It’s turned rainy and cold again in Amsterdam, so I’m just going to keep posting about Lisbon to remind myself of those sunnier days. Our first day we dedicated to the older parts of town, the hints of medieval places scattered around.

Castle on a hill

We first visited Castelo São Jorge, overlooking the city from it’s fortified hill. On the hike up we were helped by a sweet old lady who spoke no English, but was convinced we could understand every word of Portuguese. She chatted on for awhile, pointing down the street and smiling. Eventually we caught on that she was directing us to the castle. I tried out my first obrigado (thank you) on her, and she smiled, patted my arm, and said, “De nada.”

The castle was an average old fortress, complete with cannons, a moat, turrets for climbing and alleyways of crumbling stone. The best part was the fantastic views it afforded us.

{Photo by Sarah Van Wyke}

Next, we headed to the Sé, or Cathedral. It’s old and imposing, but it wasn’t impressing me much (after a few old churches, they all start looking the same) until we went into the sacristy and behind. An archeological dig of ancient Roman ruins was taking place, and the scaffolding filtered the hot sun beautifully, softly lighting the whole area. The corridors were deserted, ancient, and full of mystery. Tombs and carved curiosities filled each nook, with no explanations, inviting our own stories.

And yet, as lovely as the old Sé was, my favorite place was still to come. On a hill above the city, facing the castle, sits a ruined church. The Carmo Convent was built in the 1300s, but was destroyed, like much of the city, by the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake. Instead of rebuilding, the people left it and eventually turned it into an archeological museum and monument.

Gothic churches were built to make you look up. This way you could be awed by the massive building you, a small feeble person, were in. The Carmo church is similar, but because the earthquake destroyed the roof the arches are left holding nothing and your gaze is drawn up not to great paintings or intricate ceilings, but to the sky. There’s just emptiness between you and the atmosphere and the arches support only the clouds. I’ve never seen anything like it.

It’s as if whatever was in the building was too big for the mere brick monument, and forcefully broke out into the world, leaving the church behind as a reminder.