Those who never lived there
Come to yearn for it.)
(From Coimbra, Rio Mondego )

A little further up the hill is the second of the sculptures, ‘A Tricana de Coimbra’ (The Woman of Coimbra) also by Alves André, 2008, which depicts a seated woman in bronze, dressed in traditional clothes of shawl, headscarf and apron and holding an amphora of water.

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‘A Tricana de Coimbra’, Rua do Quebra Costas, Coimbra

Tricana’ was the name given to the working-class women of Coimbra, some of whom worked as water-sellers, and is an image that survives in Coimbra folklore. The plaque on the statue reads:
Cantanda Pelos Poetas
Airosa, delicada, irradiando graça e simpatia, embora o seu amor nem sempre fosse correspondido.
(Praised by the Poets
Graceful, delicate, irradiating beauty and kindness, even though her love was not always reciprocated.)

At the end of Rua do Quebra Costas is the castle-like Sé Velha (Old Cathedral), Coimbra’s original cathedral dating from the twelfth century, when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal. An incongruous renaissance portal, known as the Porta Especiosa (Specious Door), on the north facade, built by the French sculptor Jean de Rouen (known in Portugal as João de Ruão) in the sixteenth century, contrasts with the Romanesque style of the rest of the building. The Largo da Sé Velha is a good place to get your breath before continuing up the hill to the top of the city.

From the arches in the old city wall at the bottom of the Rua do Quebra Costas to the enduring cathedral at the top, by way of the sculptures paying tribute to Coimbra and the traditional women of the city, this small street encapsulates the essence of Coimbra.

Coimbra, Jardim da Manga, Coimbra: a cloister designed on a sleeve

Jardim da Manga, Coimbra: a cloister designed on a sleeve

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Jardim da Manga, Coimbra

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Jardim da Manga, Coimbra

Hidden away behind the Church of Santa Cruz on Rua Olímpio Nicolau Rui Fernandes in downtown Coimbra is a pretty little square that has the curious name of Jardim da Manga (Garden of the Sleeve). In the centre of the square is a Renaissance-style structure in yellow made up of a central fountain topped with a dome, four turret-shaped chapels, one at each corner, and water channels with small fountains running in each direction. The name allegedly comes from King João III who visited the Monastery of Santa Cruz in 1533 and drew a plan for a cloister and a garden on the sleeve of his doublet (manga means sleeve, hence the name Jardim da Manga). His design was realised under the direction of the abbot of the monastery, Friar Brás de Braga, but this building, constructed by local stonemasons, is all that has survived. It is full of Christian symbolism, representing the Fountain of Life and the four rivers that flowed from the Garden of Eden. There are gargoyles on the exterior and in each chapel are altarpieces with bas-reliefs, in a state of despair, depicting lives of various saints, sculpted by Jean de Rouen (known in Portugal as João de Ruão).

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Bas-relief inside one of the chapels, Jardim da Manga, Coimbra

Sadly, despite being a National Monument, it could clearly do with a good clean to remove the mould stains on the exterior and some renovation of the interior, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that it is a unique and charming building in a peaceful little square and one of my favourite places in Coimbra.

Coimbra, The University of Coimbra: the oldest university in Portugal

The University of Coimbra: the oldest university in Portugal

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Old university from left bank of River Mondego, Coimbra

Sitting on top of a hill above the city of Coimbra is the Paço das Escolas (Schools’ Palace), a former royal palace that houses the oldest university in Portugal, the University of Coimbra. When the university was first founded by King Dinis in 1290 it was on two sites, Coimbra and Lisbon, and stayed like that until 1537 when King João III decreed that the university should be based in Coimbra. Statues honouring both King Dinis and King João III have been erected on the campus.

Statue of King Dinis, University of Coimbra

There has been a palace on the site of the Paço das Escolas since the late-tenth century when it was the Royal Palace of Alcáçova during the Moorish period, although the exterior of the palace dates largely from the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, and from 1131 it was the home of the Portuguese royal family, beginning with Afonso Henriques, later King Afonso I the first king of Portugal, at a time when Coimbra was the capital of Portugal.

The entrance to the Velha Universidade (Old University) in the Paço das Escolas is through the ornate Porta Férrea (Iron Gate) designed by António Tavares in 1634 and decorated with images of King Dinis and King João III, along with figures symbolizing the three areas of study at that time (law, medicine and theology) and at the top of the gate is a figure representing wisdom. As we approached the Porta Férrea the crowds of tourists parted long enough for me to notice the university emblem of Minerva (the Roman goddess of wisdom) holding a book and a sceptre with an armillary sphere on the top, designed in a pattern of cobbles on the ground.

