Three completely different locations and experiences and each one a sensory delight…
Recently, Won and I visited three different places that beautifully and creatively incorporate the history and culture of Portugal. Each location was a true pleasure to experience. Here is a quick overview of each, how we found these gems, and what they are like.
JARDIM BOTÂNICO TROPICAL (Tropical Botanic Garden)
The Tropical Botanic Garden of Belém was recommended to us by a friend about a month ago and we’re so glad we finally got to see it! The garden was founded in 1906 and belongs to the Tropical Research Institute. It was originally called The Colonial Garden with the purpose of using it as a center of cultural experimentation and a space to collect information on tropical agriculture. It sits on seven hectares of land, of which five are landscaped.
The plant collection mainly consists of species from tropical and subtropical regions, with economic and botanic interest to Portugal like spices, fruit, medicine, stimulants, and fibers among others, many of which have a particular historical connection to the age of discoveries of the Portuguese explorers. The garden also includes an herbarium (a collection of preserved plant specimens and associated data used for scientific study) with 300,000 species, some of which are threatened in their natural habitats, like cycads. Scientific research activities focus on tropical themes, including biodiversity and tropical ecosystems.
The garden holds public lectures and talks, provides guided tours, and executes special exhibitions. It is through programs like these that the garden holds an important role in helping the public learn about tropical sciences which contributes to the promotion and understanding of scientific culture in Portuguese society.
The entry fee was €4,00 per adult. We enjoyed strolling the grounds and finding many surprises like the “Jardim Oriental” (Oriental Garden) where Chinese elements like a pagoda and central lake coexist with balustrades, wrought iron, and waterfalls traditionally found in Portuguese gardens.
The cactus garden had a wild, untamed, and slightly dangerous kind of beauty. You had to pay attention to where you were at all times given the number of spiky, needled plants there. We found two wooden greenhouse structures built in 1949; one for pineapple cultivation and one for cacti.
The garden was filled with interesting statuary, Portuguese azulejo tile work, unique structures, and lovely water features with a variety of bird species roaming the grounds freely.
The day was so warm and quiet, that we came across a napping cat (whose coloring blended seamlessly with the walkway in the dappled shade) and a mama duck and her ducklings. So sweet. We successfully tiptoed past them all without disturbing their afternoon siestas.
Naturally, there were all sorts of fascinating plants, trees and flowers. Here are four that I thought you might find interesting. There is so much more to see and we plan to return to enjoy it again and again.
PARQUE DOS POETAS (Poet’s Park)
Won found Poet’s Park in Oeiras, by conducting a Google search to identify nearby parks where we could take Sweet Pea for walks. Unfortunately, this one doesn’t allow dogs. Bummer. Even though Sweet Pea didn’t benefit, we did! We found a beautiful location with stunning views of the mouth of the Tagus River and the Atlantic ocean.
Inaugurated in February 2013, Parque dos Poetas is the result of a desire to honor poets, national poetry, and the literary heritage of Portugal and Portuguese speaking countries. The municipality of Oeiras is to be commended for their commitment to this project. Instead of using this prime real estate – with spectacular views – for commercial or residential development, they invested in, and celebrated, the culture of their country by preserving this land not only for their residents, but for anyone who comes to visit.
In the first phase of development, 10 hectares were landscaped into squares, boulevards and nooks, as well as an open-air auditorium, a cybernetic fountain and the forest of poetry, which animates the entire enclosure. This first phase was dedicated to poets of the 20th century and used a stem and petal design, which was repeated as the park was expanded. Each “petal” represents a single poet through sculpture and landscape design. I grabbed the aerial shot you see to the right from the Internet to help you better understand the design concept. It also helps give you a sense of scale – and this is only a small section! The landscaping is far more lush and mature now.
Subsequent phases increased the park by another 12.5 hectares, where poets from the 12th to the 19th centuries are continued, in addition to also including 10 sculptures by poets from Portuguese-speaking countries. That equates to 56 acres of land! The park is divided into three distinct areas recognizing fifty poets in all. We have been there twice and have only covered two of the three areas! The park is open to the public at no charge.
