26 October 2012

The Jousting Field

You wouldn't find too many knights on horseback there now, but the area we stayed in in Lisbon was most likely once a Jousting Field (Campodile): this according to our gracious, knowledgeable and generous hostess. Now it's a neighbourhood in a busy city split in two by the long mouth of the Tejo (Tagus) river. Ironically, for a city divided by water, Lisbon's citizens have had to struggle in the past to get enough potable fresh water and so--starting in the mid-1700s and over about 100 years--they built the amazing Aqueduto das Águas Livres. One of the loveliest features of the aqueduct that we saw is the series of arches spanning a valley in the city very close to Campodile: the views from the apartment included their graceful lines and the wooded hillside beyond.

Cockles and conches,
Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, Lisbon
Now I know that a visit to any capital city with an imperial/colonial past includes so much to see in terms of architecture, monuments and (in Lisbon's case) churches but this is not a buildings/city/history blog so I won't go into them too much here except to say that we reckoned there was enough gold in the Igreja de São Roque to solve Portugal's debt problem on the spot and to note that minimalism did not feature too much in the Portuguese Baroque period ...

It's easy enough to find out lots about the famous buildings in Lisbon, including the World Heritage Site of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, but I'll just focus here on detail with a view on the natural world. I loved the seashells near one of the entrances to St Jerome's Monastery - apparently sailors stopped here to pray before they set off to discover new lands to 'conquer' and pillage, and the decorative elements include maritime themes and objects, all wrought in a lovely local limestone that would be very easy to work - I wondered if this influenced the style at all? It wouldn't be too easy for any stonemason, no matter how skilled, to try to do that sort of work on granite or basalt, for example. I suppose that's a question for someone else to answer.

Within the city itself are many beautiful tiled buildings, many of the patterns being quite abstract, but I liked these irises, and I also found a street of flowers (the real ones long gone alas): Rua das Flores.

Irises: tiles above a lintel in a Campodile street

But for me, one of the ways that I know I'm in a new and foreign place is the vegetation - I remember being amazed at the beautiful maples incongruously and gracefully accompanying large fuel tanks near one of the runways in Narita Airport in Japan, for example. In Lisbon and Cascais it was the jacarandas and palms and also the amazing Ficus trees in the square in Principe Real, where we sat and had lunch after a visit to the Jardim Botânico
Jacaranda tree in Praça dos Restauradores, Lisbon
Palms on a warm October evening in Cascais
The Botanic Gardens, almost more of an arboretum than a garden, are a haven in a busy city and the abundance of cycads and palms gave them a very exotic air. The Gardens were made in the 19th century and still feature a garden called The Class (Classroom would probably be a better translation), arranged into beds to illustrate typical species and help students learn plant identification and provenance; I spotted a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) from Ireland. The Classroom garden is not used that way so much now but was interesting to see; it reminded me a bit of the 'Dead Animal Museum' in Dublin (a museum of a museum). Nineteenth century naturalists and scientists were serious about their learning and it must have been a very exciting time when so many species were coming back into Europe from Asia and the Americas. It made sense to grow them for demonstration to students who might never see them in their native habitats. Today, the same might happen due to destruction of those habitats and many botanical gardens are involved in some sort of work on preservation of endangered species (for example, the Wollemi pine in Glasnevin). The 'Classroom'  and the wider Gardens gave me a chance to see Poinsettias (soon to be in the shops and garden centres here in some numbers) and Hibiscus in something other than pots indoors.

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis, in the Botanical Gardens, Lisbon

Poinsettia, Eurphorbia pulcherrimum, in the Botanical Gardens, Lisbon
The garden is part of the University of Lisbon and another (unexpected) delight was the mineralogy exhibition. Well alright ... it's not to everyone's taste, but we were thrilled: well-curated mineral exhibits can be beautiful as well as informative and I challenge anyone not to be amazed at a two-metre high vug split open top to bottom to display its interior almost completely filled with amethyst crystals. Gorgeous.  It was from Brazil of course; like one of the grooms at the wedding for which we travelled to Portugal in the first place! The other groom was Irish, so I'll have to give Ireland a mention too. When we got home to grey northern skies over our own garden in Ireland, more jewel-like delights awaited in the garnet and ruby leaves of the Japanese maples in full autumn flow. Isn't it odd that almost overnight, almost all the leaves fall - spreading a halo of colour that lights up the late Autumn dullness that was such a contrast to the brightness of Portugal.

Acer palmatum chinostachys - garnet
Acer palmatum atropurpureum - ruby
Thanks to CF for being a wonderful hostess and to SM and AMK for such a lovely day and weekend.

Have a good week all.

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