Portugal was such an amazing place to visit, I had such a good time! You can see all my Portugal trip posts here, but one of the more unusual things I did on this trip to Lisbon was a rather unexpected detour to check out something called the Galerias Romanas.
Now prior to this trip, I hadn’t even known there was any sort of Roman influence in Portugal. It just happened that while me and Y were wandering around the Praça do Comércio (Commercial Square) area in downtown Lisbon and taking the famous Tram 28 around town, we came across a rather unusual scene – a portion of the road Rua da Prata had been blocked off to vehicular traffic save for the trams which run on fixed paths, and there was a really, really long queue on the sidewalk next to it.
If that wasn’t weird enough, suddenly heads, and then people, started popping up from a manhole in the ground. What on earth was going on here?
After a little bit of research and asking around, it turns out we happened to be in Lisbon during a rather rare event – The Roman Galleries of Lisbon are actually an ancient underground set of tunnel possibly used for water supply, drainage and storage that were discovered in 1771, but date back to the Roman empire of 1st century AD, making these tunnels over 2,000 years old!
These tunnels are usually flooded and have to be drained of water every year, and while that’s nothing particularly exciting in itself, the city council opens the tunnels to the public during a 3-day affair which attracts crazy long queues, with locals and tourists flocking to the site to check out some local history for themselves.
We Singaporeans think that anything with a queue must probably be for something good, and many of the locals I spoke to said that they wished to see them too, so Y and I decided to spend our morning checking out the Roman Galleries for ourselves, and participate in this rare event as a part of our trip.
We thought we would pop by a bit earlier to queue – the tunnels open from 10am – 5pm, but at 945am, the queue was already 2 blocks long!
Nonetheless, we popped into the queue to wait our turn. Groups were let in about 25 at a time, 2 – 3 groups at a go, but the queue was still super slow moving. As the hours ticked by, the queue inched forward, and as I looked behind at one point, it extended to a 3rd and possibly a 4th block! Man~ By the time it turned noon, they closed the queue for the day, imagine that.
Since we already in line, patiently we waited. Lots of people wandered by, staring curiously at this line of crazy people waiting in the sun. It was a good thing there were 2 of us, so someone could wander off for a break while the other stood in line. There were coffee and ice cream breaks, and just wandering around for a bit of a stretch as we continued to inch forward, bit by bit. There were all sorts in the queue – from groups of students and entire families, to couples and other lone travellers – it felt a little like everyone in Lisbon was there in this queue.
Finally, close to 4 hours from the time we joined the queue, we made it to the front, and it was our turn to descend into these famed tunnels! What secrets would wait beneath? It’s a climb down some narrow stairs where you have to watch your head from the low stone ceilings.
The air was damp, humid and smelled not unexpectedly, like a sewer. Volunteers who have probably spent most of their weekend down the hole were clad in wellingtons and rain boots, there are puddles around but nothing that you need to wade through. We crowded into the narrow corridor, blinking in the dim lighting. There wasn’t much space, not with another 2 groups already down there.
Most unfortunately, our guide didn’t speak any English at all, despite the group being largely non-local, but she soldiered on nonetheless, probably explaining quite thoroughly in Portuguese the history and science of the roman galleries to those who understood. For the rest of us who couldn’t comprehend, it was merely a lot of looking around and photo snapping. Luckily we had had a bit of a primer while in the queue from another English speaking volunteer who told us a little bit about these tunnels – that they were used as storage at some point, and now they helped keep the city from flooding.
The tunnel system or at least what was accessible to the public doesn’t look very big – there are several ‘caves’ alongside the main pathways, thought to have been used for storage back in the day.
There are various puddles of water to step around, and drippy ceilings to avoid.
At one end there was even the glimpse of sunlight from above, an air hole opening perhaps?
To be quite honest after all that wait, I kinda expected something a little more… impressive. The name ‘Roman Galleries’ conjures up grander imagery than a very large storm drain system, so personally you wouldn’t really be missing out if you aren’t a fan of history, especially because it is a 2-3 hour affair at least, even if you went super early – we reached there about 945am and left close to 2pm! But now at least I can say I’ve had a truly local Lisbon experience :)
The Galerias Romanas are located at the junction of Rua da Prata and Rua da Conceição. They are usually only open once a year during end September, but in 2014 they were opened in April as well.
Entrance is free with a mandatory guided tour by volunteers who let you down in groups, and opening hours tend to be from late morning to afternoon, though based on my experience you have to queue in the morning to ensure entry on that day.
Update: Check out the facebook page for more information – they seem to have implemented a better queuing system so you might be able to get tix online and not queue for hours like I did…