The gateway leads into a large courtyard, the Pátio das Escolas, with an imposing statue of King João III looking proudly at the university buildings, sculpted by Francisco Franco in 1950, and taking pride of place in the centre of the courtyard.

Statue of King João III, Paço das Escolas, University of Coimbra

After buying our ticket to visit the chapel, library and Great Hall, we had 30 minutes before our timed entry into the library, which gave us an opportunity to look at the intricate details on the exterior of the building, starting with the Via Latina, a walkway constructed in the 1770s, during the period of enlightenment and educational reform spearheaded by the Marquês de Pombal, who encouraged a wider range of subjects to be taught at the university. The Via Latina has a beautiful colonnaded staircase and sculptures depicting King José I alongside figures representing fortitude, justice and wisdom.

As the chapel and library were closed at that time we were able to marvel at the Manueline-style decor dating from the early-sixteenth century on the doorway of the Capela de São Miguel (Saint Michael’s Chapel), including the royal coat-of-arms, the cross of Christ and an armillary sphere, and at the doorway of the Biblioteca Joanina (Joanine Library) dating from the 1720s which was built to look like a triumphal arch, with columns and an elaborate cornice topped with a crown.

To the left of the library, and built around the same time, is the Escada de Minerva (Minerva Staircase), which is another entrance into the Pátio das Escolas, with a statue at the top of Minerva, again holding a book and sceptre. Watching over the courtyard is an early-eighteenth-century bell tower, designed by António Canevari, with a clock and four bells which regulate the start and end of each day. One of the bells (the one facing the river) is nicknamed a cabra (the goat) allegedly due to the sound it makes (but the word cabra is also a slang word with pejorative connotations and I can imagine that many a student has muttered it under his/her breath as the bell rang to start classes!). The best views of the old university and the tower are from the other side of the River Mondego, but it is also worth climbing the 184-step spiral staircase for unrestricted views of the city and beyond, including the two cathedrals (Sé Velha and Sé Nova (Old and New Cathedrals)) below and the two convents (Santa Clara-a-Velha and Santa Clara-a-Nova) on the left bank of the river, from the viewing platform at the top of the tower (be aware that you have to buy a separate ticket to do this).

Having explored the exterior, it was time to visit the first of the three interior sections of the old university, Saint Michael’s Chapel. This small chapel was built in the late-fifteenth/early-sixteenth century from a design by Marcos Pires and Diogo de Castilho, and it may be small but it was richly decorated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and every corner of the chapel has something of interest, including the Mannerist altar built in 1605 with a statue of Nossa Senhora da Luz (Our Lady of Light, the patron saint of students) in a small altar to the left and another of Nossa Senhora da Conceição (Our Lady of the Conception, the patron saint of the university) on the right. Added to this are the beautiful late-seventeenth-century azulejo panels that cover every millimetre of wall, but the highlight is the Baroque organ built in the 1730s by Friar Manuel Gomes which is richly decorated with gold leaf and trumpet-blowing angels and which comprises 2000 pipes.

The chapel was a warm-up for the Baroque extravagence of the much-publicized Joanine Library. I had read wonderful things about it before I arrived, but was disappointed to find out that photography in the library was forbidden, so I had to try to commit everything to memory; I did buy a slightly out-of-focus postcard in the gift shop, but it didn’t do justice to the opulence of this library which was commissioned by King João V in 1717 (hence the name ‘joanine’). During this time Portugal had become a very wealthy country, particularly from gold which had recently been discovered in the Portuguese colony of Brazil and this is celebrated in the library, particularly at the far end where a portrait of King João V (attributed to Giorgio Domêncio Duprà) hangs surrounded by excessive gold ornamentation and topped by a gold crown. The library is divided up into three rooms and in each room are two-tiered oak shelves decorated with gold-leaf images in the Chinese style which was popular at the time, by Manuel de Silva, and tables made of exotic wood. The ceiling is decorated with detailed trompe l’oeil paintings by António Simões Ribeiro and Vicente Nunes, depicting the library, the university and the faculties of law, medicine and theology. It is claimed that there are 60,000 books in the library dating from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; among the rarer books in the collection is a first edition of Os Lusíadas by Luís Vaz de Camões (1572) and one of the few surviving Hebrew Bibles from the fifteenth century. The books are aesthetically arranged on the shelves making it look more like a museum than a library and I suspect that it has been a long time since anyone has actually read a book from here. The books are protected by keeping the library at a constant temperature and level of humidity and by a colony of bats which live in the library and eat the insects that would normally destroy the pages.

