A walk around the hilly narrow streets of Lisbon’s charming Alfama and Graça districts is like having a rigorous eye examination at the opticians: one constantly flickers between long- and short-sightedness as no one can resist staring out at the sumptuous views over the city through the gaps between the buildings, whilst at the same time trying to gaze up at the traditionally tiled decoration of the buildings between the gaps.
Sitting on top of one of the highest points in Graça in its present form since the sixteenth century, the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora has had a long historical, religious and cultural connection with Lisbon. Kings of Portugal have been laid to rest here and various saints have passed through its doors over the centuries. But, what arguably makes this church stand out from others in the city is its richly decorated azulejo cloisters dating back to the eighteenth century.
As well as the azulejo cloisters, the monastery also exhibits thirty-eight original tiled panels based on the fables of the French poet Jean de La Fontaine. The fables were popular in the eighteenth century among Portuguese poets, and azulejos were created at the time to portray the more popular and morally rich tales from La Fontaine’s collection. Almost all the azulejos have a strong connection with nature and nearly all the fables are rather bemusing by today’s standards.
Take, for example the fable of The Bear and the Man who Loved Gardens: a lonely bear and an equally lonely old man met and became such good friends that when the man fell asleep in his garden the bear would keep flies off his friend’s face. The bear however was clumsy and when a fly once landed on the sleeping man’s nose, the bear threw a large rock at it to kill it, unfortunately cracking his friend’s skull open in the process and killing him.
Another fable depicted in these tiles describes how a weasel once trespassed inside a rabbit’s warren and claimed ownership of it. The rabbit protested but the weasel claimed that things belong to those who take them and not to those who inherit them as had been the case with the rabbit. Unable to agree with each other, the two animals turned to a cat for advice. As the animals stood in front of their feline judge, the cat asked them to move closer to him as he was hard of hearing, and as soon as they were at paw’s reach the cat pounced on them and ate them both up, thus “bringing” them together.
The ever popular – and always crowded – number 28 tram passes very close to the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora. Get off at the tram stop after Largo da Graça and follow the signs. The church itself is often closed to the public when mass is not being conducted, but the entrance to the monastery and cloisters can be found around the back of the building through the walled courtyard to the right of the imposing church front. It is opened daily and the entrance fee is €8 (2016). This ticket gives access not just to the cloisters and azulejos collection but also to the museum, chapels, Royal Pantheon and rooftop where one can enjoy yet another stunning panorama of Lisbon.
Lisbon: riding ‘Justa‘ another form of classic transport. Trams, funiculars and possibly the loveliest lift in the world
Évora: the magnificent church of tiles verses the macabre chapel of bones in the Alentejo capital