The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Mudejar as a Muslim living under Christian kings especially during the 8th to 11th centuries. It also says that the first known use of the word is from 1829. Soon afterwards it was applied to a style of Spanish architecture in the sense that it still carries. The style is seen in all the photos here.
The main characteristics of the style are brickwork, decoration with tiles, intricate carpentry, and the use of geometrical motifs in decoration. The featured photo is of the grand mosque in Granada, and shows all these features. The mosque was closed because I went there in the afternoon of the last day of Ramzan, so I did not manage to see the interior. Still, the exterior gave a good indication of what the interior would have been like.
In Granada, near one end of Plaza Nueva is the church of San Gil and Santa Ana (photo above), an exemplary piece of Mudejar architecture. Look at the beautiful azulejos (tiles) at the top, above the bells, the woodwork just below it, the beautiful tiles above each of the romanesque arches, and the ornate pillar just below the bells. Again, because I was always there at the wrong time, I could not see the interior.
Notice the beautiful woodwork in these three photos. The one on the left is the exterior of the church of San Nicholas. I climbed up to it on a really hot day, and was too dehydrated to walk in. I sat in the shade outside and drank a lot of water. The other two photos above show the church of San Pedro and San Pablo. Typical Mudejar elements are visible outside. Inside, the ceiling is covered in incredibly beautiful woodwork. A friend told me about his perception of the difference between Islamic and Christian architecture in the Alhambra: that they embody different philosophies of what make something grand. These churches combine these two world views: the high interiors are grand in the manner of churches you see all over Europe, and the beautiful intricate workmanship brings to it the Asian love of detail. One wonders about the missed paths of history; if only the Jews had not been expelled in 1492, and the Muslims had been allowed to stay on after the 25 more years that they did, what kind of new architectural styles would have evolved as engineering improved.
In my mind the Giralda of Seville (photo above) is the grandest of these towers. Technically it does not belong to the Mudejar style, because it was built before the Christian reconquest, and was only converted from a minaret to a bell tower afterwards. However, it has all the elements of this style: brickwork to build up a really high tower and incredibly detailed external ornamentation.
Finally, a moment of duh-ness or serendipity, whatever you may call it. I looked back at the photos I took a year ago inside the Royal Palace of Sintra and realized that I had seen the Mudejar style before. The chapel inside the palace, which you see in the photo above, is an example of this style. And a particularly fine example, one must say.
In Seville we visited the cathedral, reputed to be the world’s largest. Before my feet gave up, we chanced on the ornate catafalque (see the featured photo) which holds the remains of Christopher Columbus. This reminded me of the wars of geometry which Portugal and Spain fought across the world.
The background to this is well-known. In 1486 Bartholomew Dias had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, and opened up the sea route to Asia for Portugal. Unable to compete in the east, Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain decided to finance the harebrained scheme of Columbus to find a westerly route to India after the fall of Granada in 1492. Spain hit gold, literally, when Columbus chanced on the continents now called the Americas.
The wars to control the sea-routes east and west went on for another couple of years. By 1494 Portugal and Spain involved the Pope in finding a political solution to end these skirmishes. It was agreed that everything to the east of meridian 46 degrees west would belong to Portugal and everything to the west to Spain. The agreement clearly did not consult geographers and geometers who could have told their political masters that you cannot divide a sphere into two parts by one line of latitude.
The result of this error, you might say, is history. In 1513 the Pacific Ocean was discovered by Balboa and his crew. Within years Spain crossed the Ocean and skirmishes broke out on the eastern edge of the Pacific. The new wars between Spain and Portugal were eventually halted by political recognition of mathematical facts. The meridian of 142 degrees east was the chosen as the second dividing line. In 1529 Portugal and Spain agreed that part of the world between these two meridians which included the Americas would belong to Spain, and the rest to Portugal.
It was hot in the cathedral, and I decided to sit down while The Family walked about. I slipped into my siesta which ended only when she came back to say we could go.
We loved Portugal so much that I want to write down every last detail that I can remember. But it is time to move on. So I’ll end with two of the best things about Portugal.
