On a steep slope to the north of the centre, Parque Eduardo VII is the city’s main park, whose views and tropical greenhouses make for a pleasant escape from the bustle of the city. Northwest of the park, the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian is Portugal’s premier cultural centre, combining one of Europe’s richest art collections at the Museu Gulbenkian with Portuguese contemporary art at the Centro de Arte Moderna. Beyond are further attractions at Campo Pequeno’s Praça de Touros (bullring) and the Jardim Zoológico, the city’s zoo, which lies around 2km north west of the Gulbenkian.
The biggest joy about the Museu Gulbenkian is the chance it offers to compare and contrast pieces of art from so many places in the world and from so many different periods of history. The diverse collection ranges from ancient Egyptian sculptures to twentieth-century Lalique jewellery, via works by heavyweights such as Manet, Monet, Renoir, Turner and Rembrandt.
You start off in the small Egyptian room displaying art from the Old Empire (c.2700 BC) up to the Roman era, followed by the Greco-Roman room which features amazingly preserved glassware, jewellery and coins. Then move to the Eastern Islamic arts section with its Turkish tiles, mosque lamps, sumptuously illustrated manuscripts and fine carpets, while art from the Far East includes Chinese porcelain and stunning fourteenth-century lacquerwork from Japan.
The highlight, however, is the painting collection – a kind of romp through some of the best art from the European schools, including Flemish masters from the fifteenth century, Rubens’ graphic The Love of the Centaurs (1635) and eighteenth-century works by Fragonard, Guardi and Gainsborough – in particular the stunning Portrait of Mrs Lowndes-Stone. The big names of nineteenth- to twentieth-century France (Degas, Millet) are all represented, as are Sargent and Turner: don’t miss his vivid Wreck of a Transport Ship (1810).
Leave time, too, to explore the Sèvres porcelain, Louis XV and Louis XVI furniture and assorted Italian tapestries and textiles. The final room features the amazing Art Nouveau jewellery of René Lalique (1860–1945); the highlight is the fantastical Peitoral-libélula (Dragonfly breastpiece) brooch, half-woman, half-dragonfly, decorated with enamel work, gold, diamonds and moonstones.
Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian was the Roman Abramovich of his era, making his millions from oil but investing in the world’s best art rather than footballers. Born of wealthy Armenian parents in Istanbul in 1869, he followed his father into the oil industry and became oil consultant to the Ottoman court. In 1911 he set up the Oil Petroleum Company, raking in 5 percent of the company’s vast profits, most of which he invested in England where he chose to live. During World War II, his Turkish background made him unwelcome in Britain, so Gulbenkian moved to Portugal, which offered him tax-free status and a secure home. By his death in 1955, he had accumulated one of the best private art collections in the world. His dying wish was that all his collection should be displayed in one place, and this was granted in 1969 – a century after his birth – with the opening of the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian. The museum continues to buy works of art with his funds to this day, much of it for the Centro de Arte Moderna, which was opened in 1984.