Lisbon´s Underground Roman Galleries
Besides having one of the mildest climates, Lisbon is also one of the oldest cities in Europe. It is older than Rome, London or Paris. It is believed that around 1200 BC, the Phoenicians discovered the area around the Tagus river, the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula. They settled there as the river provided excellent transport possibilities and the entrance to the Atlantic and was considered to be a safe harbor. One theory about the name ‘Lisbon’ comes from the term ‘Allis Ubbo’ which means ‘Safe harbor’ in Phoenician, ‘Lisboa’ in the Portuguese language.
Lisbon was devastated by a terrible earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 8.5 to 9.0 on the Richter scale in 1755. During the cleanup and reconstruction the ‘galerias romanas’ or underground Roman galleries were discovered in 1771. This is one of the most fascinating discoveries in Lisbon.
These underground galleries are only accessible about three days during the year, normally in September, as they are otherwise flooded with water. It is that water that has preserved the galleries in such good condition. The City of Lisbon needs about one month with speciality trained workers to prepare the galleries for public access. Some water always remains in the galleries, but rubber boots prevent feet from getting wet.
The only access to descend to the galleries is from a trapdoor in the middle of the road between two tram tracks; and, yes, trams continue to pass by.
When descending the steep steps down, tunnels, nooks and narrow corridors appear. There are some small cells on the side of the galleries which were probably used for storage. Stone arches, a characteristic of the Roman architecture, are visible throughout the galleries. These ruins are more than 2000 years old, dating back to the early parts of Imperial Rome during the times of Julius Caesar and Claudius.
While no one can be certain as to the use of the galleries, as mentioned above, archaeologists believe these galleries to be an underground shopping or storage area, used as cellars for shops, maybe even town villas and public buildings. Today the accessible part consists of a network of perpendicular galleries, all of them having different heights.
Archaeologists were only able to study these Roman galleries in 1859 when the first sewage system was being installed. And only in 1909 did the city allow the first journalists down to photograph them.
These pillow stone arches withstood two thousand years. They withstood an earthquake; they survived various wars, tidal waves, fires, plagues and invasions.
If you plan to visit Portugal and Lisbon, don’t forget to check out the times the city will have these galleries open to the public. It is an awe-inspiring feeling to be in a place this old.
Entrance is free!