The moment I see the walls of Lisbon castle I know I’m ‘home’. Dominating the city skyline, the castle can be seen from almost every point within the city. The sand coloured stone gleams gold against the deep blue summer sky. It emanates both strength and serenity.
The castle (Castelo de São Jorge) was named after the English patron Saint George after the treaty that sealed the friendship between England and Portugal in the 14th Century. It seems to have gone through many incarnations to become the building it is today. Dating back to the 6th century the site of the castle has seen battles against the Moors and Castilians, been the seat of the royal palace, housed the national archives and been used as a prison and barracks. It has been fortified and allowed to crumble, built upon and modernised and ruined by the 1755 earthquake. These days the castle seems to be a living legend of the history of Lisbon.
Walking round the gardens there seems to be a wonderful mix of stone and design reflecting the different ages of use and abuse. I should note however that much of what you see is a reconstruction of the more ancient buildings.
If you are on your first visit to Lisbon, take a stroll down to Praça Figueira and gaze up at the castle whilst nursing a coffee at Cafe Suiça. Then, jump on the number 28 tram and journey up the hill. The castle offers you fantastic views of the city as a whole and you can get a feel for the beautiful city. You can see the red top roofs of the houses and the picture perfect postcard jumble of the Alfama. The Tejo glitters in the sunlight.
The tram driver will always yell “castelo, castelo” when you arrive at the stop for the castle so you have no need to fear that you will miss where to get off. As soon as you leave the tram, take the tiny winding road up the hill to your left. As you trek up the cobbled streets, you will see a variety of gift shops selling a broad range of tourist paraphernalia. Whilst I would recommend saving your pennies and buying a map from the local bookshop in town, there are some nice little gifts to be found in these shops if you are looking to buy holiday presents for friends (or indeed yourself). I found the shopkeepers to be friendly and helpful. There are also a few cafes and bars and the occassional fado singer.
The castle itself is surrounded by beautiful gardens and is a haven of peace. Take your time to wander across the battlements and gaze out across the Tejo. The information board on the outer wall of the main terrace (Praça D’Armas) shows you an outline of the skyline and marks all the important places and buildings. Canons point out across the city.
On my visit I stayed outside in the gardens as there was so much to see and photograph. However there is also the periscope in the Tower of Ulysses that gives you a 360 degree view of the city. If you wish to rest your aching feet for a while, there is also a cafe.
I adored the statues within the grounds and I have previously written about the poem I found there. Like any of the popular tourist attractions, the weekends are likely to be very busy. Weekday mornings are perhaps the best time. Note that it’s closed on Mondays.
It costs €7.50 euros (circa 2012) to gain entry to the castle. Some people feel that the castle is not worth visiting due to the fact that much of it is reconstructed. However, I think it is worth the visit if only to experience the shady walks beneath the pine and cork trees and gaze out over the spectacular views. Whilst history may have been distorted, the castle is a feature of Lisbon present. Even if not all the walls are ancient, the land beneath is. I wonder how many warriers, how many kings, how many prison guards have gazed across this landscape too. I mark their footsteps with my feet and keep their memory in my heart.