Tuesday 1 July 2014

The soul of Setúbal

Setúbal's true soul no doubt rests with its extraordinarily resilient people, the history of its various trades and its unique position 40 kilometres south of Lisbon at the mouth of the broad River Sado, with miles of sandy beaches opposite and the verdant Arrábida mountain range, much of it within a national park, just to the west.

For the purposes of a first blog entry on a remarkable place with which I fell very quickly in love, though, let's deal with a quiet heart, an easy refuge in the middle of a city that never feels too busy, more of a town which may be suffering as badly as anyone from the truly dismal Portuguese recession, but in the brilliant sunshine of late May and from a callow tourist's perspective hardly felt like it. We were lucky to be there as guests of the annual Setúbal Music Festival - now covered in an Arts Desk special - led for four days by a thousand jubilant children and with a general feeling that culture really was bringing a better life to this port on the western edge of Europe.

This is the newly restored wall of the Convento de Jesus, its cloisters under wraps, the treasures of its gallery temporarily housed in a handsome bank building on the Avenue Luisa Todi which forms a garden promenade on the south side of the old town.

The stone of the porch and columns is the lovely reddish, mottled breccia from Arrábida, the green mountain we'll visit in a future entry. Here's the sort of landscape we're talking about, prior to a very cold dip.

My information on the convent's history is limited: one of Setúbal's charms is that it really isn't set up even for cultural tourism, so there were no guide books of any kind. They have, at least started to put brief history plaques outside the major edifices, and from this one I learnt that the building was founded in 1491 by Justa Rodrigues Pereira, King John II's nursemaid and court noblewoman. After John's death in 1495 Manuel I took over the support of the building and engaged Diogo de Boitaca - his first known commission, long before his celebrated work on the Jerónimos Monastery in the Lisbon parish of Belém - three years later. His are the most striking stone additions, making the Convent of Jesus the first gem of Manueline style.

The pillars' three plaited columns of this late Gothic architectural movement are as surprising as the very different ones in  Belém (which I dimly remember from our first, and less successful, visit through a film of sickness from eating poisoned eels. One positive result of that trip was that J got a cold and gave up smoking, a resolution he has maintained to this day. But I digress).

Up in the roof of the choir, the patterns of twisted rope are also typical of Manueline style

while in the nave the columns offset characteristic 17th century Portuguese blue and white tiles, the famous azulejos (there's a major factory nearby which ships extensively to South America).

The ones on the north side depict the life of Mary, including elephant and castle.

There's a large mullioned window with late Gothic tracery, handsome both within

and without.

Jesus Square, fringed on one side by friendly little cafes but hardly a hive of activity, was donated by Jorge de Lencestre, bastard son of King John II and Master of the Order of Santiago (thanks, Wiki). His commissioning work is also the cross, originally placed near the apse of the church but moved in the 19th century to the middle of the square.

A stroll around the back reveals a pretty Franciscan chapel

and an old, disused bath house, with the chimney of one of the many former tanneries in the town behind it.

What a unified masterpiece this chapel would be if the fourteen panels of its great altarpiece could be restored to their rightful place. In fact these vibrant Renaissance biblical scenes, the work of the great Lisboan Jorge Afonso and his workshop, had been hanging next door in the monastery gallery for years and during restoration are now down the road in the town's main exhibition space, to administrators of which I'm grateful for this shot (four of the panels are displayed to the side of the central group).

We met some very likeable, I would be impertinent enough to say loveable, local worthies on our festival visit.. Among them was Hugo Ricciardi O'Neill, a putative king of Ireland, guardian of a branch of the O'Neill dynasty of Clanaboy which has been in Portugal since the 18th century: as Portuguese-intellectual as they come and with the most charming, friendly and natural Spanish wife, Carmen. He loved our idea of getting high quality reproductions installed in the chapel if the originals simply can't hang there: this is a project for the future, maybe in collaboration with our own National Gallery's reproduction scheme.

The other churches of Setúbal's old town all have their charms. We weren't expecting the monumental gilt wood altarpiece of Santa Maria, serving as the city's cathedral. The 13th century building had a full makeover in the second half of the 16th.

The work of Master Jose de Rodrigues Ramalho, and dated 1697, the altarpiece makes a sobering contrast with the city's essential poverty: wasn't the divide between the clergy and the populace ever thus?

In addition there are Tuscan columns, some tilework and an 18th century painted ceiling.

We heard fine religious works by Victoria and - actually more interesting - several Renaissance Portuguese composers sung by a small vocal ensemble, the Grupo Vocal Olisipo, led by the most individual and impressive of sopranos, Elsa Cortez. But more of that over on the Arts Desk.

São Julião, down in the main Bocage Square,

 is covered with more azulejos depicting the extraordinary life of its saint, but is more remarkable for its position in the general ensemble

while São Sebastião, secluded up the hill, has two of the glorious jacaranda trees for which Setúbal is celebrated - and we were there at the right time for the fragrant purple blossom - in its courtyard.

