Viva Portugal: Castelo de São Jorge, Lisboa

Temptation came calling in the person of a TAP (Air Portugal) flight attendant with a face as soft as a powder puff. As our flight bumped high above the Bay of Biscay bound for Lisbon (Lisboa), the red wine she offered us to soothe our nerves was Portuguese, the name of which I forgot but according to her: “acclaimed by the American Global Traveler magazine to be among the best wines served on the wing.”

According to a young couple we had struck up acquaintance with us at London Heathrow, now seated close to us, our present airborne location is infamous for hurly burly air-pockets (similar to certain areas near Goa, India) but, nonetheless, it wasn’t bad after the wine. The young couple, Felipe, a Portuguese and his blonde British bride Sybil with Gok Wan eyeglasses, striped Breton top and skinny jeans, appeared so full of warmth and verve. Ever since my daughter started studying Fashion Design I had cultivated an eye for women’s fashion. We parted at Lisbon Portela Airport after exchanging contact details and handshakes. I would soon learn that this is a country where handshakes are exchanged at every encounter.

An hour earlier, when the Captain announced in the aircraft about adverse weather in Lisbon it should have told me something. It was raining cats and dogs when we touched down at the lovely, hilly Lisbon – the land of navigator Vasco da Gama who discovered a water route to India on May 20, 1498; land of Pedro Álvares Cabral who sighted the coast of Brazil in 1500, and of Ferdinand Magellan who set off on the first voyage around the world nineteen years later.

We couldn’t see anything through the lashing raindrops on the window panes of the taxi as we cruised north of Rossio through the 90mtr-wide Avenida da Liberdade (Liberty Avenue: Lisbon’s main boulevard built between 1879-1886 in the style of Avenue des Champs– Élysées in Paris). The sound of rain hitting the roof and jerk of the windshield wipers with a constant radius of curvature seems to set a perfect accompaniment to the drone of the car’s engine as we went around the Rotunda (roundabout), heading for our hotel.

Lisbon is sometimes called “the white city” due to its unique clear light. Well, the following day was bright and clear in conformity to that dictum. As we drove past Praça Marquês de Pombal in a taxi on our way to Alfama, the old quarter, we were able to see the monument at its centre: a statue of Marquês de Pombal and a lion elevated above a gigantic column symbolizing power and strength. His eyes were focused towards downtown he had helped to rebuilt while the broken rocks and tidal waves depicted at the base of the column symbolized the ruinous effects of a past earthquake.

This being our first visit to Portugal, it had left a good impression on me that I would often enjoy thinking about those days. Even now, as I write this, I can still remember the taste and feel and smell of Portugal.


Portugal is located in the western periphery of Europe and edged by the Atlantic Ocean. It was once called “the land on the edge where land ends and sea begins”. Convinced that the “earth is flat with an edge, Strabo, a Greek geographer from the period of Christ who travelled extensively, believed that the low headland Sagres at the southwestern point of Portugal where the Atlantic and the Mediterranean meet, was the end of the earth beyond which existed a frightening void with all kinds of monsters and beasts, at the extreme rim of which, ultima thule, “the water cascaded away into the unknown”.

In reality, Portugal is a beautiful country of white sunny beaches, rolling hills and mountains, rivers, plantations of olive and cork and populated by a rich panorama of humanity. It’s a country with an abounding prehistoric culture. During the course of history, this beautiful land sprawling on the wide fertile valleys was swept over by a series of invaders: Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, and Romans who called it Felicitas-Julia Olisipo. Then came the barbarians like Alani, Vandals, Suevi, followed by the Visigoths until the African Moors barged into western Andalucía in 711 and overran Lisbon in 714. The Moors called it Al-Gharb or Al-Gharb Al-Andalus and held Lisbon for a long period during which it enjoyed relative growth and prosperity. At that point of time, the Christianity which was confined to the north of Minho waited for the right moment to launch the Reconquista which finally occurred at Covadonga in about 718. Gradually towns fell, one after the other, under their control: Porto (868), Coimbra (878) and by 955, the initial raid was attempted on Lisbon.

