Lisbon’s Praças

In Portuguese the word for square is praça and in the capital city of Lisbon, there is no shortage of them. A couple of blocks away from our hotel on the Avenida da Liberade there was the Praça dos Restauradores (Restorer’s Square, not Restaurant Square as my English reading mind initially wanted to translate it). It’s dedicated to the restoration of Portugal’s independence from Spain, a period of rule which lasted 60 years. (From the end of the 16th century to the middle part of the 17th century, Portugal was ruled by Spanish monarchs. Since King Henry had died without leaving a Portuguese heir, Spanish monarch Philip I was the next heir due to European monarchies often intermarrying relatives as a means of expanding their empires.) The obelisk in the middle of the square, inaugurated in 1886, lists the names and dates of the battles fought during the Portuguese Restoration War.

Nearby is Rossio Square, although its official name is Praça de D. Petro IV (Pedro IV was King of Portugal as well as the First Emperor of Brazil). The Rossio grew to importance during the 13th and 14th centuries when the population of the city expanded to the lower areas surrounding the Lisbon Castle hill. (The city’s earliest origins had been at the Castelo de Sao Jorge.) It was the site of public executions and the first auto-da-fe took place there in 1540. (Auto-da-fe means “act of faith” in Portuguese and was a judgement of the Inquisition of Portugal condemning or acquitting persons accused of religious offenses.) Most structures in the area were completely leveled during the earthquake that decimated the city in 1755, so what tourists see today was built after that time. In the 19th century the Rossio was paved with Portuguese mosaic, a common sight throughout much of the country, and was graced with bronze fountains imported from France. The Column of Pedro IV was erected in 1874 which was around the time the square received its current official name, although even then the people never accepted it. In some cities where the tourist population is extremely large, natives tend to avoid those sections, and yet at Rossio Square this was not the case. While tourists took pictures of the sights around them, locals sat on benches-talking, eating, simply breathing in the Lisboa air.

My favorite of the Lisbon pracas was the Praça do Comercio (Square of Commerce) because of its stunning location. In the early 16th century, King Manuel I built new royal lodgings, the Ribeira Palace, by the Tagus River, outside of the city walls. The area was further developed with the building of a port, ship building facilities, and other administrative buildings that regulated commerce between Portugal and other parts of Europe and its colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

Just as everything else in the city, the Ribeira Palace and other buildings by the river were destroyed by the great earthquake of 1755, which was then followed by a tsunami and fire. A new structure was designed in a large rectangular square in the shape of a “U” which opened towards the Tagus. The buildings have galleries on their ground floors and the arms of the “U” end in two large towers. The square was named Praça do Comercio to indicate its new role in the capital city’s economy. The equestrian statue of King Jose I was inaugurated in 1775 in the center of the square and it is he who looks out on the Tagus.

I still feel that the Grand Place in Brussels is one of the most visually striking places I have ever seen; however, the Praça do Comercio still succeeded in leaving me silent  for a moment as I took in the scenery all around me. The yellow coloring of the buildings, so typically Iberian, the dark red and green hues of the Portuguese flag, proudly blowing in the distance, and the Tagus River, ever flowing, ever witness to hundreds of years of history including the assassination of Portugal’s king, Carlos I and his heir, Luis Filipe in 1908. The royal family was traveling from one palace to another and while crossing through the Praca in their carriage, shots were fired from the crowd. The assassins were killed on the spot by the family’s bodyguards and police, and it became known that they were members of the Republican Party which just two years later would overthrow the Portuguese monarchy. The assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo in 1914 will always be remembered in history as the fuse that began World War I. Yet less than a decade earlier, another European monarch was not only deposed but murdered along with his son, simply for being members of a royal family, doing nothing but riding in an open carriage. But how many people are aware of this bit of modern European history? (Carlos I was the first Portuguese king to die a violent death since Sebastian of Portugal in the 16th century.)

While a tourist attraction can show and document history, sometimes the best way to truly experience history is to stand on the same ground that has played witness to it for hundreds of years, like a praça. Inquisitions, executions, protests, revolts, natural disasters, a praça has seen it all. And the best part about visiting one? It’s free.

More in this series!
A Portuguese Goodbye

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