There is more to Portugal than sumptuous historical buildings and gorgeous coastlines…
While on a Zoom call recently, a good friend said that after reading my blog posts her impression of Portugal was that it is primarily historical and wondered if the country had progressed and become modern. Uh oh…I guess I have been so excited to see as many historical landmarks as possible before tourism kicks back into full swing that my posts have swung a bit too far to one side. In my defense though, having the chance to see these very popular places practically alone is a rare experience and one for which we are very thankful. Today’s blog post, however, is going to attempt to correct that skewed impression.
Portugal has done a lot to modernize since the 1970s after emerging from a dictatorship. I believe the country has done an admirable job of elevating itself as a tourist destination, investing in its infrastructure, and positioning itself as a global hub for new technologies while never losing sight of its important and fascinating history.
Let’s start with Portugal’s Multibanco System, one of the most advanced online banking systems in the world. Long before it was the norm, the Portuguese could do their banking as well as pay bills and taxes at a local Multibanco machine. Now, Multibanco is a sophisticated system of more than 13,000 Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) that support over 60 different types of services and functions such as buying concert and cinema tickets, donating to charities, paying taxes, buying online, activating Via Verde cards (the automated highway toll system), and topping up phone credit just to name a few. These are, of course, in addition to the regular ATM functions with which people are most familiar. It’s pretty cool!
And, speaking of those fully automated toll booths that are springing up all over the world, you may be surprised to learn that they are a Portuguese invention as well as the prepaid mobile phone card! In 2016, Lisbon became the home of Web Summit, the world’s largest technology conference. In 2018 Portugal was ranked as one of the 13 most innovative countries in the world by the CTA International Innovation Scorecard. Innovation is at the forefront of the goal to modernize.
The Lisbon metro system is also very impressive. It is inexpensive, safe and often the fastest method to travel around the capital. There are four metro lines covering a total of 46km (28 miles) of track and served by 55 metro stations. Ticket machines are user-friendly, logical and provide instructions in multiple languages, including English, French, Spanish and, of course, Portuguese making navigating and exploring Lisbon convenient and easy.
One of the more beautiful and modern areas of Lisbon is the Parque das Nações (Park of Nations). It was originally built for the 1998 Lisbon World Exposition to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the sea route from Europe to India by Vasco da Gama. Now, it is a vibrant commercial and residential district. Won and I strolled the area this week and took some pictures to share with you. There are several landmarks of importance including the Lisbon Oceanarium, Altice Arena, Gare do Oriente (train station), Vasco da Gama Tower, Vasco da Gama Mall, and the Portugal Pavilion. I’ll cover all of them and a few more in my notes below.
The Park of Nations runs along the Tagus River. There is a wide esplanade with a landscaped park and loads of restaurants, cafes, and bars running the entire length. Rather than walk, however, we decided to take a Telecabine (a cable car system). Telecabine has two terminals; one near the Vasco da Gama Tower and the other near the Lisbon Oceanarium. You can start at either end. The cable car system runs along the edge of the Tagus River for 1.2 kms (0.75 miles), takes approximately 10 minutes one way, and gets you up 30 meters (98 feet) in the air. The cost was €6,00 round trip per adult (€3,95 one way). We started at the Vasco da Gama Tower terminal and rode the car toward the Oceanarium. Weather was perfect and the views were terrific! We could see the Vasco da Gama bridge – Europe’s longest at 17 kms (10 miles) – and got a birds-eye view of the Park of Nations and all the great landmarks.
The Lisbon Oceanarium is one of the most visited sites in Lisbon. I learned that this aquarium is Europe’s biggest (and arguably best), recreating Earth’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems. It is comprised of two structures connected by a bridge-way with a park facing the water that has undulating waves of grassy mounds for family picnics or to romp around in or to simply relax. You can see the Oceanarium’s mascot, Beneco Vasco in front of the building as well as an animated version the water. Apparently, you can arrange to sleep with the sharks overnight. That’s going on the bucket list!
On our way to the Vasco da Gama shopping mall, we passed by a lovely low reflecting pool banked by flags from every country around the world and fronting the Altice Arena.
Just opposite the flags were two very interesting sculptures. The first is called Rizoma by British artist Antony Gormley who created this iron sculpture with nine life-size human figures fitting into each other. It symbolizes unity among Man, but also suggests the branches of a tree.
The second is called the Iberian Lynx by Bordalo II, a Portuguese graffiti artist who created a statue of the nearly extinct animal with discarded materials like plastic and computer components as a way to question and reflect on our materially-driven and consumerist society. You’ll be happy to know that due to conservation efforts, the Iberian Lynx is starting to rebound. To give you a sense of scale, I am standing in front of the sculpture.
Off we went into the air conditioned, light-filled mall to check it out. Masks were required to enter (they were also required to get on the Telecabine, but you could remove them once on board). It’s a large mall with all the requisite stores you’d expect to find. I did a bit of quick shopping and then met up with Won at a cafe across the mall for a tasty treat of lemon cake. Refueled, we were ready to keep going!
The mall is just across the street from the Gare do Oriente (train station). What an impressive structure! In addition to the many stores that are part of the station, it is connected to the Vasco da Gama shopping mall and the Lisbon Metro through subterranean access, as well as a first floor connection to the train platforms and a pedestrian walkway. I have included some images I took with some I pulled from the Internet to give you a better feel for what it is like.
On our way back we walked along a landscaped pedestrian parkway and traffic artery with a dedicated bike lane, that ran the length of the entire area. It was located away from the waterfront and closer to the commercial buildings. The parkway is dotted with colorful fountains, shade trees and benches to rest and relax. This is one of the water features that primarily reflected purples and blues. Those cone-shaped fountains and low reflecting pools were replicated all along the artery in differing color combinations.
In the picture of the fountain above, you can just make out a really interesting building to the right (the building to the left is clad in super shiny black tiles in which you can see the reflection of the building across the street). Here is a picture of it. Note the movable window coverings! The architecture in Lisbon is so interesting.
And, finally, we passed by the Portugal Pavilion – a slightly bowed concrete slab which is meant to resemble a piece of paper suspended between two bricks. It is used as exhibition space. You can see the Telecabine through the structure in the distance and beyond that the Vasco da Gama bridge spanning the Tagus River.
We boarded the Telecabine for the peaceful ride back to our starting point and, once there, stopped to admire the 145-meter (476 ft) Vasco da Gama Tower. The tower is a lattice structure with a viewing platform at the top. It looks like a swollen sail, evoking the countless ships that departed the Tagus River to discover the world. A hotel was attached to the tower structure in 2012. Unfortunately, we were running out of time and had to get home to Sweet Pea so we agreed to return and go to the top the next time we were there.
I only scratched the surface, but I hope you have a more balanced impression and understanding of how Portugal has modernized. It is a fascinating country with so much to see, experience, appreciate and admire.
Next Monday is July 13 and will mark six months to the day since we arrived! We can’t believe it. Recently my youngest brother, Gary, said our experiences couldn’t possibly be as perfect as we describe them. He wanted to know what wasn’t so great. It got me thinking that you might also have a few questions. So, that’s what next week’s blog will be all about – your questions. I would greatly appreciate it if you could post any that you have in the comment section below, or email me directly, or post to my Facebook feed, or send it via Facebook Messenger – whatever works best for you. It could be about anything. I will include our response to Gary’s question and promise to answer your questions as honestly and openly as possible too! Thank you in advance.
Until then, please stay safe, stay healthy, and stay in touch!
From Portugal with love,