One comes with pictures. The memory of the lovely cakes that we had with coffee or tea will stay with us for a long time. Right from my first experience with queque while waiting for The Family to arrive at the Lisbon airport, on to the ubiquitous custard filled Pasteis da Nata, toasted almond cruezeiro in Coimbra, coconut in the Pao Deus or the Bolo-Rei in Porto, the Travesseiro with its egg and almond filling in A Piriquita in Sintra (photo alongside), to the interesting looking Coelhino back in Lisbon (featured image), the cakes and breads were amazing. This was a discovery, because nothing we read prepared us for this.
Nor were we prepared for the amazingly open Portuguese society. We travel because we enjoy the company of strangers, and like to learn how they live their lives. In every country we come across unexpected warmth and openness from strangers, but sadly, occasional suspicion or even hostility. Portugal is different. There was not a single interaction where we felt unwelcome. The warmth was not only towards tourists. We were also pleasantly surprised by the acceptance of new immigrants. In a world that seems to be slowly turning xenophobic, contemporary Portugal reaffirmed for us what humanity can be.
Portugal today is a gentle, laid back, and welcoming country. It seems in keeping with its present character that the towers of the National Palace (photo above) are not battle-armoured turrets but kitchen chimneys. I’m sure there are learned theses which trace the evolution of the militant nation whose atrocities are still remembered in India into the open and welcoming society you see today. Porto charmed us, and Sintra, our last stop before flying out, left us with wonderful memories.
The thousand year old National Palace is the centre of the town. We were nonplussed by the long queues, but both the queues to buy tickets and to enter move fast. The palace was built by the Moors, Portuguese alterations began only in 1281 CE, and more or less ended three centuries later.
Like all European palaces, it is a series of interconnected rooms, each of which is decorated differently. The stone walls and tiled roof are lined inside with wooden planks, beautifully painted. The roof of the first audience hall, the Swan Room, is painted with swans wearing crowns. This is followed by the private office of the king, the Magpie Room, whose roof is covered with paintings of magpies. Off to one side is the Mermaid Room. Interestingly, the many birds and mermaids on each roof are all distinct from each other. Less discussed are the later paintings. I liked a room which was full of painted ships and boats (one example above). Conservation must be hard; painting on wood is not the easiest of art work to maintain.
The Swan Room was in use. A group of people were playing what I think was Renaissance era music. The musical instruments could have come out of a painting by Botticelli. I’ve paid so little attention to Renaissance music that my memory of Sherlock Holmes having authored a monograph on the polyphonic motets of Lassus covers a very large fraction of my knowledge. The lilting tunes were wonderful, and The Family and I pulled ourselves out of the moving stream of tourists to listen.
A group of people were practising a dance to the music. The movements looked archaic, and the dance was probably also Renaissance. Some days ago The Family and I had noticed that in old azulejo murals the dancers never held each other, even by hand. If they were linked in a dance, then they would each hold a shared cloth. This old Portuguese convention against publicly touching another person was also visible in this dance.
All over Portugal we had noticed terrace gardens. When we sighted the terrace garden inside the palace, we realized that the tradition was old. I wonder whether it is a Moorish craft, adopted in Portugal. We walked through rooms full of furnishing brought from Goa and Mozambique, eventually coming to the room where the king Afonso VI was imprisoned for his life. Interestingly, this was the room which was converted to a chapel when Dinis decided to start using the palace as a royal residence. Having seen the circle of history close so neatly, we walked through the last few opulent rooms and left.
There are many other palaces in Sintra. Two had been highly recommended: the Moorish castle, which is the second of the original castles built here by the Moors, and later refurbished by the Portuguese kings, and the Pena palace. There was a bus from outside the national palace to both of these. The Moorish castle was a bit of a walk from the bus stop. Since I’d hurt my knee, we decided to skip this. The Pena palace had been highly recommended, but when we reached it we found it was a 19th century Disneyworld. The castle was painted in the bright primary colours of a cartoon. There were imposing gates which had no function. Fairy-tale turrets right out of “Cinderella The Movie” were stuck on to odd corners of roofs. The romanticism of the 19th century gave us Neuschwanstein, the “restoration” of Carcassone and this. We regretted spending our time and money on this. Later we were told that the cost of two tickets on the bus was more than that of a taxi right up to the Moorish castle. Maybe we could have gone there.
