Infrastructural Tourism

When I was in Lisbon at the beginning of September for a conference:

Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch, Nancy Odendaal and Alan Mabin, Opening Plenary, Colonial and Post Colonial Planning in Africa Conference, University of Lisbon, 5 Sep 2013 (or how not to arrange speakers and projections)!

I spent a day or two afterwards exploring the city. I saw on my map that the city had an aqueduct stretching from a neighbourhood called Campolide into the Montsanto Forest Park. It seemed an interesting idea to make this infrastructure my destination so I headed out to see what I would find. The first thing I discovered was how elevational Lisbon is: what looked close by and flat on a tourist map turned out to be a lot further away and across far more hilly terrain than expected.

Public infrastructure for vertical circulation: Elevador de Santa Justa, and a funicular.

Public infrastructure for vertical circulation: Elevador de Santa Justa, Elevador Castelo and a funicular.

My first view of the aqueduct was from the back of the Palace of Justice at the top of Parque Eduardo VII. I rounded the hill on what appeared to be a newly constructed pedestrian and cycle route, and there it was: a long horizontal stone structure stretching for nearly a kilometre across the Alcantara Valley.

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It was only when I got underneath it that I realised how high it was.

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Lisbon has always suffered from a lack of drinking water.  In 1731 King John V authorised the building of an aqueduct to bring water from sources further north in the modern municipality of Odivelas, 58 kms away.

The Agua Livres Aqueduct with all its branches

The Agua Livres Aqueduct with all its branches

Construction on the Aguas Livres Aqueduct began in 1732 and it began supplying water to the city in 1748.

Commemorative sign over the central arch of the aqueduct

Commemorative sign over the central arch of the aqueduct

Its centrepiece is the arched stretch over the Alcantara valley: a total of 35 arches, the central one 65 metres high and 29 meters across, flanked by 14 pointed ogival arches and 20 semi-circular ones.

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It is considered a masterpiece of 18th Century Portuguese engineering, if not one of the most remarkable works of hydraulic engineering ever and is a visible reminder of a system of water management going back to 1731.

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Extraordinarily, it must have withstood the Lisbon earthquake of 1755. It was only withdrawn from the city’s water supply system in 1967. I decided to wind my way up to end of the aqueduct in the Campolide neighbourhood,

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and found a beautiful little walled garden at its termination point.

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I bought a ticket for two euros from the gatehouse keeper, and then walked the full length of the aqueduct and back.

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Apparently this was known as the ‘passeios dos arcos’ (arches road) in previous centuries, and served as a key access route for market gardeners, laundry women and others who moved across the valley from outlying areas into the city centre and back. Today a locked gate at the far end disappointingly blocks this route.

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I decided to try to reach it from the other side the following day. I found that I was able to walk along the aqueduct through the Montsanto Forest Park for kms using the blockhouses that mark its route every 70 m or so as guides. They were also remarkable measures of the terrain, their height mapping the level of the aqueduct against topography.

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Walking the aqueduct gave me access to the Montsanto Forest Park, Lisbon’s huge urban forest. In 1934, these were bare hillsides, the Monsanto Hills, devastated by industry, agriculture and quarrying.

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At that time a decision was made to reforest them (an idea dating back to the 19th century), and new foreign species interacting with the specific climatic and geological features of the hills were introduced. Today the Montsanto Forest Park is considered one of the 9 most impressive city parks in the world (here).

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One part of the Aguas Livres system I did not get to unfortunately, though I did walk around its perimeter, is the Mae d’Agua (Mother of the Water) reservoir, the largest of the water storage reservoirs fed by the aqueduct. Located in the heart of the city, it is a huge cavernous space covered in marble and supported by massive columns holding 5500 cubic metres of crystal water. Looks amazing!

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The reservoir roof


Mae d’Agua interior. Source:

But something I did stumble on accidentally and which might also classify as infrastructural tourism was the former National Overseas Bank, now the Museo do Design e da Moda (MUDE), located on the Rua Agosta in downtown Lisbon.

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Designed in 1952 by Cristino da Silva, it was the bank that serviced financial transactions between Portugal and its colonies.  Its scale and detailing was designed to match the surrounding neoclassical facades but the main banking floor was finished in exotic marbles and stainless-steel columns recalled late-19th and early-20th-century Viennese interiors. Decolonisation rendered the bank obsolete, it was sold, and in 2003 new owners of the building began stripping its interior illegally. In 2008 it was bought by the city as MUDE’s home, and Lisbon architects Joana Vilhena and Ricardo Carvalho were hired to renovate it. To their credit, they left the interior in the rough state they found it.

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Walls, columns and ceilings remain stripped of finishes and the continuous, green-marble counter that ringed the former banking floor remains in place, structuring movement around the museum’s artifacts.

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I wandered into the museum out of curiosity, and, despite an impressive collection of design classics by the likes of Charlotte Perriand, Givenchy and Ettore Sottsass, what intrigued me more was the building itself. Only two floors were being used, but I was able to wander unattended and unimpeded everywhere, even onto the top floor where corridors of former banking offices stood with doors ajar and old lift motor rooms with their machinery in place.

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Finally, what could be a more everyday infrastructure to tour than the ground beneath one’s feet. Made of basalt and limestone hewn into tiny blocks, Lisbon’s decorated pavements, the Calcada Portuguesa began to be laid in earnest after the 1755 earthquake. Here are a sample and here is a fantastic handbook in Portuguese and English about the pavement craft, covering everything from quarrying to finished product.

pavement composite


One response to “Infrastructural Tourism

  1. translation assistance…:) “Passeios dos Arcos” should rather be “Promenade of the Arches” as ‘passeio’ is ‘walking leisurely’.
    And the “commemorative plaque” is rather an information plaque, as it says
    “MAJOR (or MAIN) ARCH”
    “in Palms (Hands)… – in Metres….”
    “in Palms (Hands)… – in Metres….”
    Thank you for this! I will be doing the same next time I go.


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