Afonso Henriques (1110-85), son of Henri of Burgundy and his wife Teresa, who had achieved a brilliant military victory against the moors in the Battle of Ourique in July 25, 1139 was bestowed the title of King of Portugal in 1143 following the Treaty of Zamora signed at the Cathedral of Zamora which recognized the independence of Portugal from the Kingdom of León. Being the valiant warrior he was, reinforced by the help of the Bishop of Braga, Dom Afonso enlisted the armies of the Second Crusade, consisting of English, French, Flemish and German volunteers who were on their way to Jerusalem but had to break their journey at the mouth of Rio Douro in Porto in mid June due to bad weather. Afonso captured Lisbon in October, 1147 after a 17-week siege (July 1 to Oct 25).

The successful capture of Lisbon blossomed the legend proclaiming the bravery of a Portuguese warrior named Martim Moniz who, having seen the Castelo gates being hastily pulled shut by the Moorish soldiers, lodged himself between the huge doors, sacrificing himself but keeping the city gates open for the conquering armies to capture Castelo de São Jorge which eventually led to the defeat of the Moors and the creation of the Kingdom of Portugal under the House of Burgundy. In Moniz’s honour, a gate in the castle, with his bust on its niche, is named “Porta de Martim Moniz”. This honour would become the precursor for numerous memorials in his name that would prop up in Lisbon.

Those of us who are curious to know of the legend of Dom Afonso Henriques would be interested in the “Crónica do rei D. Afonso Henriques” by Duarte Galvaõ (1435-1517), the original of which is kept at the Museu Condes de Castro Guimarães in Cascais.

The weather was pleasant enough for us to pull down the windowpanes of the taxi which facilitated some still camera-works for Manningtree Archive. All the while, the Spanish singer/actress Rocio Dúrcal (Oct 4, 1944-Mar 25, 2006) was singing on the Taxi’s CD player. Our cheerful taxi driver was glad to switch to a song I liked when I spoke of Rocio he apparently adored. Rocio’s “La gata bajo la lluvia” is what feelings sound like – particularly the duet version with Argentine jazz pianist Raúl Di Blasio – very haunting indeed!



Going up to the Castelo de São Jorge from Baixa by taxi or Remodelado tram or just walking, you have to pass through the narrow and steep winding streets and alleyways of the old labyrinthine district of Alfama, with numerous small wine bars and restaurants hither and thither. We had spent the first part of the day visiting Sé Patriarchal Cathedral (aka: Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa or Sé de Lisboa), the imposing and austere monument with its restored façade of military-style crenellations, built soon after the banishment of the Moors from Lisbon. Soon afterwards, we went over to the Igreja de Santo Antonio da Sé and the Museu Antóniano located a stone’s throw away to the right side of Sé.


Hours later, we are up at Castelo de São Jorge, the nucleus of the medieval town. They say Lisbon comes from a Phoenician name which means “calm harbour”. Legend has it that this city located on the north-bank of the mighty Rio Tajo and perched on seven hills, similar to Istanbul (the city on the Seven Hills), was founded by Ulysses (Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey). It became the capital of Portugal only by 1260 when the capital was shifted from Coimbra after the Moors were finally all-cleared.



The View of Lisbon from different location from the ramparts of the Castelo, is magnificent. Down there, we could see Baxia, the lower quarter which is the heart of the city centre situated between the hills of old Moorish quarter of Alfama and Bairro Alto in the west. There lay before us a sea of old-world charm of red-tiled roofs, post-1755 architecture with a mixture of new ideas and styles. Looking at Rio Tejo, the largest river on the Iberian peninsula, up to Alcântara, we could see slow Transtejo ferries moving through the broad sweep of the river.


Further up to the north, soared the Ponte 25 de Abril, earlier known as Ponte de Salazar and inaugurated on August 6, 1966. No doubt, the castle’s vantage location 110 mtrs high on the most prominent hill had provided the ancient people with the utmost commanding position for several reasons.



