Notes of a Journey From Cornhill to Grand Cairo, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter 2

Lisbon — Cadiz

A great misfortune which befalls a man who has but a single day to stay in a town, is that fatal duty which superstition entails upon him of visiting the chief lions of the city in which he may happen to be. You must go through the ceremony, however much you may sigh to avoid it; and however much you know that the lions in one capital roar very much like the lions in another; that the churches are more or less large and splendid, the palaces pretty spacious, all the world over; and that there is scarcely a capital city in this Europe but has its pompous bronze statue or two of some periwigged, hook-nosed emperor, in a Roman habit, waving his bronze baton on his broad-flanked brazen charger. We only saw these state old lions in Lisbon, whose roar has long since ceased to frighten one. First we went to the Church of St. Roch, to see a famous piece of mosaic-work there. It is a famous work of art, and was bought by I don’t know what king for I don’t know how much money. All this information may be perfectly relied on, though the fact is, we did not see the mosaic-work: the sacristan, who guards it, was yet in bed; and it was veiled from our eyes in a side-chapel by great dirty damask curtains, which could not be removed, except when the sacristan’s toilette was done, and at the price of a dollar. So we were spared this mosaic exhibition; and I think I always feel relieved when such an event occurs. I feel I have done my duty in coming to see the enormous animal: if he is not at home, virtute mea me, &c. — we have done our best, and mortal can do no more.

In order to reach that church of the forbidden mosaic, we had sweated up several most steep and dusty streets — hot and dusty, although it was but nine o’clock in the morning. Thence the guide conducted us into some little dust-powdered gardens, in which the people make believe to enjoy the verdure, and whence you look over a great part of the arid, dreary, stony city. There was no smoke, as in honest London, only dust — dust over the gaunt houses and the dismal yellow strips of gardens. Many churches were there, and tall half-baked-looking public edifices, that had a dry, uncomfortable, earth-quaky look, to my idea. The ground-floors of the spacious houses by which we passed seemed the coolest and pleasantest portions of the mansion. They were cellars or warehouses, for the most part, in which white-jacketed clerks sat smoking easy cigars. The streets were plastered with placards of a bull-fight, to take place the next evening (there was no opera that season); but it was not a real Spanish tauromachy — only a theatrical combat, as you could see by the picture in which the horseman was cantering off at three miles an hour, the bull tripping after him with tips to his gentle horns. Mules interminable, and almost all excellently sleek and handsome, were pacing down every street: here and there, but later in the day, came clattering along a smart rider on a prancing Spanish horse; and in the afternoon a few families might be seen in the queerest old-fashioned little carriages, drawn by their jolly mules and swinging between, or rather before, enormous wheels.

The churches I saw were of the florid periwig architecture — I mean of that pompous cauliflower kind of ornament which was the fashion in Louis the Fifteenth’s time, at which unlucky period a building mania seems to have seized upon many of the monarchs of Europe, and innumerable public edifices were erected. It seems to me to have been the period in all history when society was the least natural, and perhaps the most dissolute; and I have always fancied that the bloated artificial forms of the architecture partake of the social disorganisation of the time. Who can respect a simpering ninny, grinning in a Roman dress and a full-bottomed wig, who is made to pass off for a hero? or a fat woman in a hoop, and of a most doubtful virtue, who leers at you as a goddess? In the palaces which we saw, several Court allegories were represented, which, atrocious as they were in point of art, might yet serve to attract the regard of the moraliser. There were Faith, Hope, and Charity restoring Don John to the arms of his happy Portugal: there were Virtue, Valour, and Victory saluting Don Emanuel: Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic (for what I know, or some mythologic nymphs) dancing before Don Miguel — the picture is there still, at the Ajuda; and ah me! where is poor Mig? Well, it is these State lies and ceremonies that we persist in going to see; whereas a man would have a much better insight into Portuguese manners, by planting himself at a corner, like yonder beggar, and watching the real transactions of the day.

A drive to Belem is the regular route practised by the traveller who has to make only a short stay, and accordingly a couple of carriages were provided for our party, and we were driven through the long merry street of Belem, peopled by endless strings of mules — by thousands of gallegos, with water-barrels on their shoulders, or lounging by the fountains to hire — by the Lisbon and Belem omnibuses, with four mules, jingling along at a good pace; and it seemed to me to present a far more lively and cheerful, though not so regular, an appearance as the stately quarters of the city we had left behind us. The little shops were at full work — the men brown, well-dressed, manly, and handsome: so much cannot, I am sorry to say, be said for the ladies, of whom, with every anxiety to do so, our party could not perceive a single good-looking specimen all day. The noble blue Tagus accompanies you all along these three miles of busy pleasant street, whereof the chief charm, as I thought, was its look of genuine business — that appearance of comfort which the cleverest Court-architect never knows how to give.

