Nothing sets the tone for the day better than a long hot walk with the docks to your right and a homeless city to your left. Of course I had no idea that’s where we’d end up when we decided to spend the morning at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, the national tile museum. We’ve been ceramic groupies ever since the first time we walked into the Real Alcazar in Sevilla and were bowled over by the Mudejar tile work. A strong tradition under during the Muslim rule of al-Andalus, when the Moors were finally evicted, the Christians recognized a good thing and kept the craftsman around, resulting in a 5-century tradition of ceramics that began in Sevilla and reached its apotheosis in Portugal.
It looked easy enough, take the Metro from the Metro at the Terreiro do Paço station, ride to the end at Santa Apolônia station at the very end. Exit, turn left and walk .9 miles to the museum.
Yea, well, it’s never that easy, is it.
We exited, turned left and walked along a very deserted, industrial boulevard, train tracks and repair shops to our left, giant cranes for unloading containers to our right. There was no shade, it was hot, and there was absolutely no indication that we were doing the right thing. So, on we went, eventually finding a bus stop and thinking maybe we could get on one and go where we needed to go. But the map was confusing, all in Portuguese and bore no relation to what we were looking at. Google Maps of course decided at this moment that it couldn’t “reach the internet” so it was of no use, there was no bus in sight and our strong scent of confusion had driven off the local that had been sitting in the shelter. A German couple, clearly on the same quest, came, looked at what we looked at and left, trusting that things would just work out. We did the same and after what seemed like forever found our way across the tracks and to the museum.
What a wonderful experience, 7-centuries of tile under one very beautiful roof. Originally a convent founded in 1509 by Doma Leonor it was expanded in 1541 by Dom João III and sanctified by Bispo de Viseu in 1624. An amazing internal chapel was added in the late 1600’s with an extraordinary collection of paintings by Willelm van der Kloet and Marcos da Cruz executed over the next 40 years. Like so much of Lisbon, it was wrecked during the 1755 earthquake and restored during the following 3 years. The government acquired the property in 1867, turning it into an asylum. In 1888, ceramics from old churches and manors were stored here and those formed the seed collection for the Museu which was founded in 1896.
If you love tile like we love tile, this museum is reason enough to spend a day in Lisbon. Arranged by age, you begin with the early production in Sevilla and Toledo, in the era following the Reconquista. Artisans were imported to Portugal in the late 16th century and from there the industry grew and became far more refined, becoming the “identity art” for the Portuguese culture. Azulejo by the way, comes from the Arabic word al zuleycha which means “small polished stone.”
The museum is well organized, with lots of information and room after room of beautiful tiles. In the center of the complex is an amazingly baroque-era church, so stuffed that it seems literally impossible to see it all no matter how hard you look. Bible stories presented in blue tiles cover the lower walls, crowned by large oil paintings that are hung with no room between them. Overhead, a barrel ceiling covered with even more paintings. The altar was on par with those that you would find in the larger neighborhood churches in Sevilla. Quite exceptional and very daunting.
As you walk through the centuries, you begin to appreciate how the technology and styles progressed, culminating in those matte finished zoo animals that your grandmother kept on a shelf. One of my later stops was a room dedicated to pots and plates ruined in production – beautiful blue ceramic pieces sadly conjoined with their molds. A nice touch amidst so much beauty and perfection.
Before leaving we fortified ourselves with coffee and croissant in the museum’s very nice little restaurant.
Having learned one painful navigation lesson for the day, we were happy to find a taxi waiting for us outside. We hopped in and sped off to our next destination, the Oceanario Lisbon Aquarium.
Located in the Parque das Naçoes, constructed as the centerpiece for Expo 98, the aquarium is the second largest in world. It turned out to be a splendid afternoon, an enormous central tank surrounded by habitat exhibits including penguins, otters, terns, puffins, and tidal animals. Unlike many aquariums I’ve been to, this one was very cleverly designed. Covering three floors, you had the typical crowded half-moon observation rooms, but these were supplemented by smaller, more intimate alcoves where you could escape the throngs and see the fish in peace. Some of them led to underwater caves, exposing you to fish that you would not normally see in the open water of the tank. The highlight was a pair of Ocean Sunfish, rarely seen in wild and almost never kept successfully in captivity. It was a genuine treat to see them lumbering by.
After a break we headed for dinner, thinking that we’d walk a bit up the Rossio district for a change of restaurant scenery. On the way down our block, we passed this little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, about 3 doors down. On previous nights, I thought it might be fun to try, just to get out of the hard-sell tourist restaurant grind, but there was nothing drawing me in. Tonight though, there was a charming young woman out front who invited us in. Not our plan, so we told her we were going to go for a walk and maybe we’d come back. On we went, passing by the same old options until it started to rain. Finally, we’d get the opportunity to test out all those shiny blue and white tiles in their slippery format! Guess what, it was just as bad as we expected. To say that every step mattered, would be a gross understatement. It was in the middle of slipping and sliding that we decided to head back and try out the little neighborhood place.
And what a great decision. Turned out that the nice young woman was from Nepal, so we got to talk a bit about altitude living and the Himalayas. For a light start, they offered us some in-house cheese – part goat, part cow- very pungent but without that unpleasant goat aftertaste. I had a little bowl of the best olives I’ve ever had, also in-house, pickled with garlic and spices. Like no other olive that I’ve ever eaten. For dinner MLW had a nice piece of grilled salmon, I chose the fried cod. Wonderful food, nice people, one more serendipitous travel experience.
I ended my evening with a local dessert whose name I couldn’t pronounce, but essentially a tube of chocolate wrapped in phyllo dough. When paying, I had a chat with the cashier about how to say “to go” in Portuguese. We’ve been speaking Spanish here like crazy, and it’s been no problem. Until today when I used it ordering a sandwich and the guy behind the counter said, “This is Portugal.” Well, MLW pointed out that Spain was next door and he went off on a riff about the US and Canada which was essentially a self-own when I pointed out that the US and Canada speak the same language. Well, I went home and studied it and confirmed what I already knew – “para llevar” (Spanish) is darn close to “para levar” (Portuguese.) The difference is in the pronunciation. The Spanish sounds like it looks while the Portuguese sounds like you’re swallowing the second half of “levar.” More like “leveyesh.”
The cashier replied, “From now on just speak Spanish.”