I have been known to label myself as “not a museum person,” yet I rarely miss a famous one, and always enjoy them once I get there. I’ve gone out of my way to visit them, been to all the big names, and have enjoyed countless hours wandering the halls with my favorite niece Hannah. So instead, I should probably say I have a low museum tolerance. It’s a battle between my eyes and my feet to see which one will cry “uncle” first.
Lisbon has a hodgepodge of museums. Not only are there the usual suspects of old masters and contemporary art, but there are also more obscure options. For example, there is the Museum of Beer, the Museum of Water, the Money Museum, Museum of Marionettes (puppets,) the Tile Museum (azuelos) and the Museum of Fado, Portugal’s traditional music, just to name a few. So many museums, so little time reserved at my accommodation. I have three days to allocate toward museum exploration.
While the quirkiness of many of these museums appeals to me, realistically, I am really only good for one museum per day. By the time I find the location, read up on what is on offer, and do the museum justice, I am pretty much out of mental and physical fuel. I find I have to consciously pace myself so as not to delve too deeply in the first few exhibits, leaving myself short on energy for the grand finale. So I figure I will allocate one museum per day over three days.
Museu Nacional do Azulejo
I have been extraordinarily enchanted with the beautifully patterned tiles that seem to cover every façade both inside and out here in Portugal. It is something that has taken me by surprise, and I wanted to know more. Why are they so prolific here?
First of all, I learn the Portuguese don’t call them “tiles,” but rather “azuelos,” from the Arabic word meaning “small polished stone.” The patterned tiles remind me of the beautiful blue tiled mosques I saw in Iran. I guess it stands to reason, since the Iberian Peninsula is so “moored” in its Moorish roots. So I was curious to learn more about how they evolved to play such a prominent role in the Catholic churches here.
The museum is set in Madre de Deus Convent, founded in 1509, so the building is almost as beautiful as the displays themselves. Inside the convent is a baroque chapel showcasing tiles from the 18th century, like a museum inside a museum.
While I had hoped to learn more about the making of the tiles (materials used, type of paints, etc.) I found the museum to be more like an art gallery. Still worthy of Museum Choice No. 1.
Palácio Nacional de Queluz, or the National Palace of Queluz
Does a palace qualify as a museum? It is in a way, a life-sized museum. It was my growing appreciation of azuelos that brought me to the Palace. In doing my research about azuelos, I learned that the National Palace of Queluz has an entire canal lined in blue and white tiles where the royal family went boating. This, I had to see.
About half an hour outside of Lisbon, easily reached by the train from the Rossio Station (right outside my hostel door) in the very nondescript suburbs of Queluz is the resplendent national palace inspired by France’s Versailles.
Built in 1747, it was initially conceived as a summer residence. They lived here permanently from 1794 until 1807 when they were forced to flee to the then Portuguese colony of Brazil following the French invasion. They literally left the day before Napolean’s troops landed in Lisbon.
Museu de Marinha, Maritime Museum
One of the things which most endears Portugal to me is its nautical ambiance, and with over 1,000 miles of coastline, its heavy maritime influence should come as no surprise.
Being here in Portugal, I am surrounded by reminders of “The Age of Discovery,” from the early 15th century into the early 17th century, when European ships traveled around the world in search of new trading routes and partners. The Portuguese Empire led the charge during this time of discovery with young Henry the Navigator and Vasco da Gama, among others, exploring the west coast of Africa all the way to Cape Town. (It’s interesting that you see little mention of Ferdinand Magellan, Portuguese sailor who was the first to circumnavigate the globe. But he did so under the Spanish flag, therefore Portugal considers him somewhat of a traitor.)
Portugal and Spain were the dominant leaders of the Age of Discovery. Through the Treaty of Tordesillas the two countries agreed to divide up the New World, with Spain getting most of the Americas while Portugal got Brazil, India, and Asia. Interesting, considering the scope of Portugal’s dominion today.
I have long been fascinated by these navigators and cartographers on how they managed to sail around the globe using rudimentary tools in rickety boats, to risk venturing into the dark and perilous sea, all for the sake of exploration. Oh sure, there were trade routes at stake offering rich rewards, but equally rewarding was the notoriety of claim, as well as the adventure itself. Not only the gold, but the glory…a curiosity that drove these early explorers to try and try again, against all odds, to press on just to see what lies over the horizon.
While I have done some reading about Captain Cook (very humorous book by the late Tony Horowitz, Blue Latitudes) I remember very little from my World history about the Portuguese explorers. So being here in Lisbon, the Maritime Museum piqued my interest.