Postcard of Joanine Library, Paço das Escolas, University of Coimbra

From the Piso Nobre (Noble Floor), as this part of the library is called, we were ushered downstairs to a comparatively stark area with more displays of books on shelves and in glass cabinets and then down a spiral staircase to the basement where we found ourselves in a former medieval prison made up of two cells, which from 1773 to 1832 was used as the prisão acadêmica (academic prison), a place where students were imprisoned for breaking the university rules.

It was nice to get back into the bright light of the courtyard, which we crossed to climb the stairs of the Via Latina to enter the main part of the former palace. The highlight in this part of the building is the Sala dos Capelos (Hall of Capes), also known as Sala Grande dos Actos (Great Hall), which was once the throne room dating from 1655. This room still has a regal look to it, from the red and gold decor and the dark wooden furniture to the portraits of the kings of Portugal, from King Afonso I to King João IV, on the walls and the ceiling covered with over 100 wooden panels painted in a Baroque style in gold and silver by Jacinto Pereira da Costa. The hall is now used for official university ceremonies, including being the place PhD viva voce exams are held.

Great Hall (Sala dos Capelos), Paço das Escolas, University of Coimbra

The other rooms open to the public retain a palatial look, including the Sala do Exame Privado (Private Examination Room) with a colourful ceiling by José Ferreira Araújo (1701) and walls lined with azulejos and portraits of past university rectors; the Sala das Armas (Hall of Arms) which houses antique arrows displayed on the azulejo-decorated walls and displays the royal coat-of-arms on the ceiling; and the Sala Amarela (Yellow Room) and Sala Azul (Blue Room) which are named after the colour of the silk wallpaper on the walls, each representing a faculty (yellow for medicine and blue for science and technology), and both of which have more portraits of former rectors on the walls.

The university, including the Paço das Escolas, the sixteenth-century buildings on the Rua da Sofia in the lower part of the city (many of them no longer owned by the university and not open to the public, including Colégio de São Tomás de Aquino (Saint Thomas Aquinas College) and Colégio de São Pedro dos Religiosos Terceiros (Saint Peter of the Third Order College)), the eighteenth-century science buildings (including Colégio de Jesus (Jesus College), which has displays centred on the 18th– and 19th-century study of physics and natural history) and the Botanic Garden (created in 1772 under the auspices of the Marquês de Pombal), is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is as revered in Portugal as Oxford and Cambridge Universities are in the UK.


Alumni include the writers Luís Vaz de Camões, Almeida Garrett, Eça de Queiroz and Vergílio Ferreira; the political singer-songwriter José (Zeca) Afonso; the eighteenth-century prime minister and reformer the Marquês de Pombal; and the twentieth-century dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. Nowadays the university departments are spread around the city, many of them in ugly concrete blocks built in the mid-twentieth-century during Salazar’s attempt to modernize the university. Despite (or because of) this, for many people the heart of the university is still in the Paço das Escolas.


Velha Universidade, Paço das Escolas, Coimbra

Ticket office is in Edifício da Biblioteca Geral, Largo da Porta Férrea. A ticket (€12) gives a timed entrance to the Joanine Library, Saint Michael’s Chapel and the Great Hall and a few other rooms of the former palace. It also includes entrance into the Colégio de Jesus, which is in a completely different building and wasn’t part of the tour when we visited in 2016. To climb the tower requires a separate ticket (€2).

Opening hours: March to October 9am-7.30pm; November to February 9.30am-1pm and 2pm-5.30pm (closed 1 January, 24 and 25 December, and closes at 2pm 31 December)

Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Coimbra (University of Coimbra Botanic Garden), Calçada Martim de Freitas, Coimbra

Entrance is free. Opening hours: April to September 9am-8pm; October to March 9am-5.30pm


Assumption Day, 15th August, Festivals

Assumption Day, 15th August

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‘Assumption of the Virgin’ by Bernardino di Betto, c1508 (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy)

Dia da Assunção de Nossa Senhora (Assumption Day) is a religious festival that takes place on 15th August which celebrates the Catholic Church’s belief that the Virgin Mary, at the end of her earthly life, did not die but instead her body and soul were assumed into heaven.

Throughout the country there are processions of the statue of the Virgin Mary through the streets, followed by a Mass. But for many people the national holiday falls right in the middle of the summer holiday season and is an excuse to head to the beach!

Banks, post offices and other public services are closed on this day (this includes some museums) and public transport runs to a reduced timetable. However, large shopping centres and shops in tourist areas should be open as usual. Churches will be closed to tourists while Mass is taking place.