The city you see down there is not in its original form but the one rebuilt following the devastating earthquake on the All Saint’s Day of 1755, five years after the catastrophe of the London earthquake. Given that the epicenter was at Oporto, in truth, the aftershocks were felt as far as Scotland, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Madrid, Morocco and even across the Atlantic. Although the Bairro Alta and Alfama were saved from much devastation, the loss of human life in Lisbon was higher than the Lisbon earthquake of January 26, 1531, so that corpses were taken out in barges to the mouth of Rio Tajo and sunk.



With massive international aid, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, later the Marquês de Pombal, went to rebuilt the city according to a neo-classical plan that was geometrically and functionally sensible. But it is a matter of fact that a historic town centre was lost in that uncalled for disaster, breaking off the precious cultural bond that existed between the city and its inhabitants. Conversely, it gave birth to an architectural style known as “Pombaline”. To this end, broad throughfares were created, pavements were provided to the streets according to the new idea from London, places for pedestrians were marked, buildings went up with elegant facades, regular windows and stonework painted dark red, pink, or ochre.




It is believed that Castelo de São Jorge was built in the middle of the eleventh century when the Moors were the rulers of Lisbon. However, scholars suggests the Castelo’s existence goes back to earlier Phoenician settlement and Roman oppidum long before the Moors came in and built their citadel and Casbah, adding further fortifications to its walls and towers.




Bearing in mind the site’s natural suitability for defense and surveillance, it was originally built as garrison for the military troops and in case of siege, to function as a sanctuary for the monarchy who lived in the hilltop Paço Real da Alcáçova (citadel). Once the Moors were removed, the governance of the city was undertaken from the Castelo. In 1255, it was made the royal residence of Dom Afonso III (1248-1279), followed by Dom Dinis (1279-1325) who founded the University of Coimbra in 1290 and formed the Portuguese navy in 1317.




Since the fourteenth century, by order of Dom João 1 the Good (1358-1433), it is named Castelo de São Jorge, after the patron saint of the knights and the Crusades. It was here that Dom Manuel I (Emanuel – 1469-1521), whose reign is remembered for his persecutions of Jews and Muslims during 1496-98, accorded a grand welcome to Vasco da Gama on his triumphant return from India round the Cape in 1499. When Dom Manuel I shifted his residence to his new palace downtown in 1511, the castle functioned as a theatre, prison and arms depot. In the aftermath of the 1755 earthquake, it fell into a long period of decay. In 1938, during a period of economic revival and industrialization under Prime Minister António de Oliveira Salazar, it underwent a complete restoration to reinstate its military heritage. The medieval walls were rebuilt, gardens added and populated with the likes of peafowls.




What remains now are eleven towers, the restored ruins of the palace and walls surrounding the compound, the shaded gardens, fountains, cafés and restaurants. While the numerous windows open to all parts of the city helped keep an eye on the city, its position on the highest hill prevented the attackers from approaching the castle from all sides. Representations from the developments in warfare achieved over the years can be noted on the Castelo’s features – the lookout posts (miradouro), the carved stone balconies, arrow slits, platforms on the rooftop for heavy artillery, protections to thwart anyone from clawing their way up the thick walls, the wider ramparts…. Even so, despite these thoughtful restorations, it now wore the look of a public park.



Having said that, I could not help thinking of its bygone glory. This is where the history of the city began. This is the castle on which the legend of knight Martim Moniz was made. These are the same great stones that Dom Afonso Henriques, the conqueror, had walked upon. As I stroll around, my mind reflected on how it must have been here during the Age of Exploration:  the soldiers sitting by the ramparts looking down at the city and at the busy waterfront full of ships and galleons, talking of the fabulous lands that lay to the East; the intense discussions before the fireplaces of the vaulted rooms of the Castelo as the noblemen of the monarchy shot the breeze about the land of spices or why spices are of importance since the crusades…..; of the legendry kingdom of Prester John, the richest monarch in the world….. The number of eyes that must have watched over the great caravels sailing from Belém through Rio Tejo bound for their maritime expeditions… to conquer new worlds….


