The Lisbon Underworld

Below the picture-postcard Lisbon is another Lisbon. A Lisbon without trams, decorative tiles or salted cod, from where the cobbled streets and red roofs wrapped around the city’s seven hills cannot be glimpsed, a little-known underworld where only adventurous souls enter and only after donning hard hats. Their reward is a chance to rekindle their childhood curiosity as they wend in the ghostly half-light through damp limestone tunnels untouched by Google Maps, blissfully unaware of their location or destination, and try to fathom baroque columns and arches reflected at dizzying angles in underground reservoirs housed in cavernous chambers.

The construction of the Águas Livres Aqueduct system, which would transport water by gravity through a network of aqueducts, underground channels and reservoirs from the hills of Caneças to some 300,000 thirsty souls 18 km away in Lisbon, was launched in 1731 by decree of King João V. Although the Aqueduct itself started supplying water in 1748, just in time for the King to bask in the glory before succumbing to long-standing health problems, the overall system was not completed until the late 19th Century.

The 109 arches, 137 skylights and 30 chafarizes (fountains) spread across a 58 km pipeline network was a stunning feat of hydraulic engineering in an age lacking modern construction machinery. Indeed, the tunnels still house piping used by state water company EPAL to supply homes. In contrast, 18th and 19th Century Lisboners relied on water sellers drawing water from the chafarizes. These mostly Galician aguadeiros, plying their trade with barrels on shoulders and shouts of “Fresh water, who wants it?”, were a common sight and their importance was reflected in tight regulations, including licensing and a requirement to display the source of their water.

The contrast between the diameter of the stone ‘piping’ (about 30 cm) through which the water is channeled and the tunnel in which the piping is housed (about 2.5 m) hints at a purpose beyond supplying a basic need. Likewise, the baroque magnificence of the reservoir chambers and the aqueduct’s arches, the tallest in the world at that time. Premodern leaders could not market themselves through televised debates or social media and relied instead on public works to project their power and benevolence. What better way for a marketer to maximize impact and reach than through grandiose works supplying a life-giving resource to which magical and mythical significance has been ascribed throughout the ages, from the water deities of ancient Greece to the New Year water festivals still taking place throughout Southeast Asia.

Re-emerging through a chafariz into the hustle of upper Lisbon to get our bearings, my mind conjured up an image of aguadeiros filling barrels from those ornamental spouts. This in turn gave way to memories of barrels rolling out of a compound, pursued by clouds of orange dust and kizomba music. This daily scene below my balcony in Luanda, which wrenched me from slumber at six, is a reality for those two-thirds of the city’s inhabitants who lack running water in their homes. They must purchase water from the nearest seller before washing, preparing breakfast or embarking on daily activities, and thereby risk contracting waterborne diseases. In Luanda’s slums, I saw in operation some donor-funded communal water pumps, which provide vital relief and bear some resemblance to the chafarizes of 18th Century Lisbon.

Unfortunately, Angola also abounds with failed development projects based on the misuse of funds or vanity. In rural villages, I passed gleaming schools and hospitals devoid of life due to shortages of teachers, doctors and equipment, just a few years after the state media had announced them with great fanfare. Some things never change: the great architect of Lisbon’s reconstruction after the 1755 earthquake, the Marquis of Pombal, glorified the King through the munificence of those works while benefiting himself by adding a tunnel to Lisbon’s underworld that diverted water directly into his own mansion.



3 thoughts on “The Lisbon Underworld

  1. Reblogged this on Nomadic Linguist and commented:

    Today is the International Day for Monuments and Sites, which is usually an opportunity to get behind the scenes of history wherever you are. Although historical sites are not physically open this time, some can be visited virtually. Here is my contribution on Lisbon’s magical underground water tunnels and reservoirs, part of a grandiose 18th Century solution to the city’s water shortages.


    1. Olá Carlo! I’m glad you enjoyed it. As far as I’m aware, the only recreational use is the walking tours of the tunnels and reservoirs run by the Museu da Agua. It’s a shame though as underwater exploration would be great fun!


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