The carriages (the canvas one with four seats and the chaise in which I drove) were brought suddenly up to a gate with the Royal arms over it; and here we were introduced to as queer an exhibition as the eye has often looked on. This was the state-carriage house, where there is a museum of huge old tumble-down gilded coaches of the last century, lying here, mouldy and dark, in a sort of limbo. The gold has vanished from the great lumbering old wheels and panels; the velvets are wofully tarnished. When one thinks of the patches and powder that have simpered out of those plate-glass windows — the mitred bishops, the big-wigged marshals, the shovel-hatted abbes which they have borne in their time — the human mind becomes affected in no ordinary degree. Some human minds heave a sigh for the glories of bygone days; while others, considering rather the lies and humbug, the vice and servility, which went framed and glazed and enshrined, creaking along in those old Juggernaut cars, with fools worshipping under the wheels, console themselves for the decay of institutions that may have been splendid and costly, but were ponderous, clumsy, slow, and unfit for daily wear. The guardian of these defunct old carriages tells some prodigious fibs concerning them: he pointed out one carriage that was six hundred years old in his calendar; but any connoisseur in bric-a-brac can see it was built at Paris in the Regent Orleans’ time.

Hence it is but a step to an institution in full life and vigour — a noble orphan-school for one thousand boys and girls, founded by Don Pedro, who gave up to its use the superb convent of Belem, with its splendid cloisters, vast airy dormitories, and magnificent church. Some Oxford gentlemen would have wept to see the desecrated edifice — to think that the shaven polls and white gowns were banished from it to give place to a thousand children, who have not even the clergy to instruct them. “Every lad here may choose his trade,” our little informant said, who addressed us in better French than any of our party spoke, whose manners were perfectly gentlemanlike and respectful, and whose clothes, though of a common cotton stuff, were cut and worn with a military neatness and precision. All the children whom we remarked were dressed with similar neatness, and it was a pleasure to go through their various rooms for study, where some were busy at mathematics, some at drawing, some attending a lecture on tailoring, while others were sitting at the feet of a professor of the science of shoemaking. All the garments of the establishment were made by the pupils; even the deaf and dumb were drawing and reading, and the blind were, for the most part, set to perform on musical instruments, and got up a concert for the visitors. It was then we wished ourselves of the numbers of the deaf and dumb, for the poor fellows made noises so horrible, that even as blind beggars they could hardly get a livelihood in the musical way.

Hence we were driven to the huge palace of Necessidades, which is but a wing of a building that no King of Portugal ought ever to be rich enough to complete, and which, if perfect, might outvie the Tower of Babel. The mines of Brazil must have been productive of gold and silver indeed when the founder imagined this enormous edifice. From the elevation on which it stands it commands the noblest views — the city is spread before it, with its many churches and towers, and for many miles you see the magnificent Tagus, rolling by banks crowned with trees and towers. But to arrive at this enormous building you have to climb a steep suburb of wretched huts, many of them with dismal gardens of dry cracked earth, where a few reedy sprouts of Indian corn seemed to be the chief cultivation, and which were guarded by huge plants of spiky aloes, on which the rags of the proprietors of the huts were sunning themselves. The terrace before the palace was similarly encroached upon by these wretched habitations. A few millions judiciously expended might make of this arid hill one of the most magnificent gardens in the world; and the palace seems to me to excel for situation any Royal edifice I have ever seen. But the huts of these swarming poor have crawled up close to its gates — the superb walls of hewn stone stop all of a sudden with a lath-and-plaster hitch; and capitals, and hewn stones for columns, still lying about on the deserted terrace, may lie there for ages to come, probably, and never take their places by the side of their brethren in yonder tall bankrupt galleries. The air of this pure sky has little effect upon the edifices — the edges of the stone look as sharp as if the builders had just left their work; and close to the grand entrance stands an outbuilding, part of which may have been burnt fifty years ago, but is in such cheerful preservation that you might fancy the fire had occurred yesterday. It must have been an awful sight from this hill to have looked at the city spread before it, and seen it reeling and swaying in the time of the earthquake. I thought it looked so hot and shaky, that one might fancy a return of the fit. In several places still remain gaps and chasms, and ruins lie here and there as they cracked and fell.

