Facing the Elements: Earth, Fire and Wind…but Mostly Water by Alastair Leithead

It wasn’t just a massive earthquake which destroyed Lisbon in 1755, but a tsunami which swept up the river and swamped the city. So it was perhaps ironic we decided to visit the new Lisbon earthquake museum the morning after another great flood.

After months of drought, Portugal is being dowsed by heavy rain and the capital’s ageing drainage system has been bearing the brunt. We love this welcome water, which is gradually (but quite dramatically) raising the level of our lake, but lower parts of Lisbon have been flooded first by what was left of Hurricane Danielle and now by a series of low pressure weather systems sweeping in from the Atlantic.

The cold weather sending shivers across northern Europe has been pushing storms into the Iberian peninsula making for a warm but very wet December. We’d planned a week in Lisbon to battle Ana’s bureaucratic nightmare of acquiring a Portuguese driving license.

We did wine tastings, were served sushi by a robot, suffered joy then disappointment (for both Portugal and England) in the football World Cup, gave Simon the dog a haircut…and finally got to visit a museum I’d been eyeing up for a while. And we did something that the big dog Garfunkel had been wanting to do all week: we got into a box to be transported to another place and another time.

I’m fascinated by Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake: it destroyed what was then one of Europe’s richest cities, sparked a new science called seismology and helped the Enlightenment on its way. I’ve wanted to visit ‘Quake’ since I saw this great BBC Reel piece.

The interactive high-tech earthquake centre first tells the stories of San Francisco’s Big One in 1906 and the Japan earthquake and tsunami which I saw up close in 2011 reporting on it for the BBC. Then we stepped into a time machine to transport us to the morning of 1st November 1755 – All Saints Day – to wander Lisbon’s streets, sit in a virtual church and experience the shaking, the collapsing buildings and the fires started by falling religious candles.

Tens of thousands of people died in one of the world’s strongest recorded earthquakes and most of Lisbon was destroyed and needed to be rebuilt. Sadly, present day storm damage cut the experience short – technical problems crashed the system before the crescendo – but we learned how all four elements of earth, fire, water and a wind which fanned the flames and burned the city for five days, were seen as a sign of God’s anger.

Dog’s anger, meanwhile, was Garfie on a city break. He’s a country bumpkin seriously out of his comfort zone amid the noisy, uncontrollable city, and our car was his magic box of freedom. Every day while we were in Lisbon he would sniff out Cassie the Hilux wherever we’d parked and sit next to her refusing to budge, knowing it was his only escape vessel – a portal back to his Alentejo home and away from all this noise.

But Garfunkel will be sad to hear we’ll be back: the museum promised us another visit for free, and having been caught up in the storm the night before we were sympathetic to their technical troubles.

We were at Zunzum Gastrobar by the river having organised a wine tasting event with some fantastic wines from Rocim when the downpour began. We managed a stop at the fabulously weird Pavilhão Chinês cocktail bar afterwards, despite the deluge and the transport challenges. But as we tried to head home we realised just how crazy the storm had become as drains were overwhelmed, water flooded down the many hills of Lisbon into the lower lying neighbourhoods.

Our in-laws who live in the low-lying district of hip Alcântara almost lost their cars to the flood as their underground car park was inundated – it’s never great to wake up seeing TV reporters setting up live shots outside your building.

I learned a new Portuguese word: alagado, literally meaning en-laked…the roads were laked, neighbourhoods were laked, along with vehicles, shops and homes: all en-laked as storms coincided with high tides.

And as the day finally came for Garfie to clamber into the magic box of freedom, and to be driven back home to the peace and quiet of the valley, our earth was sodden, but our fire was roaring cosily as high winds swept in and the welcome deluge of rainfall went on. Let’s hope the Quake museum is keeping its head above water and the robotic sushi-serving cat is keeping its paws dry.

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