The famous earthquake of 1755 flattened the palaces of Lisbon, so the National Palace of Sintra is the only genuine historical house of the kings of Portugal. We were happy to have visited it.
The 4th of July is a good day to blog about Europe’s “Age of Discovery”. This is commemorated in the immense memorial (above) raised in Belem area of Lisbon in 1960 on the 5th centennial of the death of Infante Henry (the Navigator). That is the figure in front holding a caravel.
The decay of the Mongolian empire and the subsequent rise of the Ottoman empire blocked the overland trade routes between Europe and Asia. Infante Henry tried to send ships down the coast of Africa to bypass the Muslim kingdoms and open new trade routes east. This was the beginning of Europe’s age of discovery. Islamic scholars had reasonably good maps of the region around the Mediterranean sea and Asia, where their trade links lay. In 1486, Portuguese sailors, under the command of Bartholomew Dias, rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The route to India, and the direct spice trade, was within reach.
The Italian seaman, Christopher Columbus, had petitioned the rulers of Portugal and Spain to finance his voyage to open up a western route to India. Estimates of the size of the globe led the Kings’ advisors to believe, correctly, that Columbus had significantly underestimated the length of the journey. With Dias’ achievement, Portugal was no longer interested in the west. Spain eventually financed Columbus, who serendipitously discovered something new in 1492. By 1494 the two European powers, Portugal and Spain, had divided the world amongst themselves: to the east of meridian 46 degrees west, everything belonged to Portugal, and the west belonged to Spain. By 1498 Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, with the help of a Gujarati pilot. Soon after, during the reign of king Manuel I, the Portuguese voyages of discovery came to an end.
By 1513 Balboa and his men had become the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. Spain then financed the voyage of the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, which circumnavigated the earth, and was also the first European expedition to reach Tierra del Fuego and the Philippines. The geometry of the earth conflicted with the political resolution of 1494. Following skirmishes along the Pacific Ocean, a treaty of 1529 divided the earth into two hemispheres for the first time. The hemisphere to the west of 46 degrees west and up to 142 degrees east was to be Spain’s share, and the rest belonged to Portugal.
The monument faces out on to the estuary of the Tagus river, through which the ships of the era of discovery passed. A short promenade connects it to the fortified renaissance style tower of Belem (the square tower in the background of the photo above). This was raised as part of the fortification of the river, first against the Moors, and then against Spain. As far as I can tell, it never served its real purpose. The only time it came under attack, in 1580, it fell within hours. Nevertheless, it is a major tourist magnet today. On weekends the promenade is full of people fishing for sport. I sat down at a cafe behind these people and had a coffee and an ice cream, without seeing a single one of them land a fish.
The Family had taken a bus to come and visit this area while I was at work. After dropping her at the airport for her flight back, I had half a day left for my flight out. I decided to come to Belem to see the tower, the monument and the Jeronimos monastery. The easiest way to get here by public transport is to take the Metro up to Cais de Sodre and then the local train to Belem. If you have loaded your Lisbon Viva Viagem ticket with the zapping option then the same ticket can be used on both.
The main thing to see here is the Jeronimos Monastery. It is said that before starting from Lisbon in 1497, Vasco da Gama spent a night praying at a church which earlier stood here. With the permission of the Pope, king Manuel I started building a monastery here in 1501. It was financed by a 5% cess on the spice trade, except the part which went directly to the crown. The enormity of the spice wealth can be appreciated even today, as you walk up to the enormous edifice, meant to dwarf anything on a normal human scale. What look like short queues from a distance eventually turn out to be pretty long by normal standards.
It is possible to see the church free of charge. It is an imposing space (photo here), but the queues to enter are long. I decided not to take this option. The other options are to buy a single ticket to the monastery, the monastery and the attached museum, or a ticket to all the sights in Belem. The last is clearly the correct option.
