Europe would be a sensible choice for your next big travel adventure given that it’s just “across the Atlantic pond.”
If your desire is to fly somewhere which doesn’t fall heavily under the tourist radar as far as city centers go, then Lisbon, Portugal is just the right place for you. Just a few months ago, my mother and our longtime family friend Gladys Tiongco had the wonderful occasion to conclude our Iberian regional adventure with a tour through this capital city, which interestingly enough is the seventh-most visited city in Southern Europe right after Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, Athens, Milan and Istanbul.
It may not be iconic as a romantic getaway the same way Paris and Rome are, but it is packed with as much charm and history one could ask for, and by European standards, pricing here is quite reasonable, so there’s absolutely no excuse to bypass this city.
To rejog your memory of what you were taught in history class at school, Portugal was in fact the first European colonial power to lord over an extensive global oceanic empire, with colonies stretching as far east to Asia in Macau, China and Goa, India, to the New World in Brazil, and down to Africa in Angola and Mozambique.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, after acquiring much resources from its overseas colonies, Portugal was practically the place to be and Lisbon was the New York City of its day, the global center for trade, commerce and culture. Like its neighbor Spain, Portugal enjoys year-round sunny Mediterranean weather, with winter temperatures dropping to only as low as 59 to 46-degrees Fahrenheit, which is just another walk-in-the-park for us living here in the Northeast U.S.!
As we landed at Lisbon’s international airport, sunny skies greeted us, and thankfully good weather would be our constant companion throughout our stay. The Philippine Embassy’s Consul General Gines “Bing” Gallaga, a good friend of ours, was very kind to take us for a short tour through the hilly city.
We headed directly to one of Lisbon’s iconic landmarks, the Belém Tower, a UNESCO heritage site which is a fortified tower at the mouth of the city’s Tagus river dating all the way back to the 16th century. This tower, which served as part of Lisbon’s defense system was built under orders by King John II, Portugal’s leading monarch during the late 1400s. Constructed out of limestone, the Tower is a classic example of the Portuguese Manueline architectural style. I could just imagine how the Tower would serve as a welcoming sight for the weary eyes of sea traders, explorers, and soldiers returning by ship back to Lisbon after having spent months at different colonial outposts overseas, and then having to spend seemingly endless days out in the open ocean in the pre-aviation era.
This certainly would not have been too different from how immigrants and other travelers must have felt with their first viewing of the Statue of Liberty upon their arrival by ship to New York during the late 19th century-early 20th century. The Belém Tower sends echoes of how Portugal was the world’s first effective trans-Atlantic commercial and naval power.
We then proceeded to Lisbon’s other UNESCO heritage site and icon, the nearby Jerónimos Monastery, which like the Belém Tower exemplifies Portugal’s classical Manueline-Gothic architecture at its finest. I for one have never seen any structural design such as this at any other city which I’ve traveled to in Europe, and I’ll go on record by saying that the Manueline outline of the Jerónimos Monastery is the best of its kind. The ornate pillars, columns and arch entranceways of this monastery are a wonder to enjoy, and it is almost difficult to picture how the groundwork for the entire church area began way back in January 1501 under funding from Portugal’s prominent King Manuel, and then was finally completed a century later. It might be a bit overly clichéd to state that walking through here will figuratively transport you back into time, but that is exactly what will happen if you do so here at this monastery.
One room which I found worth taking my time to explore was this second-floor gallery exhibiting the chronological history of Portugal, and particularly its portions delineating its medieval period to its glorious Age of Discovery era is captivating. The crowning experience for me at the Monastery (and all of Portugal for that matter) was paying my respects at the tomb of renowned explorer Vasco da Gama inside the basilica itself. For those who need be reminded, he was one of Portugal’s most prolific explorers who became the first European to reach India by sea. Ultimately, he opened the naval trade route between Europe and Asia which thereby solidified economic cooperation between the two great continents.