Unearthing Dark Tourism in Lisbon

The Portuguese capital is associated with WWII spies and dimly lit cobbled streets, but at face value it would seem to be missing the deadly undertones of cities like Paris (bloody revolution, catacombs, the Père Lachaise Cemetery) or London (plague pits, the Great Fire, Jack the Ripper).

As with most major cities, there are the inevitable ghost stories associated with Lisbon, and the ghost tours that go hand in hand; it would be naive to say that death doesn’t have a global entertainment value. Last year there was even a play called Dark Tourism, devised by local dance and drama group Silly Season, staged in a theatre on Rua Garrett. But if you want something more concrete, more respectful, there are plenty of options – you just have to know where to find them.

Vasco de Gama in Hieronymites Monastery
The much-visited explorer’s tomb.

Tombs of the Great and the Good

A trip to Belém’s Mosteiro dos Jerónimos will allow you to pay your respects to Vasco de Gama, the famous explorer who died in India, and the poet Fernando Pessoa. de Gama’s elaborately carved stone sarcophagus is in the lower choir, a part of the building that’s free to visitors, close to the remains of poet Luis Camões. Pessoa can be found in the monastery’s cloister, with a very minimalist tomb.

Meanwhile, the British Cemetery in Rua São Jorge holds a tomb dedicated to author Henry Fielding, who died here in 1754. Another memorable spot is the Cemitério dos Prazeres (Prazeres meaning ‘pleasures’) which, judging by the photos, looks a lot like Cementerio Colon in Havana, and is the final resting place for some of Portugal’s finest actors and singers – though its earlier inhabitants are un-starry cholera victims. Last but not least, Lisbon Zoo has its own pet cemetery, something which many visitors will perhaps prefer to skip in favour of seeing live animals and keeping the kids happy.

After a quick internet search, I couldn’t find any other zoos around the world with attached animal cemeteries, though a couple of zoos have been built on the site of human graveyards, namely in Chicago and Birmingham. It seems Lisboetas are unique in their open approach to the life cycle of animals.

Depiction of Lisbon earthquake and tsunami
A copper engraving of the earthquake’s impact. Credit: Walkerart.org blog.

The Darkest Time

Lisbon took a particularly vicious battering from an earthquake on All Saints Day (1st November) 1755, which measured 8.7 on the Richter scale Many areas of the city were badly scarred by fires that subsequently broke out and lasted for days, whilst a tsunami claimed further lives and wreaked havoc; shockwaves were felt in Ireland and Sweden, whilst other tsunamis from the quake hit Morocco and even Barbados.

Overall, 85% of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed, including the Royal Hospital of All Saints, the Opera House and the Royal Ribeira Palace with its historical records and art collection. Estimates for the death toll vary widely, between 10,000-100,000, but only one mass grave has been discovered (as reported by USA Today), and most bodies were buried at sea. Walking along the calm waterfront at Cais do Sodre, you can scarcely believe a tsunami could rage inland here, or the houses and businesses could collapse around you.

Redevelopment was spearheaded by the Marquis de Pombal, who was the Prime Minister, and he also compiled a country-wide report of the damage by asking each Portuguese parish to complete a survey about local impact. Questions included ‘How many people died and were any of them distinguished?’. Lisbon’s Baixa district, close to the waterfront, was completely rebuilt at his request with a grid pattern of wide streets and structures specifically designed to stand up to future quakes. Baixa might not feel particularly modern today, but when you walk through it you’re soaking up relatively modern history, with no trace of pre-1755 life.

Jewish memorial in Lisbon
A reminder of the attack in 1506.

Sombre Reminders

Just off Rossio Square, outside the São Domingo church, lies a small monument to a Jewish massacre which began on 19th April 1506. Up to 2000 people, who had already been forced to convert to Christianity, were condemned as heretics by Dominicans and then killed in a two day pogrom.

Stand in front of the grand Teatro Dona Maria II, practically opposite the Rossio train station, and you’ll be close to a relic of the Portuguese Inquisition (begun in May 1536), albeit one you can no longer see. This was the site of the Palácio dos Estaus, which organised executions and hangings between 1531 and 1777. Today, the square it sits within is a cosmopolitan area with plenty of lively cafes.

Over in Belém, past the medieval Torre de Belém, is a striking memorial to Portuguese soldiers who fought in the morally dubious Overseas War of 1961-1974. The conflict was an awkward wrangle to try and keep hold of the country’s African colonies and prevent them declaring independence; it became deeply unpopular in Portugal, relying on conscription, which some eligible men avoided by moving overseas. Communist groups who opposed the war gathered growing support as the years went by. The war ended due to the Carnation Revolution – the overthrowing of the Portuguese dictatorship.

PIDE headquarters in Lisbon
The HQ of the Secret Police blends in. You can just about see the slimline plaque, left of centre.

Hidden in Plain Sight

The former home of Portugal’s secret police force, the PIDE, is another blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sight. Today, on this quiet backstreet (Rua António Maria Cardoso) high up on one of Lisbon’s hills, you’d be forgiven for walking past the very unremarkable spot where enemies of the state were routinely interrogated, tortured and degraded.

Back in 2002, the New York Times reported that the building was to morph into luxury accommodation, and unfortunately the cold and slick design of the new development does mean there’s no way to anchor yourself in the past; it’s been glossed over. A simple plaque tells you the significance of the place, and marks where four men were shot in the street by officers in 1974.

Traipsing through Praça do Comércio, with its appealing restaurants and bars, it’s hard to imagine the chaos that took place here in 1908, when King Carlos I and his son were assassinated in the royal carriage as they returned from a palace in Evora. Though the king’s bodyguards quickly despatched the two killers, who were die-hard republicans, an innocent bystander was caught in the crossfire and also died.

Archaeological Museum in Bairro Alto
The Carmo Convent is an unmissable attraction.

Museums with a Dash of the Macabre

The Carmo Convent has to be the ultimate dark site for tourists in the city, because it has three different layers of death-related history inside. Firstly, the convent naturally contains tombs and memorials, being the final resting place for many devout Portuguese citizens. Secondly, it was severely damaged in the 1755 earthquake and was left in its fractured state as a reminder of the devastation. The official guidebook to the site says it’s ‘like an apparently forgotten skeleton of unwilling stone’. Thirdly, today the convent contains the Museu Arqueologico do Carmo, focusing on archaeological treasures gathered locally and around the world.

Whilst some visitors balk at the shrivelled mummified figures from 16th Century Peru, there are less obvious human traces behind other glass panels. A prosthetic silver finger from the 17th Century is one unusual highlight; another is a curvaceous Roman statue of a man in a toga, which was discovered in a river bed, now placed alongside a Roman tomb marker, or cippus, from the Galeria tribe.

Belém’s Museu Nacional de Arquelogica is another example of education tinged with mortality. You’ll find it just to the left of the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, and you can buy a combined ticket to visit both sites, or pop in for free with a Lisboa Card. Exhibits range from Roman tombstones and burial objects (‘The dead himself could go dressed and adorned [to the afterlife]’) to an Egyptian book of the dead and a mummy from the Ptolemaic period.

Archway over Rua Augusta and Commerce Square, Lisbon
One side of Praça do Comércio – this square was the setting for a regicide and earthquake damage.

From notable graves to macabre mummies, hopefully these suggestions will prove to you that Lisbon’s dark past deserves to be explored, and that the surface can easily be scratched as you get to know its streets and sights.

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