With entry restricted by fee, the Castelo is open to the public all 365 days of a year. It offers not only excellent views to different parts of the city but also the chance to return to the past. We can climb up the towers, especially Torre de Ulisses (Tower of Ulysses) near the rectangular Fortificacao to look through the Periscope for a 360° view of the city, check Porta da Traicão (Traitor’s Gate) – a secret door on the northern wall which allows secret entrance when needed, walk along the ramparts or the narrow, cobbled streets of Santa Cruz, or wander through or just sit under the shaded trees of the garden and watch the locals play backgammon or cards. You can also take a break at Café do Castelo or inside the vaulted room of restaurante Casa do Leão, which together with Núcleo Museológico, forms part of the ruins of the former Paço Real da Alcáçova (Royal Palace of the Alcáçova).


Then there are the main towers: Torre de Menagem (Tower of the Keep), Torre do Paço (Palace Tower), Torre da Cisterna (Tower of the Cistern) and the Torre de São Lourenço (Tower of St. Lawrence), etc.

If you would like to see the seventeenth century statue of São Jorge, it is revered inside Igreja de Santa Cruz do Castelo, the twelfth century church (built in place of a mosque inside the Castelo’s compound) where the children of the resident monarchs of the Paço Real da Alcáçova in the Castelo were traditionally baptized.

Periodically, the castle offers cultural and entertainment programs for the visitors: a multimedia exhibition called Olisiponia about the history of Lisbon; a costumed dance show “Danças para trés princesa”(Dances for Three Princesses); “Mistérios e mitos e lendas de Lisboa” (Mysteries, Myths and Legends of Lisbon); “Artes Circenses” (Circus Arts); “Artes Belicas no Castelo”, a show of dueling knights of the Middle Ages, etc.


It had started to drizzle sometime back. We returned to the courtyard and the Observatory Terrace nearer to Porta de São Jorge, the front entrance (Saida). I turn around and look at the statue of Dom Afonso Henriques raised on stone, his hand holding the raised sword, standing so tall and proud. I can notice a faint smile playing on the lips of this valiant champion who became wiser by adversity and created a nation. At that moment, a quote from a poem (Before the Battle) by Irish poet Thomas Moore crossed my mind:


“But oh, how blest that hero’s sleep

O’er whom a wondering world shall weep!”

 The dusk is already starting to wear on. Looking out from the Observatory Terrace, we could see the Igreja and Monasterio de Sao Vicente de Fora to our left. Dedicated to São Vicente de Saragoça, the patron saint of Lisbon, it is built on the place where the German and Flemish crusaders camped to help Dom Afonso to capture Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. We will go there tomorrow.

As we walked out through the main gates into Rua do Caho da Feira, we could see a woman with a colourful silk scarf tied around her head sitting on the wooden garden bench under the shade of a tree. She was singing to the strums of a man playing a Portuguese twelve-stringed guitar. Another woman sat next to the man enjoying coffee and cakes with a certain passion. Beside her was an open leather bag stuffed with strings of spicy sausages and garlands of dried red chillies.


Every country has their culture – aspects that offer breathtaking insight into life, love, and literature. It is for us to make an effort to understand them and learn from them. No three guesses. You couldn’t miss the tones of her singing: Fado. Born of the troubadour ballads, it is Portugal’s bittersweet, disconsolate answer to the Blues, Tango and Flamenco. The fadisto appeared rather blasé about it, her melancholic tones meandering through soulful archaic phrases of lost loves and past glories.

Moments later, I learned that the song she manages to imbue with such a strong fado sensibility is “Ha festa na Mouraria” (There’s a festival in Mouraria). It is the one song most commonly associated with fado and immortalized by the legendary Fado singer Amália Rodrigues who helped to transform Fado into the style we know today. What a rightful song to hear at that moment about the rustic bairro overlooked by the Castelo de São Jorge where a procession was winding through its narrow streets.

