The purpose of this journey, my first to Portugal, was to explore the Jewish Legacy, hosted by Visit Portugal and their partners, Lisbon and Alentejo, TAP Portugal and the Lisbon Jewish community.
I am not Jewish.
Sadly, my knowledge of the Jewish people and Judaism was limited to multiple viewings of “Fiddler on the Roof” combined with Sunday School Classes and reminders in the setting of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”. (The 12 brothers were the progenitors of the 12 Tribes of Israel)
As it turned out, I was following a Path of Faith of my own! It seemed to me you could not discover the Jewish Legacy without finding Christianity nearby. Throughout time, there has been conflict and unfortunately, death in the name of religion. I make that statement as an acknowledgement to Inquisitions and Massacres. What can a person say to this madness which still goes on in some areas of the world today?
Lisbon, the capital of Portugal and Western Europe’s oldest city is situated on the Tagus River Estuary and the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal is the 3rd safest country in the World and boasts 300 days of sun each year. Portugal is famous for their Wines (think Port from the Douro Valley)
Pastries de Nata (delicious custard tarts, crunchy, soft and gooey)
Cork and Cork based products (the World’s top Cork producer)
Fado Music (unique to Portugal, expressing a longing for something or someone absent, sung usually solo with guitar accompaniment),
Portuguese tiles (beautiful tiles covering interiors and exteriors of buildings)
One can sense the pride in these friendly Portuguese people, especially when they speak about “The Discoveries”. Portugal was once one of the biggest empires in the world, in fact, the first country to go in search of the New World. They were also the first to round the tip of Africa, make it to India by Sea, and to discover Brazil. This achievement is embodied in the Monument to the Discoveries, one of the top attractions in Lisbon. A popular statement is that 500 years ago Portugal discovered the World by sea. Now, the World is discovering Portugal.
If you travel to Lisbon, be sure to spend time in Rossio Square, the most famous Plaza in the city. It’s been around since the middle ages (thankfully these days they no longer hold the public executions of the Inquisition) and now is full of shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and the National Theatre (which was originally the Court of the Inquisition). It’s vibrant and worth more than just one visit! You will enjoy soaking up the atmosphere and perhaps indulge in some hot roasted chestnuts, available at several sellers, as you stroll this pedestrian only area.
In the Alfama District you will find Sao Jorge Castle. (Castelo de Saint Jorge) Built in the mid-11th century, during the Moorish period, its purpose was to house military troops but became a Royal Residence until the 1600s. Climb the ramparts for gorgeous views from the parapet and battlements. Your photos from here will be stunning.
Be prepared to walk when visiting central Lisbon. You can tour the Chiado, Rossio, Bairro, Alto and Alfama districts on foot easily if you have no physical limitations. One must be extremely careful walking (in sensible shoes) over the beautiful cobblestone streets. These stones are made of limestone and basalt and become very slippery when wet. This is not a flat city as it is built around 7 hills, but the more you walk, the less guilt you will feel when you eat one of those fabulous custard tarts!
The Jeronimos Monastery, with the church of Santa Maria de Belem is probably the most well-known monument of the capital. As a gesture of appreciation, it was built to commemorate the trip of Vasco de Gama (Lisbon’s most famous explorer) to India. UNESCO has classified this as a World Heritage site.
Across the Tagus River is the Cristo Rei Statue, built in 1959. This monument is similar to Corcovado in Rio De Janiero, Brazil. It was constructed because Portugal did not participate in World War II.
We visited the Shaare Tikva Synagogue (Doors of Hope) which was inaugurated in Lisbon in 1904. From1942, the World War II Jewish refugees who sought exile in Lisbon were made welcome. Until 1496 there were three Jewish Quarters in the city.
Leaving Lisbon, we travelled by coach about 224 kilometres (2.5 hours) to Castelo De Vide. This town today has only about 3,200 inhabitants but the most visited area is the streets around the castle which were occupied by a large Jewish community. This is the best preserved site in the country. The core of the synagogue and the surrounding buildings are very significant. The Tabernacle of this synagogue had been hidden behind a false wall. Today, this building houses a Museum with a wall with names of the victims of the Inquisition- a tribute to those who died for their beliefs that will leave you feeling moved and disturbed at the intolerance of humanity.
Next stop was Elvas, a World Heritage city. This is about a 1.5 hour drive from Castelo De Vide. Elvas is a “border town” to Spain and had two Jewish quarters dating back to 1386. This is another wonderful place, as pretty as a picture post card. Wandering the narrow streets was a real treat.
We continued on to the next World Heritage city, Evora, located only an hour from Elvas. A walking tour here is a must and a visit to the Evora library afforded us a chance to see two copies of Abraham Zacuto’s Almanac Perpetuum. This book on Navigation was printed in 1496 and came to the library in 1576 by way of the Jesuits. When you view such old things, it is a reminder of how young our Canada really is!
Not far from the Library is the Church of Sao Francisco. There was a convent built in 1376. We paid a visit to the Chapel of Bones. Both walls and pillars are covered with thousands of bones and skulls, brought from burial areas that were associated with the Convent. This was created in the 17th century and the purpose was to encourage people to think on the transitory nature of human life. We are all the same in the end, wealthy or poor.
Our journey ended back in Lisbon with a Farewell Dinner among new friends. The adventure was over, but the memories will last forever: The Synagogues, Cathedrals, Fortresses, Meals, Wines and, most of all, the wonderful People who so enriched my visit.