Since my childhood, I’ve always maintained a healthy (?) interest in all things morbid. Be it a good horror story, a supposedly haunted house or even an ornate graveyard. It all stirs my interest. To name a cemetery the “Cemetery of Pleasures” though is a bit beyond even me. But, then it is the largest and most ornate necropolis within the Lisbon city limits and, catching glimpses of it from various spots in the Western part of the city, I felt an irresistible urge to go and investigate. So from my neighbourhood, I walked in last Sunday’s beautiful sunshine to the station at Entrecampos and boarded the train down to Alcantara-Terra. Alcantara is an old neighbourhood and its convenient train connections are divided between the northern-most station of Alcantara-Terra (earth) and the southerly Alcantara-Mar (sea). I’m a frequent traveller between the two stations, as it’s the most convenient way for me to get to the glorious seaside at Cascais, but I’d not really taken the time to wander around Alcantara itself. As the cemetery is set in ‘Prazeres’ – ‘Pleasures’ (a district just above Alcantara,) this was a great opportunity.
Leaving the station and crossing one of Lisbon’s least well organised traffic junctions – and that takes some beating – the roar of the huge main road quickly died and I found myself on a shallow hill, moving up a curving road past lots of evidently very local shops, cafés and bars. It was pleasant, leafy and had some gems of traditional architecture, in various states of renovation or disrepair.
Following my google map on my phone very carefully to find my way between the labyrinthine streets, I still managed to get lost, but eventually righted myself and found my way to the edge of the cemetery. From the top of a public stairway, I caught sight of the edge of some of the graves.
So I followed the road around a couple more corners and found myself finally at the gate. Walking inside, you are presented with a narrow “street” and with a site office to one side, a waiting room on the other (waiting for what, indeed?) and a municipal building up ahead. On the map, 70 streets are revealed, making this very much a small town of the dead. Immediately that you begin to see tombs, it becomes apparent that many are very ornate indeed. This, after all, is where the elites of Lisbon have been buried for some time.
One thing you notice right away, is that many of the tombs have glass doors. Behind these there is nothing more than a net curtain between the outside world and the caskets with the bodies in. It creates quite an eerie effect. Indeed, in some of them, the caskets have begun to decay over time, so it’s all a bit strange. I tried not to look inside those ones.
As mentioned above, many of the tombs here are from famous people and evern those that aren’t are often memorials to members of rich families and so are cast as almost chapels in their own right. In the middle of some of the “streets” there are also the tombs of famous people, often with a bust of the person. Actors, economists, poets, military men of note, and various others stand proud, with a novel touch of a QR code, which you can scan on your smart phone to read more information about the person, online. Perhaps my favourite tombs though, were the ones that were so intricately designed, but less grand. One of a lost son, made as a tree cut to a stump, was a beautiful monument. There was also an imposing sculptured tomb dedicated to the city’s firefighters.
Another thing that is a really nice touch here is that, along the wall which lines the edge of the graveyard, looming above the main road down from campolide, there is another side to the cemetery. Here, first there is a huge expanse of land which is reserved for firefighters from the city. It seems here, as with Britain and in many other countries, the people who save lives every day are not always taken care of as well as they should be, in terms of pay, etc. So it’s nice to see that they have a decent place for a burial, together with their colleagues in rows of well tended graves.
To the other side of the fireman’s graveyard is a long, narrow area. Plots are set aside here within the wall, so that less well off folks can also afford to be buried in this most prestigious of places, nestling beneath the view out to Pontinha and the aquaduct at Campolide.
Strolling back to the exit gate, I was struck by the peace and calm of the place. It doesn’t feel like a sorrowful place at all, in much the same way as the Highgate cemetery complex in London or the Pere Lachaise in Paris don’t. These are parks. Public spaces of quiet stillness, which people can and do use to read, to find respite from the hubbub of the city. Indeed, the majority of people I saw here were doing just that. Sat on the benches, eating a picnic with their children, reading a book. There was even a family of street cats, enjoying the silence and the lack of bodies which so dominate the capital city.
There are themed, guided tours available here throughout the week, where the guides will be able to give you much more detail about the famous people buried here. So, for that, or simply for a peaceful walk in a beautifully designed, built and maintained necropolis, the Cemitério dos Prazeres is really worth a visit.