Some interesting painted woodwork inside

and of course the pierced saint on the altar

but the church was more remarkable for its active youth centre in the cloisters, with a volleyball court on the roof. The saint again alongside Fatima above a doorway opposite is typical of Setúbal's ruined splendour: many of the prettiest houses are the most neglected.

More tiled but declining splendours in the old town. This one

has some typically meaningful graffiti on the wall round the corner ('all different, all equal').

The painted walls of Setúbal need to form the backbone of a future post. Maybe they take their cue from the personal tiling: presumably this disused villa has its owner depicted.

That adds to a certain sense of the picturesque, and also to the greedy northern European instinct for redevelopment. I did mention this to Sophie, who's just left us to return to her hotel in Djenne after a super day we spent together at Glyndebourne - there's contrast for her - and she jumped at the chance to make a boutique hotel there. But don't worry - Setúbal will never be a mass tourist destination, though it deserves much better than the cursory glance in my old Rough Guide ('most of its charm is long gone': nonsense, you just have to look, and not too hard in the old town proper).

Should end this first instalment at another big city temple - the amazing market building which was restored, though at the loss of several lives when its south wall collapsed.

The basic idea was worthwhile, though, because quite apart from the abundance of fruit and vegetables the azulejos form a distinguished background to one of the best fish markets I've ever seen. Swordfish aplenty

as well as the cuttlefish which yield the local speciality, chocos fritos

and tuna (I'm not sure I've ever seen a big 'un so cut before).

The Lisboans come here every Sunday for their seafood lunches, and for good reason. Hell, I'd even fly there for a couple of meals and a night. And we shall without a shadow of a doubt be back.


Roger Neill said...

Wonderful photo essay, David. So love Portugal. No time for fado?

David said...

Sadly not, Roger - though there was a fado singer in the opening night festivities, which I just missed. We heard it on our first trip to Lisbon, though I fear it was a rather touristic set-up, and a fado concert in the Linbury Studio Theatre a couple of years ago was very disappointing. But I keep returning to Amalia Rodrigues and Mariza. Any special names you can recommend?

Roger Neill said...

Those are my two names, David. And last time I was in Lisbon, I heard Joana Amendoeira. But favourite for sure is Mariza. Have you heard 'Menino Do Bairro Negro'?

David said...

No, but I'll find it once I've finished replaying my 2-CD collection, Fado em mim. What an artist! Must get to see her live the next time she comes here.

David Damant said...

Some splendid parts of Portugal still give a visitor the feel of past ages.......and by the time the "necessary" repairs etc are complete no doubt the tourist impact will destroy that atmosphere. I like the great kitchens of the monasteries - some have rivers running through them. As for swordfish I have always thought that as pike make such wonderful quenelles de brochet the equally firm ( almost hard) flesh of the swordfish would be equally good ( with sole etc all one gets is a mousse)

David said...

Were all the palaces and villas to be repaired, Setubal wouldn't be quite the same. It's that half-crumbling quality which makes it feel more like an African or Indian colony. But I don't think it WILL be ruined - busloads may come in for an hour or two to see the Convent of Jesus, but its proximity to Lisbon actually keeps it safe.

I well know your recommendation for swordfish (what's that in French, poisson d'epee?) quenelles de brochet. The Garrick's haddock souffle, by the way, is excellent, as our dinner for the godchildren proved.

David Damant said...

In view of the terrible weapon that the swordfish carries, one might guess at poisson de sabre......but in fact the fish is an Espadon - which is also the name of the restaurant in the Ritz in Paris - or at least was, before the recent reburbishment. A propos which, I rather wish, as you do for Setubal, that the rather ancient( in the sense former) atmosphere of the Paris Ritz could have been retained.....one felt, in a salon privee, as though Traviata or Proust could be in the room through the gold and gilt doors

David said...

And my heart genuinely bleeds for the presumed demise of the Baron Hotel in Aleppo, which for aught I know may have been refurbished between the time we stayed there and the civil war, but which was certainly deliciously shabby-genteel years back. They still had the distinguished visitors' book of the Orient Express travellers, including of course signatures by Agatha Christie and Lawrence of Arabia. For the same reason I adored the Club Setubal, which clearly hadn't changed a jot since the 1930s.

David Damant said...

All Different
All Equal

Tragically, someone in so many places will write underneath

But some are more equal than others

David said...

Which doesn't undermine that fundamental truth at all, any more than torture can validate a false confession (much on my mind as I browse Amnesty's latest magazine).

Laurent said...

First looking at your pictures I thought it was Sicily, maybe Marsala or Trapani. The architecture is very similar and the use of tiles also.

Beautiful as always, your photos. I would strongly encourage Sophie to open Boutique Hotel in Setubal. I would certainly be a client.

David said...

E vero, Laurent - we more than once remarked that in its decayed splendour, Setubal felt like a mini Palermo - but without any sense of threat.

Trapani next stop.

ze2905 said...

Hello friend this was my adopted town I lived there until 1993 when I moved to England, I liked your photos and comments unfortunately some houses with beautiful azuleijos built-in the 1920's are left to ruins, I don't know why the council don't act and acquire them? I would like someone with money to buy and recover those beautiful houses.