The thirsty city

At the end of my April article, I promised you the continuation of my account about my visit to one of Lisbon’s major eye-catchers, the Aqueduto das Águas Livres. I like to keep my promises…

As imposing as this aqueduct is in real life, it tells, without exaggerating, only a fraction of it. Not only is the part spanning the Alcântara valley, which most people, including the Lisboetas, think of as ‘the aqueduct’ – only a minute fragment of the entire 18.6km structure – its history also reaches quite a bit further back than its inauguration date in 1748.

I was going to learn about all this in the museum that belongs to the same company taking care of the aqueduct nowadays, the aptly named Water Museum or Museu de Água. Naïvely, I had assumed it was situated close to the aqueduct proper – wrong! It actually lies all the way across the city on the other side near the Santa Apolónia train station. This is not as nonsensical as it may seem, since it used to be a pumping station for a similar, even longer aqueduct, bringing in water all the way from Vila Franca de Xira, some 100kms away.

Feeling the need for a rest, I made a small detour on my way there. In the course of my internet research about the aqueduct, I happened upon a so-called Instituto do Vinho do Porto. I’ve always had a great appreciation of this national drink, long before I made Portugal my new home, so naturally I was very interested in finding out about this place. On my first-ever visit to Portugal, back in 1979, I had been invited to a port factory in – where else? – Porto, which left an indelible impression on me. So I sought out this ‘Port Institute’ before visiting the Water Museum.

It’s easy enough to find. Once you have located the tourist office on the Avenida da Liberdade, next to the Rossio train and subway stations, it’s just a short walk till the next corner, where you can board the Elevador da Santa Glória, which will take you almost to its doorstep. Belying its name and unlike its famous namesake, the Elevador da Santa Justa, this one is not an actual elevator, but rather a kind of skewed streetcar, with an inclined undercarriage to adapt to the inclination of the steep street it was designed to climb. It’s definitely a tourist thing, covering just a few hundred metres – I doubt any real Lisboeta will ever take it. But take my word for it, it’s fun! The Port Institute, despite its grand name, turned out to be simply a bar, tastefully styled, if a little outmoded. But it has something. Contrary to my fears, it was even reasonably priced (unless you opt for one of its showcases, a Krohn Reserva 1900, selling at a modest 1,193.80 euros per bottle). Since I’m not used to such stratospheric prices, I held on to my billfold and got away with a mere 2.60 euros for two glasses of really good port.

The Institute’s history is quite interesting. A Bavarian goldsmith called João Frederico Ludwig (Ludovice) founded it in 1747 as his main residence. It was acquired by the IVP in 1933 and later made into its main outlet.

Refreshed and with my spirits restored, I headed for the Water Museum. If you choose, like me, to go by subway, you get off at the Santa Apolónia station. From there, it’s a short but steep ascent (show me a place in Lisbon where this description does not apply…) into some back streets, once again with only sparsely provided signs, that takes you to a garden-like entranceway with a beautiful view across the Tejo river. Passing some disused machinery aesthetically adorning the lawn, you enter the main building, erected in the charming style of industrial architecture of the turn of the 19th to the 20th century (since the advent of the 21st century, we can no longer just call it ‘turn-of-the-century’, it has to be more specific than that). These days, the former pumping station houses a very well made museum about the history of supplying water to the parched city.

In the early years of the Modern Age, Lisbon had more than a couple of a hundred thousand inhabitants and was one of Europe’s biggest cities. With the exception of the few fortunate ones who possessed their own wells, each one of these thousands of people had to get their water from the same places. Originally, there was only one place, the Chafariz d’El Rei. It’s not hard to imagine that tempers flared high as folk vied for the scarce good water. There are plenty of reports about violent fights, quite a few of which ended in deaths. More fountains were built, but the situation continued to be desperate. Eventually, the Aqueduto das Águas Livres was built, increasing the water supply to the city by more than the factor 10. No wonder they call it the ‘Free Water Aqueduct’.

But the name is misleading. Access to the precious fountains was severely restricted, with preference given to the maids of better-to-do households. There were severe penalties for those who didn’t respect the water hierarchy. ‘Normal people’ had to buy their water off the so-called aguadeiros, the water bearers. But if you think the water men were well respected for it, you’re wrong – they were humiliated and ridiculed. Quite strange when you think that the entire city depended on them.

The back part of the museum is made up of the original pumping station, with its beautifully restored steam boilers and wheels. It serves to prove the point that technology can be both utilitarian and very beautiful.

I left Lisbon with a sense of discovery, although I took even more questions home than I had brought with me. But that’s how it’s supposed to be. It makes me curious to go back and learn more. Does it ever get better than that?

Water Museum:

Comprehensive site, quite nicely made, but, alas, only in Portuguese.

Port Institute:

Nice pictures, giving a good impression of the place. However, there is little in-depth information and the site is only in Portuguese.