the best of portuguese architecture my top ten – part two
6. Casas do Xisto
This is what I like about travelling. Sometimes you know what a place looks like beforehand, so when you see Santorini in its postcard blue-and-whiteness, the touristin you is satisfied that you’ve come to the right place. Portugal is a bit more obscure for simple visual snapshots, but the tourist might cling to the same blue-and-white image that is typical for the Alentejo region, just as it is for Greek Islands, the Spanish coastline, villages in Tunis and innumerable other places in the Mediterranean.
But what the traveller is looking for is authenticity, something surprising or “undiscovered”. What is the “authentic” Portugal? Of course it’s a lot of things, and it can’t be reduced to a mere one-shot postcard. The Casas (and Aldeias) do Xisto are a humble and traditional housing style that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. I find them curious and charming: often hidden in forest or off the beaten track, they are like little hideouts of a closed community. So simple, and essential, like little caves. I like them so much I bought one.
7. Espigueiros do Minho
They are a bit of a grand statement just for storing corn, hey? Imaging having so much granite lying around that you can use it to build a mini-barn. Cool. The crosses are there to ward off evil locusts. The Minho (far north) landscape is wonderful in itself – a bit other-worldly, windblown and spooky. And then clusters of these funereal sarcophagi appear straight out of the middle ages, or outer space…
8. Elevador de Santa Justa (Lisbon)
It’s just a fancy ironwork folly really, but isn’t she sweet? Who better to inspire a landmark-just-for-the-sake-of-it than Monsieur Gustave Eiffel, of Tower fame. Although this lift was designed by a student of his, Gustave was responsible for three bridges in Portugal, in Porto, Viana and Caminho, and very nice they are too.
Technically speaking it’s not a folly, as the Santa Justa has a practical use: it saves you from the stairs between the Baixa and Chiado districts, and there’s also a café at the top.
9. Palácio Nacional de Pena (Sintra)
The National Palace of Pena is so Disneyland it’s hard to believe it’s a UNESCO world heritage site, and a national monument. It was built in the 19th Century as a summer house for the royal family, and they were personally involved in the design, so I figure they must have been a crazy and creative bunch. The style is called European Romanticism (this castle is considered the finest example of the Romantic Style in the world, in fact) and it certainly has a Bavarian Fairytale Castle feel. Romanticism is a mixture of styles: Manueline, Renaissance, Gothic, but what stands out to me is the Islamic influence. It’s so much fun, so camp, so extraordinary.
Probably Portugal’s greatest single contribution to world architecture are Azulejos, traditional Portuguese tiles. At one time Portuguese hand-painted tiles were exported to every corner of the globe and were considered the finest in the world. Certainly the Arabs are pretty keen on tiling too, but the Portuguese design and style is unique. Tiling is prominent all over the country, from delicately painted biblical or historical scenes to graphically coloured glazed and embossed, tiling is used on exteriors and interiors, on floors, walls and ceilings. The varieties are infinite.
OH NO! Already 10?!? But what about the Bolso do Porto, Alvaro Siza’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Prague-like grand cafés of Lisbon and Porto, the restaurant Galeto, the Palácio do Buçaco…. can we make it a Top 100?
To conclude: Of course, I understand that Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder. Sure. Except the Beholder might need glasses.