The monastery is an impressive example of the style known as Manueline. It is ornate and rich, and incorporates complex sculptures and maritime themes. A view of the wings surrounding the central courtyard (photo below) shows how overwhelming it can be. I walked into the courtyard and spent time looking at each arch separately. There is an incredible amount of detail, making it worth your time to look at it carefully.
The photo above is one detail which you may miss unless you take your time. On top of one of the arches is this sculpture of a Portuguese carrack. This is the type of ship which Vasco da Gama commanded in his voyage to India. His armada also had a smaller and more agile ship of a type called a caravel. I could not spot a representation of a caravel, but the monastery is large, and I may easily have missed something.
The next floor is equally complex and pays close viewing. Off to one side is a little gallery from which you can look down into the church. I spent a long time here with my camera looking at the details of the church so that I could avoid standing in another queue downstairs to see the same space from below.
The museum attached to the monastery is also interesting enough. This is mostly about pre-Christian inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula. There was a section on the iron age settlers in the area. Some of the jewelery (see alongside) is spectacular.
There was constant contact with other Mediterranean civilizations: Phoenician, Greek and Carthage. Some of the artefacts in this collection come from these contact. The later Romans, however, left extensive remains. It was interesting to see that the Mithraic cult is widely represented in the Roman remains in this area. The mosaic alongside contains a central iconography of the slaying of a bull. It did not take me too long to walk through the museum, but it was worth it.
The area is full of tourists, and therefore contains all the little conveniences and annoyances which attend on them. I skipped the ride on a carriage, and the over-priced bottles of water. But I was snagged by a kiosk which sold artisanal beer. I tasted a lager, and went on to catch my train back to Lisbon.
We decided to taste some port wine, not because we are fanatics, but because it would be weird to come all the way to Porto and not taste it at all. It turns out that you have to cross the Douro river and go to Vila Nova de Gaia to do this. We could have taken the metro, it is one station out from Sao Bento. But we decided to walk across the upper deck of the Dom Luis bridge. We walked up from the Sao Bento station, got a little lost, and then, with some help from friendly natives, found ourselves next to the Metro rail which crosses on the same deck.
Being suspended about 45 meters above the surface of the earth gives you a new perspective on the life of a city. The first thing we noticed is that the lively variety in the urban landscape disappeared, and Porto appeared as a long carpet of fired clay tiles. What we had thought of as a crowded promenade along the river looked much sparser from our vantage.
There were lots of people up on the bridge, walking along with us, and gawking at the view below. It was fun to look down at the alleyways of the Baixa. Just a while ago we had walked along them, complaining to each other about the multiple stairs we had to climb. From our height those elevations looked flattened. I took the photo shown above because it shows the road going over a pretty steep flight of steps. You have to look carefully to recognize that; the steel railings are the main clue.
Soon we had left Porto behind us and walked out over the river. We could see barges and tourist boats passing below us. A tram rattled by on the rails next to us. As I turned to follow it, I saw that one has a lovely view of the city from up on this deck (see the featured image).
The river port of Gaia on the other bank is synonymous with the Port trade. We took the teleferico down. We hadn’t decided yet where to begin exploring the world of Port, so, more or less by default, we walked into the Espaço Porto Cruz. This all-in-one place has a set of videos on the port trade: simple background information which you could google, but it is good to have it all together in a video. We also walked into a movie which shows how the wine is made and transported. Interestingly, you do not pay for any of this. The building also contains a shop where you can taste port, at a small cost.
The ticket on the teleferico gave us discounts on the port at another cave nearby, so after finishing up here, we walked to the other place. It was a nice big room lined with posters explaining the trade, with comfortable benches placed by long tables. We settled down to a slow tasting. The Family liked the ruby, and I found that I preferred the white. We sipped our ruby, tawny. and white, as the evening’s shadows lengthened outside. Then we took the Metro back to Porto.
In late spring markets in Portugal were already full of summer fruit; we’d found very sweet cherries and peaches already. At the same time, good strawberries were still available. Since we had an apartment in Porto, we decided to go to the city’s famous Bolhao market to see what we could find.