As I tipped her, the man who played the guitar translated for me her comments in good English, “Señora Annalisa is the daughter of a nationalist and a beautiful gypsy woman. They were blessed with blue skies, green gardens and horses. Then he disappeared suddenly in 1967. Having led a hard life, her health is not good now. She has the spirit of Amália Rodrigues in her. She loves singing and has learned to live well for less. It’s God who let her embrace fado… when she sing fado, she is free of all pain.”


Why does a most enigmatic and indefinable of all forms of art called music cast a powerful effect on our minds and bodies? Is it that our feelings and emotions gain a structure and coherence from the configuration of music? Suddenly, another thought waltzed into my mind. Live Well for Less! Wait a minute – I have heard that slogan “Live Well for Less” somewhere before. It was while getting into the taxi when it suddenly dawned on me. Yes, that’s one of the slogans of the British retailers Sainsbury’s. Great! Until next time. Caio, Jo



PS: Emirates Airlines operates direct flights to Lisbon from Dubai with suitable connections from Cochin.

(All Photos (including S George veccide il drago by Paris Bordon – from a reproduction in our house): © Joseph Sebastine-Carina Sebastine/Manningtree Archive).

(The three paintings: “Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal” by John Henry Amshewit, “The Siege of Lisbon by D. Afonso Henriques” by Joaquim Rodrigues Braga and “Conquest of Lisbon” by Alfredo Roque Gameiro, are from Wikipedia: Public domain)

34 thoughts on “Viva Portugal: Castelo de São Jorge, Lisboa

  1. Wonderful pictures and memories… My daughter has been to Portugal, and loved it.
    I must say, when I first started to read, and you quoted the style of the young woman on the plane, I raised an eyebrow wondering where your ‘fashion consciousness’ had grown. Isn’t it wonderful to have our appreciations expanded. You must be very proud of your daughter…!

    • What a wonderful comment. Thanks. Being an ardent fan / reviewer of period / costume movies and very much interested in the European history, I have made marginal comparisons between the hairstyle, make-up and dressing style of personalities like Catherine de’ Medici, Isabella I and II of Spain, etc to the likes of Sarah Bernhardt, Debra Paget, Yvonne De Carlo, etc. But I know nothing serious about contemporary fashion other than sometimes studying the pile of magazines in our house or listening to the “teachings” of my daughter. 🙂 Jo

  2. Yeah, I loved the fact you were clued-up on your daughter’s fashion studies. 🙂
    Beautiful article on Portugal. I’ve never visited, but loved how you managed to make the reader feel like they were there.
    By the way,
    I opened a new window to youtube and had the Festival song playing as I read your post. Awesome. 🙂

  3. I am planning a trip to Portugal next spring, so I found this post fascinating. I adore royal history, and am quite ignorant of Portugal’s story… so I appreciate all of the historical detail you included. I was right there with you as you imagined the soldiers sitting on the ramparts…

    P.S. Can’t wait to experience the sounds of Fado. Check out Ana Moura.

  4. Thank you. I loved your comments. I read somewhere that imagination is the eye of the soul. I am sure that you will have a wonderful time in Portugal. I will check Ana Moura. Check out Mariza or Misia.

  5. Beautiful – I never thought of traveling to Portugal before now I see what I am missing. Must add to my list! Thank you so much for sharing – I truly enjoyed the pictures.

  6. I thought the Castelo de São Jorge was magical. We went there almost every day we were in Lisbon. We went in late December and the whole city was covered with fog most mornings. It felt like we were on top of a cloud eating a picnic in the castle, but sure enough the fog would clear and all the red roof tops would start to pop up. I loved it! Thanks for bringing me back to that moment!

  7. What a wonderfully detailed and fabulous post on Lisbon. Such a shame your weather was grey. The city is even more beautiful when the sun shines. Did you make it to Sintra or any of the other palaces?

    • Thanks for your comments. You are absolutely right. Unfortunately the weather forbid us from visiting other places except Fatima. A last minute attempt to visit Coimbra was also foiled. Soon next time…. 🙂

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