Although the palace has not attained anything like its full growth, yet what exists is quite big enough for the monarch of such a little country; and Versailles or Windsor has not apartments more nobly proportioned. The Queen resides in the Ajuda, a building of much less pretensions, of which the yellow walls and beautiful gardens are seen between Belem and the city. The Necessidades are only used for grand galas, receptions of ambassadors, and ceremonies of state. In the throne-room is a huge throne, surmounted by an enormous gilt crown, than which I have never seen anything larger in the finest pantomime at Drury Lane; but the effect of this splendid piece is lessened by a shabby old Brussels carpet, almost the only other article of furniture in the apartment, and not quite large enough to cover its spacious floor. The looms of Kidderminster have supplied the web which ornaments the “Ambassadors’ Waiting-Room,” and the ceilings are painted with huge allegories in distemper, which pretty well correspond with the other furniture. Of all the undignified objects in the world, a palace out at elbows is surely the meanest. Such places ought not to be seen in adversity — splendour is their decency — and when no longer able to maintain it, they should sink to the level of their means, calmly subside into manufactories, or go shabby in seclusion.

There is a picture-gallery belonging to the palace that is quite of a piece with the furniture, where are the mythological pieces relative to the kings before alluded to, and where the English visitor will see some astonishing pictures of the Duke of Wellington, done in a very characteristic style of Portuguese art. There is also a chapel, which has been decorated with much care and sumptuousness of ornament — the altar surmounted by a ghastly and horrible carved figure in the taste of the time when faith was strengthened by the shrieks of Jews on the rack, and enlivened by the roasting of heretics. Other such frightful images may be seen in the churches of the city; those which we saw were still rich, tawdry, and splendid to outward show, although the French, as usual, had robbed their shrines of their gold and silver, and the statues of their jewels and crowns. But brass and tinsel look to the visitor full as well at a little distance — as doubtless Soult and Junot thought, when they despoiled these places of worship, like French philosophers as they were.

A friend, with a classical turn of mind, was bent upon seeing the aqueduct, whither we went on a dismal excursion of three hours, in the worst carriages, over the most diabolical clattering roads, up and down dreary parched hills, on which grew a few grey olive-trees and many aloes. When we arrived, the gate leading to the aqueduct was closed, and we were entertained with a legend of some respectable character who had made a good livelihood there for some time past lately, having a private key to this very aqueduct, and lying in wait there for unwary travellers like ourselves, whom he pitched down the arches into the ravines below, and there robbed them at leisure. So that all we saw was the door and the tall arches of the aqueduct, and by the time we returned to town it was time to go on board the ship again. If the inn at which we had sojourned was not of the best quality, the bill, at least, would have done honour to the first establishment in London. We all left the house of entertainment joyfully, glad to get out of the sun-burnt city and go HOME. Yonder in the steamer was home, with its black funnel and gilt portraiture of “Lady Mary Wood” at the bows; and every soul on board felt glad to return to the friendly little vessel. But the authorities of Lisbon, however, are very suspicious of the departing stranger, and we were made to lie an hour in the river before the Sanita boat, where a passport is necessary to be procured before the traveller can quit the country. Boat after boat laden with priests and peasantry, with handsome red-sashed gallegos clad in brown, and ill-favoured women, came and got their permits, and were off, as we lay bumping up against the old hull of the Sanita boat; but the officers seemed to take a delight in keeping us there bumping, looked at us quite calmly over the ship’s sides, and smoked their cigars without the least attention to the prayers which we shrieked out for release.