There are many interesting structures and features in the park including the “Poetry Temple,” an indoor event space with a 100-seat amphitheater, multipurpose hall, coffee shop/tea lounge, and administrative offices (it is the grey structure in the images below). There is also a labyrinth surrounding a 2-story iron pyramid with the names of poets laser cut into the frame and a wrap-around deck offering amazing views. The park also has two outdoor amphitheaters, a football pitch, a stream and lake, a water mine, children’s playground, external coffee kiosk, multiple lavatory facilities. One of the more special areas is a grotto dedicated to Luís Vaz de Camões, considered to be Portugal’s and the Portuguese language’s greatest poet. His mastery of verse has been compared to that of Shakespeare, Homer, Virgil, and Dante.
Each of the fifty poets is beautifully presented in an artful way using sculpture and landscaping to capture their essence. Some of their poems are etched into petals along Poet’s Avenue (the main walkway through the park). In front of each dedication, there is a semi-translucent sign with a short bio of the poet and of the sculptor including a schematic of the artwork. They are unique, creative, and wonderful! I’m not gonna lie…I had a terrible time trying to select only a few for you to see, but here goes!
I’d like to end this section with a poem by António Gedeão, Philosopher’s Stone, in Perpetual Movement (1956)
They do not know that the dream
is canvas, it is color, it is a brush,
base, shaft, capital,
warhead arch, stained glass,
Greek mask, magic,
which is an alchemist’s retort,
distant world map,
wind rose, Infante,
16th century caravel,
which is Cape of Good Hope,
gold, cinnamon, ivory,
backstage, dance step,
Colombina and Harlequin,
lightning rod, locomotive,
boat festive bow,
blast furnace, generator,
atom split, radar,
on the lunar surface.
IGREJA DO CARMO (Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel)
The last discovery I am sharing today was a visit to the Carmo Cathedral, located in the Chiado (pronounced she-ah-doo) neighborhood of Lisbon. The church faces the charming Carmo Square and overlooks Rossio Square, which I covered in my post titled “A Day in Lisbon.”
The church and the attached Carmelite monastery were built between 1389 and 1423 in the Gothic style. In 1755, a massive earthquake off the coast of Portugal, followed by a devastating conflagration and flood, leveled most of Lisbon and caused significant damage to the church and convent and completely destroyed the library, which housed approximately 5000 volumes. Today, the ruined Carmo Church is used as an archaeological museum.
We were invited by our friends Jennifer and Mark to join them to see a light show projected on to the walls of the church. The program is called “Lisbon Under the Stars” because the church has no roof. Only the walls and spine survived the earthquake and its after-effects. Using interpretive dance, spoken narrative, music, and stunning imagery, this creative and immersive program takes you through 630 years of history using the church as a marker for these historical events. Won and I learned a great deal about Portugal’s history during the show.
This is the third year the program is being shown and runs from August 20 to October 31. We paid €10,00 per adult due to a promotion they were running through the end of the month (full price tickets are normally €15,00 per adult). There are two shows a night Monday – Saturday at 9PM and 10PM. Typically, 800 people attend each show, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, only 200 are allowed in and each person must stand on a designated red dot placed on the ground (there are no seats).
As we entered the ruins of the church, I was amazed by the space itself. It was both fascinatingly beautiful and achingly sad to see walls intact and only the spine of the church over our heads.
Video and photos were allowed during the program as long as the brightness of your screen was reduced. Here is a short video I captured at the beginning to give you an idea of what it was like. Be sure to have the sound up. Each act of the story was presented in Portuguese followed by an English-language translation.
Three of the four walls of the church were used simultaneously throughout the entire program. It was a bit like surround sound/surround visual. I took the following set of curated images of the same section of wall throughout the continuously animated show. They capture how imagery was used to progress time through the centuries and recount key events that took place at the cathedral and in Portugal. It’s amazing how much history was covered in an hour. We loved it.
Won and I are so happy to be learning more about the history and culture of this wonderful country. We continue to practice our Portuguese and want to send a shout out to the staff at Holmes Place (our health club) who help us with it all the time. Their patience, encouragement, and kindness is greatly appreciated! Obrigada!
We are feeling more and more settled in our new home and are happy to be able to share our experiences with you via this blog. Tomorrow we are off on a road trip! We are heading south to the Algarve region of the country. Two nights in Olhão, gateway to some of the most beautiful islands off the coast and fabulous seafood, then three nights in Tavira, said to be the most charming town in all of Portugal. Can’t wait to tell you all about it!
Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and please stay in touch.
From Portugal with love,