As we entered the front gate of the market the aisles were lined with booths which seemed a little touristy, and were surrounded by tourists. A few steps further in, the tourists were thinner on the ground, and we could spend some time looking at what was on sale. The front was full of cloth which had something to do with food, embroidered table coverings, for example. The Family stopped here to buy a few things. I looked at a stall across the aisle from this which had a variety of wine. I hadn’t yet found my feet with Portuguese wine, so I looked carefully at what was on sale. The front half of the market, until the central fountain (photo here) seems to sell mainly finished products.
Stall on the left aisle had cheese. I’d quickly looked at a couple of blogs on Portuguese cheese before leaving, and had been tasting them every day since, so I’d begun to know my way around them. Mentally I’d started dividing them in the most obvious ways: were they made of cow (vaca), sheep (ovelha) or goat (cabra) milk, and was the milk cured (curado) or raw (cru). I hadn’t begun to look at the DOP label, which marks out a protected designation of origin, ie, geography. What I’d met till then were the semi-soft and hard cheeses. I’d liked several, but was looking to try the really soft variety. Unfortunately, it seemed that you could only buy the full rounds of these. Since The Family does not eat cheese, this would have been too much cheese for our stay in Porto. I hope there will be opportunity to extend my familiarity with Portuguese cheeses in future.
I couldn’t miss the bread stalls nearby. I could tell that they open early, because the shop keepers had begun on an early lunch. Portuguese bread comes in a large variety. We’d become fond of the soft crusty rolls which we would eat for breakfast and dinner. Here we tasted some of the larger breads, especially the darker varieties, and liked them. Again, we did not buy the loaves because we were not going to be able to finish them during our short stay. The Family and I don’t like to discard uneaten but edible food, and this limits what we can taste while travelling. For now we discovered that the art of bread making is well-developed in Portugal, and we would have a good time discovering more about it in future.
No description of Portuguese food is complete without talking of fish. Preserved cod, called bacalhau, is everywhere. The Family loved this, and would eat it with steamed potatoes every few meals. I loved the sardinha (sardines, see the photo above), which were mostly served grilled. The corner of the market where you could find fish was fascinating. We saw a large variety, including some which we didn’t have the faintest idea of how to cook. We sighed over a large swordfish, and moved on.
The upper level of the market was a splash of colour (see the featured image). It was where you could buy crisp and fresh vegetables and fruits. We lingered over the fresh produce, and bought a large quantity of fruits. We were walking a lot each day, and one can eat quite a bit of fruit while walking. The avocados, tomatoes, garlic, pumpkins and chilis were eye catching. We looked at the vegetables and sighed. We had a kitchen, but no spices. Our time in Porto was too short to set up a kitchen which was stocked well enough to cook with all the fresh vegetables on display.
We loved what we ate in Portugal, and the market showed us what ingredients go into the Portuguese kitchen. We saw nothing which was completely new to us, but everything looked fresh. That is possibly the real secret of this style of cooking.
We’d decided to stay near the Boavista place during our trip to Porto. It is a little outside the touristy part of Porto, but a place which made us feel comfortable. The big sight here is the grotesque memorial to the defeat of Napoleon’s army when it tried to invade Portugal. The triumphal sculpture of the Portuguese lion mangling the French eagle was made by Alves de Sousa, and sits atop a column designed by the local architect Jose Marquez da Silva. There was a little fair in progress around it, and a young girl helped me to take the photo shown alongside by moving the barriers around the column. Obrigado, senhora.
A few paces away is the Casa de Musica, an innovative piece of architecture by Rem Koolhaas. We thought it would be impossible to get tickets for any performance by the National Orchestra, which is housed here. We could have taken a tour of the inside, but, strangely, we could not harmonize our time with this.
This was an area with few tourists and a lot of local people. We enjoyed walking down an avenue with fruiting orange trees along it (photo here), and also lovely small lanes. We admired the street art around us (photo below). There were shops with fruits: sweet cherries, ripe apricots and peaches, nectarines. There were two bakeries a few paces away from our apartment. One had the wonderfully named Bolo Reis (King of Cakes) displayed proudly in the window (featured image). We walked in to ask whether we could buy a portion off the loaf. Another customer acted as a translator, and the resulting conversation seemed to tell us that we could only buy it whole. We thanked the baker and the translator and said this was too much for us, and left. We’d hardly gone a few paces when our translator came running after us and told us that we could get a part of Bolo-Rei. Something had clearly been lost in translation. We got our piece of cake, and it was wonderful, even with the filling of squash. Obrigado, meus senhores.
