We kinda ran out of juice yesterday before seeing one last museum that was on our list – The Museu Nacional dos Coches. The national carriage museum. Now that might sound like a “why?” to many of you, but the museum contains the most extensive collection of carriages in Europe, reportedly the entire fleet owned by the various royal houses of Portugal, extending back to the mid-17th century. Plus, carriages are pulled by horses, right?
Before that though we had stuff to do. Our apartment internet became very flaky yesterday afternoon, up and down, off and on- it would run for a while then disconnect. Last night’s blog was a real challenge, loading photos a couple at a time, waiting until late to put in the text, hoping it was all posting. When I got up this morning, I was hoping that it had been an ISP problem but it wasn’t – my first connection of the day lasted about 5 minutes. The problem was creating an ancillary issue – I couldn’t check in for our flight tomorrow, so after breakfast and coffee we did the only thing we could do – head off to Starbucks to use their WiFi.
After collecting our daily Times, we headed up towards the fancy shopping center on top of the Baixa-Chiado Metro station. On Saturday we’d found the magic way in – elevators leaving from an anonymous doorway in a bank of apartment buildings. Today though, the doors were locked. Looking at my watch I realized we were a few minutes early for what was probably a 10 AM opening time. So instead of taking the easy way in we hiked up the hill and around to the front door to hang out with the smokers, also waiting to get in. The doors opened promptly, we found a table, got some coffee and got checked in for our flight.
Over the course of our week here, we have tried 3 of the 5 major public transportation options. Having no reason to take a bus, we hadn’t done that. We used the Metro a few times, and it was great. Clean, fast, uncrowded. The only complaint – limited coverage for the things we wanted to do. Yesterday we tried a tram, it was horrible. Never again. Having had the tram experience we used a taxi again yesterday afternoon and it was great. They’re fast, clean and not horribly expensive. One side of town to the other for about $8. Today I wanted to try one more – the regional train. We’d met some Americans yesterday at the horse show and they’d said the trains were great so we huffed it over to Cais de Sodré station to catch the train to Belém.
Ticketing was easy, but we had a small glitch when I loaded all 4 of our trips onto one card and it wouldn’t let me through the gate after MLW used it first. So I quickly bought another leg for 2€ and joined her on the other side. The train left almost immediately, and 15 minutes later we were exiting directly across from the museum.
A little side note here, when we arrived at the horse school yesterday, we walked past the museum, or at least what we (and Google Maps) thought was the museum. An old barn on the site of the equestrian school with “Museu dos Coches” on the lintel above the door. It was open, we looked in and figured we’d see it after the horses. Well, when we passed by again, it was not open, and the door now had a sign that said, “Closed Temporarily.” Okay, so on we went to all the places we wanted to see, figuring we’d try to come back later, but as I said, we ran out of steam after the spectacular Marine Museum and caught a cab back to Lisbon.
One the way out of town, we passed the building again and the “Closed” sign was still in place, so I was quite happy that we had not walked all the way back down the hill for nothing. But at that intersection, the cabbie did a jog onto another street and passed by this huge, beautiful new glass and brick building with “Museu Nacional dos Coches” plastered on its side in giant, six-foot high white letters. Checking later, it turned out that the old museum was relocated to this new facility in 2015.
While we were amazed at the ship museum yesterday, this place was even more incredible. Two very large rooms with dozens of carriages spanning 5-centuries and ranging in importance from royal conveyances to horse-drawn taxis for regular people. There was even one car, an 1895 3-horsepower 2-seater from France that a local Count brought and thus became the first auto in Lisboa.
The designers did an incredible job, from the iPhone app that senses when you’re near a certain display to wonderful multi-language touchscreen multimedia devices at the important pieces explaining the technology of the time, the historical importance of the coach and even the “ambience” of the era, shown in period painting and illustrations. There were too many to really cover in depth here, but we had a few favorites.
The most ostentatiously incredible pieces were three ceremonial carriages used by Dom Rodrigo Almeida e Menezes, Marquês de Albrantes – King João V’s ambassador to Pope Clement XI. Each weighing around 5-tons, they are festooned with life-sized gilt statues depicting Portugal’s unique leadership in the world. One features Apollo singing the praises of the people of the country, another shows Lisboa as a woman, being crowned as the queen city of the world, and being adored by two statues, one from Africa, the other, Asia, the principal sources of Portugal’s trade wealth.
My favorite though was the biggest and brightest of them all. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, represented by two Nepture-like men, shaking hands in the middle of the globe and commemorating the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by Bartolomeu Dias in 1488.
When you see things like this, you begin to realize why monarchies across Europe came crashing down in the 18th and 19thcenturies.
The other fascinating set was a foursome of “Berlinda” carriages purchased for the “Exchanges of the Princesses.” The Berlinda represented a step forward in technology for these kinds of coaches. In order to improve the ride, the coach cabin was suspended on two long leather belts that could be adjusted via geared turnbuckles to improve the ride, depending on the quality of the road. King João V ordered 24 of them for the event which was intended to strengthen the bond between Spain and Portugal. Princess Maria Bárbara of Portugal was married to the future King of Spain, Fernando VI ,and Princess Mariana Victória of Spain was married to the future King of Portugal, José I. The whole event took place in January 1729 on some neutral ground at the border of the respective countries.
From there on, the technology of the carriages improved and became less of a wealthy person’s perk. A funny panel described the horrible traffic jams in the major cities in the 18th century due to the proliferation of coaches, sedan chairs, litters and horsemen forcing one king to ban all that traffic unless the travel had an actual purpose. The end of the display had a couple of stagecoaches, and one small auto that put an end to all of it.
The train ride back was a little less wonderful as it was standing room only. But at least it was short. The thing left to report was my inability to get out – MLW’s card was spent, mine was empty and none of the gates would open. I wasn’t alone though – there were 5 or 6 of us in the same pickle, and finally a kindly Siemans turnstile repairman took pity on us and opened the handicap gate.
This being our last night, we wanted a good meal, so we made it easy on ourselves and went back to the same Italian restaurant from last night. Another great dinner, friendly staff and a quick walk home.