If we were glad to get away from Lisbon, we were quite as sorry to be obliged to quit Cadiz, which we reached the next night, and where we were allowed a couple of hours’ leave to land and look about. It seemed as handsome within as it is stately without; the long narrow streets of an admirable cleanliness, many of the tall houses of rich and noble decorations, and all looking as if the city were in full prosperity. I have seen no more cheerful and animated sight than the long street leading from the quay where we were landed, and the market blazing in sunshine, piled with fruit, fish, and poultry, under many-coloured awnings; the tall white houses with their balconies and galleries shining round about, and the sky above so blue that the best cobalt in all the paint-box looks muddy and dim in comparison to it. There were pictures for a year in that market-place — from the copper-coloured old hags and beggars who roared to you for the love of Heaven to give money, to the swaggering dandies of the market, with red sashes and tight clothes, looking on superbly, with a hand on the hip and a cigar in the mouth. These must be the chief critics at the great bull-fight house yonder by the Alameda, with its scanty trees, and cool breezes facing the water. Nor are there any corks to the bulls’ horns here, as at Lisbon. A small old English guide who seized upon me the moment my foot was on shore, had a store of agreeable legends regarding the bulls, men, and horses that had been killed with unbounded profusion in the late entertainments which have taken place.

It was so early an hour in the morning that the shops were scarcely opened as yet; the churches, however, stood open for the faithful, and we met scores of women tripping towards them with pretty feet, and smart black mantillas, from which looked out fine dark eyes and handsome pale faces, very different from the coarse brown countenances we had seen at Lisbon. A very handsome modern cathedral, built by the present bishop at his own charges, was the finest of the public edifices we saw; it was not, however, nearly so much frequented as another little church, crowded with altars and fantastic ornaments, and lights and gilding, where we were told to look behind a huge iron grille, and beheld a bevy of black nuns kneeling. Most of the good ladies in the front ranks stopped their devotions, and looked at the strangers with as much curiosity as we directed at them through the gloomy bars of their chapel. The men’s convents are closed; that which contains the famous Murillos has been turned into an academy of the fine arts; but the English guide did not think the pictures were of sufficient interest to detain strangers, and so hurried us back to the shore, and grumbled at only getting three shillings at parting for his trouble and his information. And so our residence in Andalusia began and ended before breakfast, and we went on board and steamed for Gibraltar, looking, as we passed, at Joinville’s black squadron, and the white houses of St. Mary’s across the bay, with the hills of Medina Sidonia and Granada lying purple beyond them. There’s something even in those names which is pleasant to write down; to have passed only two hours in Cadiz is something — to have seen real donnas with comb and mantle — real caballeros with cloak and cigar — real Spanish barbers lathering out of brass basins — and to have heard guitars under the balconies: there was one that an old beggar was jangling in the market, whilst a huge leering fellow in bushy whiskers and a faded velvet dress came singing and jumping after our party — not singing to a guitar, it is true, but imitating one capitally with his voice, and cracking his fingers by way of castanets, and performing a dance such as Figaro or Lablache might envy. How clear that fellow’s voice thrums on the ear even now; and how bright and pleasant remains the recollection of the fine city and the blue sea, and the Spanish flags floating on the boats that danced over it, and Joinville’s band beginning to play stirring marches as we puffed out of the bay.

The next stage was Gibraltar, where we were to change horses. Before sunset we skirted along the dark savage mountains of the African coast, and came to the Rock just before gun-fire. It is the very image of an enormous lion, crouched between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and set there to guard the passage for its British mistress. The next British lion is Malta, four days further on in the Midland Sea, and ready to spring upon Egypt or pounce upon Syria, or roar so as to be heard at Marseilles in case of need.

To the eyes of the civilian the first-named of these famous fortifications is by far the most imposing. The Rock looks so tremendous, that to ascend it, even without the compliment of shells or shot, seems a dreadful task — what would it be when all those mysterious lines of batteries were vomiting fire and brimstone; when all those dark guns that you see poking their grim heads out of every imaginable cleft and zigzag should salute you with shot, both hot and cold; and when, after tugging up the hideous perpendicular place, you were to find regiments of British grenadiers ready to plunge bayonets into your poor panting stomach, and let out artificially the little breath left there? It is a marvel to think that soldiers will mount such places for a shilling — ensigns for five and ninepence — a day: a cabman would ask double the money to go half way! One meekly reflects upon the above strange truths, leaning over the ship’s side, and looking up the huge mountain, from the tower nestled at the foot of it to the thin flagstaff at the summit, up to which have been piled the most ingenious edifices for murder Christian science ever adopted. My hobby-horse is a quiet beast, suited for Park riding, or a gentle trot to Putney and back to a snug stable, and plenty of feeds of corn:— it can’t abide climbing hills, and is not at all used to gunpowder. Some men’s animals are so spirited that the very appearance of a stone-wall sets them jumping at it: regular chargers of hobbies, which snort and say “Ha, ha!” at the mere notion of a battle.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00