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Travel: On the trail of legendary ancestors in Lisbon

Lisbon is a colourful and lively city with a long history, ties to India, soulful music, a vibrant street life and delicious food

The traditional, red-roofed houses of Lisbon are set off by the deep blue waters of the Atlantic.
The traditional, red-roofed houses of Lisbon are set off by the deep blue waters of the Atlantic. (Stanley Carvalho)

The Portuguese ruled Goa for over 400 years, leaving their stamp on the tiny state. My great-grandfather of Portuguese origin moved from Goa to Mangaluru in the 1800s, giving rise to a clan, some of whom continue to live there. For years, I’ve dreamt of visiting the land of my ancestors in Europe. Finally, my dream came true.

Verily, Lisbon made me feel at home. Was it the warmth, camaraderie and the laidback attitude of the people? Was it the sea food, the churches, the culture, the bright and sunny climate? Perhaps, all this and more.

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We began our exploration of this colourful city from Belem, a district from where the Portuguese, in the 15th century, began their voyages, discovering sea routes to India, Brazil and East Africa. Unlike the rest of Lisbon, Belem has green open spaces, tree-lined avenues, plazas and parks, exuding an air of old-world serenity.

The Monument of the Discoveries, a massive sail-shaped structure catches the eye. Rising high beside the Tagus River, it was opened in 1960 as a tribute to the Portuguese golden age of discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries. Equally eye-catching are the 32 sculptures of historical figures from that era. Above that stands the statue of Henry the Navigator, holding a model of a ship.

Walking around this monument and listening to our guide’s commentary was like relearning Portuguese history. Nearby are the Belem Tower and the Jeronimos Monastery, both UNESCO World Heritage sites. The Belem Tower was originally a lighthouse that later became a defensive fortress built in the Manueline style incorporating stonework motifs and sculptures. For the sailors, it was the last sight of their homeland.

A stone’s throw away is another grand celebration of the Manueline style of architecture, the Jeronimos Monastery. Monks of the Order of St. Jerome occupied the monastery and provided spiritual guidance to seafarers and navigators before they followed Vasco da Gama to embark on even longer and equally treacherous voyages to chart new lands. Thus, the monastery became a monument to the wealth of Portugal's extraordinary Age of Discovery, and both Vasco da Gama and King Manuel I, together with other illustrious figures, rest within its hallowed, limestone walls.

Belem is also home to the popular Pasteis de Belem Patisserie, famed for its tarts (made from egg yolk, flour and cinnamon). In existence since 1837 and following its ancient, secret recipe to this day, scores of people stand in queues to buy the tarts. Lack of time compelled us to skip sampling the famous tart but we ate the pastry to our heart’s content at other bakeries.

Our next stop was at Alfama, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Lisbon, renowned for its vintage charm. Amble around its medieval cobblestoned alleys, steep pathways and narrow stairways, which end at a tiny open square towards the beach. You can’t stop taking in the sights at every twist and turn--the whitewashed houses with tiles and wrought-iron balconies adorned with plants and flowers, an ancient church, hole-in-the-wall taverns, cafes, butcheries, bakeries. The area is a photographer’s delight, offering some great views.

St. George’s Castle sits majestically on the crown of a hill overlooking the city. Hearing some catchy music near an elevated square, we stopped to watch youngsters jiving and waltzing with gay abandon. The area has many fountains and hot springs, prompting the Moors to name the district Alfama, meaning springs or bath.

Rua Nova do Carvalho or Pink Street, where a stretch of this picturesque street is painted pink, is famed for its tapas eateries and restaurants and bars, coming to life at night with song and dance.
Rua Nova do Carvalho or Pink Street, where a stretch of this picturesque street is painted pink, is famed for its tapas eateries and restaurants and bars, coming to life at night with song and dance. (Stanley Carvalho)

I experienced a light-bulb moment the next day in another historic part of Lisbon. As the bus hurtled down the winding road in the Cais do Sodre district, I spotted the signboard Rua Nova do Carvalho. A street with my family name!

After we alighted, I walked back to the street, clicked pictures and wandered along taking in the bohemian atmosphere and happy in the knowledge that I had established an ancestral link. Known also as Pink Street (a stretch of this picturesque street is painted pink) it is famed for its Tapas eateries and is filled with restaurants and bars, coming to life at night with song and dance.

Lisbon offers more than just its glorious history. Food and culture are an essential way of life across Portugal. The many eateries, cafes and bars are always brimming with people. A visit to the Mercado da Ribeira, an over 100-years old, quintessentially local market was a memorable culinary experience. The kiosks, cheek-by-jowl, offer varied delicacies under one big roof. The fresh Portuguese seafood is a big draw here and for foodies, this place is a delight for the stomach and soul.

From crispy whole sardines to dried and salted cod (bacalhau), anchovies, squid and grilled Octopus salad, Portuguese fare relies heavily on seafood, something we relished throughout. Olives and fresh bread come with every meal. Another specialty was bifanas (pork buns). Pair the food with ginjinha (cherry liqueur), Sangria or Sagres beer and you can walk out content and smiling.

The true soul of Lisbon can be discovered in their traditional music called Fado. We attended a Fado accompanied by dinner at Café Luso, a traditional Fado house, fashioned out of the old cellars and stables of a former 17th-century palace. The melancholic tunes and lyrics are about the sea, linked to the concept of saudade, suggesting longing and nostalgia. Notably, Fado is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.

Lisbon is pedestrian friendly, and it was fun to explore some parts of the city on our own two feet. There’s no better area than Rossio, a beautiful square surrounded by shops, bars, and restaurants. You can walk around and drink in the architectural beauty of the buildings around the square as squealing, colourful trams pass by or simply sit and enjoy people watching, mostly tourists, buskers and touts. In the centre of the square stands the towering column of Pedro IV, a monument to King Peter IV of Portugal, flanked by two impressive fountains.

Munching cherries, I feasted my eyes for long on the unique pavement tiles in the square that create a mosaic-style optical illusion of waves or bumps, appreciating the painstaking work of the artisans.

A visit to another landmark was equally special for me – the Marquis of Pombal Square dominated by a statue of Sebastiao Jose de Carvalho de Melo, better known as the Marquis of Pombal, the Portuguese statesman who led the drive to rebuild the city after it was devastated by the catastrophic earthquake in 1755. I silently rejoiced in the fact that I shared our family name with another great son of Portugal.

As we drove out of Lisbon’s Vasco da Gama bridge, I left with that feeling of saudade, or a profound state of longing for something you love.

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