Near the corner of Calçada Necessidades and Rua do Borja, I come across an inconspicuous yet imposing wall. It stretches far south, seemingly with no intervals. But, along Rua do Borja, I find an opening — a modest doorway to what appears to be a park.
I enter. Nobody stops me or asks for money.
This is the northeast (unofficial) entrance to Tapada das Necessidades, but I do not know this yet. What I know now is that if you end up going (which you should), enter unofficially. Why? For starters, you’re always walking downhill. Need another reason? Keep reading.
Immediately I am greeted by an eerie feeling of having stepped out of time. To my left and right, behind the wall, are the residents of Lisbon; from eight-story buildings on either side, windows look down on the tree tops of the park. But, as I venture further in, the graffiti, debris, and the silence imply that civilization and daytime activities are minimal here.
A few naked, rundown shacks and a dozen stealthy cats (the locals) are not at all sure how they feel about my presence. Further west, more complex structures seem to have served some function: an unpretentious water tower, a school (perhaps), some kind of indoor well. I enter those I can find openings to, thinking I am the first to do so in years, but the smell of pee, the presence of graffiti, tobacco bags, tupperware, beer, and used condoms remind me that nothing is ever really abandoned. Albeit romantic, I pause at possible threats of dark hallways, loose steps, pointy objects and, god forbid, the sudden intrusion on someone’s privacy.
Outside, something about the layout suggests the Águas Livres Aqueduct may have once run through here. My eyes follow moss-covered chipped stonework from the run-down pink well house, and my suspicions are confirmed.
Gravel paths take me southwest; through the leaves, I catch a glimpse of a lurking yellow mansion. Soon I am weaving through its defunct courtyard, complete with Victorian statues, benches, a pond, all in perfect symmetry. The layout is majestic despite some graffitied curse words and the occasional empty bottle. In a way, it almost adds to the charm. A lone weed grows from the drip line of the spigot in the fountain. It’s impossible to guess the last time water flowed from there as was intended.
And then — the cacti.
They see me first (from up the hill). This overwhelming greenscape is well maintained, although the creatures here seem big enough to defend themselves. I make my way through a modest maze of giant cactus leaves, prehistoric tree roots, butterflies, and yet unclassified growth, and am humbled, to say the least.
I move downhill and the contrasting noise of civilization resumes. There is a big sense of open air, better vantage points of my surroundings. In the distance I see the wall, descending. I acknowledge dog-walkers, a jogger, kick-boxers, lovebirds. I start to sense the rhythm of everyday Lisbon again.
Well-groomed, tree-lined paths carry me to the glass dome of an old amphitheater glistening in the sun, with most of the windows still intact.
Underneath, I hear a drum circle, laughter; there’s a kid making fart noises. The amphitheater overlooks a pristine green field lush with picnickers. I tip-toe past them, encountering a number of majestic tree roots, a couple teeny ponds, fountains, dogs, pigeons, geese, ducks. A good place for a bottle of wine this spring, I note.
At the exit (or, officially, the entrance), I learn of the Palácio das Necessidades– a heavy pink structure, formerly a convent and now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I walk in and out of its humble adjacent church to a fountain, for a cigarette with a view of Lisbon’s coastlines, with a deep sense of satisfaction at having found the perfect hack for touring Tapada.
I will be back, I tell myself. I’ll enter from the north and bring a picnic when the trees bloom purple.