Searching for Portugal’s golden age city in modern Lisbon

Lisbon was one of the wealthiest cities in the world in the early 16th century thanks to trade. But today the traces of the place known to contemporary explorers and merchants have all but vanished from the main streets of Portugal’s capital.

The city was virtually wiped out by a devastating earthquake, and tsunami and fires that followed, in 1755. Thousands died – estimates range from between 15,000 and 60,000 – and buildings were reduced to rubble. As I wrote in my last blog, the neighbourhood of Alfama – stretching up the hillside from the cathedral to the castle – was a rare survivor.

Belem Tower

During the reign of Manuel I – who ruled from 1495 to 1521 – Portugal experienced a golden age of exploration and the king became one of Europe’s richest rulers. Perhaps most significant was Vasco da Gama’s 1497 voyage from Lisbon in search of a sea route to the spices in the East, which put an end to the Venetian monopoly of the trade. From 1500 Portugal had a presence in Brazil, India in 1505, Macau in 1557.

Lisbon grew as a wealthy, cosmopolitan city on the back of the profits from trading spices, gold, silver and slaves, and considerable sums were spent on lavish new buildings. In the early 16th century the king moved his palace from the hilltop castle to closer to the river (now Commercial Square) so he would have a ring-side view of the ships arriving and departing for all over the world.

To see impressive surviving early 16th century buildings you need to get a tram to Belem, four miles east from the main Commercial Square and an area not as badly affected by the 1755 earthquake.

It was from Belem that Vasco de Gama set sail for India, and the splendid Mosteiro dos Jeronimos was commissioned by Manuel I to mark his safe return (and funded by the spices he brought back with him). The convent wing was destroyed by the earthquake, but the church – which contains Vasco de Gama’s tomb – and cloisters survived. Today a Unesco World Heritage Site, the limestone-clad south facade is reached from the river through pleasant ornate gardens, centred around an imposing water fountain.

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Further along the river, Belem Tower, with its turrets and battlements, was built in 1515 as a fortress to defend Lisbon. The decorative symbols chart Portugal’s explorations in the New World during its Golden Age.

Following the 1755 earthquake, the main power between the ineffectual king Jose I – Sebastia Jose de Carvalho e Melo – took the lead in re-building Lisbon. The man better remembered as the Marques de Pombal ensured corpses were disposed and the living were cared for, but he also began the process of building a new city.

Appropriately, Jose’s statue stands at the centre of the vast Commercial Square, built on the site of the old palace (which was entirely wiped out by the earthquake). It was from here that the main roads of the new Baixa (lower city), built following a grid pattern, all led. Visitors to modern Lisbon need to look elsewhere for traces of Portugal’s golden age.

Commercial Square

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