We’d lucked out in choosing a place to live in. Porto is not a place full of grand monuments; it is a place to enjoy living in. We loved the city.
When you are in the centre of Porto it is hard to miss the 18th century Clerigos tower. As it loomed over the skyline, it made a good landmark for me to navigate by. Just as its architect, Nicolau Nasoni, is hard to miss when you are in Porto. As I rapidly skimmed the pages on Porto’s architecture which Google collected at my request, the name of Nasoni popped up again and again. After visiting the cathedral we decided to walk to the Clerigos church. Porto’s center is very compact, and it is a really short walk between the cathedral and this lovely Baroque church.
The inside was quite as ornate as a Baroque church is expected to be (see the detail of the vault in the featured image). The striking exceptionality of the design is that it stands in a very narrow parcel of land. The interior is terribly cramped, as you realize when you squeeze past other tourists. But when you sit down on one of the benches in the church, the perspective feels like you are in a spacious church. The manipulation of perspective becomes apparent only when you approach the altar or the decorations on the walls: they are much higher than you expected them to be. This is Nicolau Nasoni’s masterpiece. He probably thought he hadn’t done anything better, since he chose to be interred here.
We did not have the energy to climb the high tower and look out over the rooftops of Porto. We walked out and found that in the square behind it (Largo Amores de Pedrição) there is a large building which houses the Portuguese Center for Photography. The building was under renovation, and the exhibits were essentially in one downstairs room. It was a small but nice collection, and we were happy to spend some time looking through it.
The cathedral of Porto is near the Sao Bento station. As we walked up to it, the bright sun was behind the twin towers of the cathedral, and in our eyes. The Family said that it does not look very impressive from outside. We walked into the interior gloom. The cathedral did not look very impressive inside either. A narrow but high nave was topped with the barrel vaulting typical of Romanesque churches. The baroque porch from which we had entered was clearly added on much after 1120, when this part of the cathedral was completed. The Family took a closer look at the chapels and the decoration while I sat on a bench and nursed a bad knee.
The entrance to the place of worship is seldom ticketed, and this was no exception. However, you had to pay to enter the cloister attached to the cathedral. We duly paid up to enter the much more interesting Gothic cloister built during the 14th and 15th centuries (see the featured image). The azulejo panels at this level were designed in the early 18th century by Valentim de Almeida. The tiled panels on the upper level, which you can see bits of in the featured photo, were designed by Antonio Vidal around the same time.
We walked around the quadrangle. One of the doors leads to a renaissance staircase designed by the 18th century Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni who built many landmarks around the city. We peered at this, then walked around to the treasury inside the chapterhouse. We walked in a daze past shiny pieces meant to impress and suddenly spotted the odd decoration shown alongside. Could it really be a piece of the skin of St. Francis Xavier? We clicked a photo for our friends from Goa, and moved on. Baroque paintings decorate the roof of the chapterhouse. We admired them and moved up to the terrace.
One can take a closer look at the tiled murals here. These are genuinely beautiful, and totally Portuguese. We looked up at the steeple with a statue of a saint brandishing a cross from his niche. A sea gull sat on the large cross atop everything. Weeds grew out of the mortar. We’d noticed before that the once powerful church has entered a little bit of a backwater in this century. We went down by Nasoni’s stairs. The broad steps, evenly spaced, are very good for the knees. If you ever wonder why an architect has to design stairs, try descending a long flight of stairs made by amateurs. Your knees will tell you how bad they are.
There was a guide standing in the cloister. We asked her where Nasoni was buried. She did not know. As we exited we asked the lady who sold us the tickets where we could see Nasoni’s grave. She excitedly told us that no one knows. According to her he was buried somewhere in the cathedral, but the records are lost. Later we googled this and found that he is buried in one of the famous churches he built: the church of Sao Pedro dos Clerigos.