Sat. Feb 29th, 2020

The bowels of Lisbon, an underground city that ended the lack of water

Lisbon, one of the most attractive European capitals, hides under its streets a labyrinth of tunnels and galleries that were part of a complex canalization system that helped put an end to the lack of water suitable for consumption in the city.

This underground “metropolis” was built in the 18th century as part of a project to supply drinking water to the city, which could not take advantage of the Tagus River because of its salinity.

The galleries, which are born at the foot of the Lisbon Aqueduct, form a 32-kilometer labyrinth that opts to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Of this monumental work only two kilometers have been opened to the public, for guided tours and in small groups to ensure conservation and avoid problems due to space limitations.

The journey through these dark roads, three and a half meters deep, allows you to discover a very different Lisbon from the hand of photographs of the surface hung on the narrow walls of the tunnels, which illustrate the route and guide the visitor on the exact point in which it is located.

This network of tunnels, explains Efe José Dias, a tour guide, contributed to transforming the city and creating a “new Lisbon”, trying to bring it up to the great European capitals of the moment such as London or Paris.

“What is most surprising (of the galleries) is the architecture, the fact of knowing that all the work was sculpted by hand because at the time there were no electronic tools,” says the guide, before entering the bowels of the capital lusa.

The work was built during the reign of João V, who wanted to devise a system to bring drinking water to the Lisbon. The historian Barbara Bruno, who accompanies the guided tours, tells Efe what was going on in the head of the monarch to try to remedy the problems of Lisbon in the eighteenth century.

“Lisbon has very little water and the river has salt water, so we needed an aqueduct that brought water from outside the city to be able to materialize all the projects that were in João V’s mind,” he says.

With the Tagus discarded, the idea arose to take advantage of the waters of the Carenque riverside valley, in the region of Belas, Sintra, and given the distance with this area, the aqueduct of the open waters, work that began in 1731.

The system would be completed with the galleries and the works took more than a century, a great effort that finally paid off because it allowed Lisbon to have four liters of drinking water per day and per person.

The priorities at the time of distributing the water were clear: first the nobility, followed by the military, the industry and the hospitals.

A year, around 1,600 tourists visit the passages, with areas of only 1.64 meters high, and with a width of 1.20 meters.

Of the 58 kilometers of the aqueduct, the most notable section today is the one that stands on the Alcántara Valley, on the outskirts of Lisbon, today crossed by roads and railways.

This section, 941 meters long, is composed of 35 arches, among which is the largest stone warhead arch in the world with 65.29 meters high and 28.86 meters wide.

The construction of the aqueduct, which since 1910 is considered a National Monument, was only possible thanks to what was called “Real de agua”, a tax imposed on essential goods such as oil, wine or meat.

In addition, he will always be accompanied by a black history, since since 1837 he remained closed for several decades because of the “murderer of the aqueduct”, a Galician serial killer named Diogo Alves that accumulated more than 70 deaths.

Alves, who robbed and killed his victims at the top of the aqueduct and threw them into emptiness, went down in history for being one of the last sentenced to death in Portugal for civil crimes; He was beheaded in 1841 and his head is still preserved in formalin in the medical faculty of the University of Lisbon.

Although the aqueduct brought water to the city until 1967, from about 60 it had stopped supplying drinking water, the one of the last years being destined mainly to the cultivation; After this, it became part of the heritage of the Water Museum.

Nacho Ballesteros


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