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1755 in Portugal

November 15, 2013

I was busy scanning slides and negatives from my Portugal tour of March 2001.  Viewing the pictures brought back many memories of that trip.  We were happy and carefree travellers then, never imagining what might happen a few months later when the world changed forever.  In my memories, the year 1755 stood out.

That was the year of the devastating earthquake in Portugal.  It caused damage and destruction over the entire country.  Lisbon, the capital, was especially affected.  The central part of Lisbon, known as the Baixa, is low-lying, beside the Tagus river.  Higher, rocky hills surround the central part.  It was an ancient city, with narrow winding streets.

The earthquake hit on a Sunday morning, when all the people were in church.  Churches then were lit by candles.  It was a devastating earthquake, one that destroyed many of the buildings in seconds.  The candles started fires that caused more destruction.  People fled to the Tagus river and set out in boats to escape the flames.  Then a tidal wave swept up the river, capsizing the boats, and flooding the low-lying areas.  The Baixa was completely destroyed.

After the earthquake, the Baixa was rebuilt on the Roman plan of rectangular blocks with wide streets between them.  The streets may have been wide in the 18th century, but they were not wide when I saw them.  All of them were one-way streets with parking only on one side.

The higher portions of the city surrounding the Baixa suffered less destruction from the earthquake of 1755.  They still have narrow winding streets and irregular blocks.  On our tram ride to St. George’s castle, we came to one intersection where one end of the tram swung around to make a turn.  I was sure it was going to hit a building on the corner, but this building had a notch cut in the corner that just fit the tram car.  It was no problem at all.

One of the features of Lisbon is the acqueduct, a line of arches that tower over the Baixa.  It was completed just before the earthquake.  It was damaged enough that it’s never carried water, but it was not destroyed.

We saw many historic buildings, castles, fortresses, and cathedrals, in other parts of the country.  Often they were built over centuries, with Visigothic foundations and Moorish or Medieval architecture.  Most of these were reduced to piles of stone by the earthquake.  Some were only partially destroyed.  All of them were subsequently rebuilt to become the grand buildings that so impressed us.

Of course, I have many other wonderful memories of that trip.  There were so many things to see and do that we only had time for a fraction of them.  My head spins just thinking about how impressed I was with Portugal.

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