About twenty years ago, as I was wandering through the streets of downtown Lisbon, I had a chance encounter with a hole in the ground, in the middle of the street at Rua da Conceição. It was my first visit to the capital, and I thought that, for sure, it was destiny opening up a street of Lisbon to a rarely seen attraction. I had been given the rare opportunity to visit Lisbon underground and the secret Roman galleries under Baixa.
Today I know it happens regularly twice a year (I just happened to be here and passing by at the exact right time). Back then there was no such thing as Social Media, and the queues were smaller. No way I had to wait for (almost) five hours in line to go underground.
EDIT: Changes have been made to how you can visit this attraction. Since April 2016, the City Council charges a €1.00 fee per person (approximately USD $1.15) and you must book your visit in advance here.
What will you find underground Lisbon?
As we waited (patiently) in line and as we approached the entrance (it still is a hole in the ground on Rua da Conceição…), people were coming out showing mixed feelings. However their experience had been like, they still had a fantastic sense of humor and were coming up as if they had just been rescued from falling down a well.
In 1771, while rebuilding the city after the great earthquake in 1755, they found what seemed to be a foundation-like structure that could be traced back to the Roman Empire era, estimated to be from the first half of the 1st Century AD.
Once they started building the sewage system in the 18th Century, the access to the whole monument was limited but you can still see the robust structure that, literally, holds part of the Baixa Pombalina up and that, when the Romans built it, was meant to level the ground and make it stable enough to hold their constructions.
Why should you book a visit to these Lisbon Roman galleries?
If you like once in a lifetime findings, this is one of them. I confess that seeing it once is more than enough and not much has changed — it’s wet and damp, and in most places, you have to mind your head and duck down as much as you can. What would have changed anyway?
The affordable entry fee makes you think “why not, as long as we’re here?”. And the knowledge that it only opens twice a year for one weekend helps to build up the mysticism around it. As we were waiting in line, many tourists who were passing by approached me asking “what’s down there that people queue to see??”. I did my best to explain the historical importance of it; some of them were curious to come back the next day, some of them were not.
I wondered if it’s still worth the trouble to have groups of 25 people each to go down there for 20 minutes of guided tours. The dedication of the volunteers to this is, however, inspiring — they don’t get paid to do it, they will give up on their free time once a year, and they are willing to share their knowledge. They enjoy talking about its History, its function and how it still endures after all this time.
Any other day these ruins are flooded with the nearby river waters — you can still see the openings (now closed by the pavement) that people used to fill buckets and use the water for cooking and cleaning; after the construction of the sewage system the water was of course no longer safe to drink and the holes were closed.
For us to be able to see this piece of History, there is a collective effort going on. The police reroute traffic (except for the famous tram 28), the fire department pumps the water out a few days in advance and, of course, the volunteers who guide us, in particular, our guide Catarina who briefly (yet passionately) told us the History of the place.