Listed as a national monument, the D. Dinis Wall is the only medieval city wall in Lisbon that has been integrated within a purpose-built Interpretation Centre. It forms the centerpiece of a fascinating exhibition that showcases more than 1000 years of Lisbon’s history.
The refurbished interior of the Church of S. Julião, below which lies the D. Dinis Wall — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Some 30 meters long, the ancient wall stands parallel to a specially designed observation platform, and it's placed in context by a number of artifacts unearthed near the structure and preserved for posterity behind glass display cases, ostensibly an underground museum.
Exhibits include fragments of pottery dating from the 2nd century AD, a number of 13th-century French and Portuguese silver coins and what’s believed to be the top of a chess piece, a castle, crafted anywhere between the 10th and 13th centuries.
The 13th-century D. Dinis Wall, situated in an Interpretation Centre set below Lisbon's Baixa district — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Bringing the exhibition to life are 3D animations that virtually reconstruct each object, while an audio soundtrack mimics the hustle and bustle of commercial life in Lisbon’s waterfront district: cargo being ferried from anchored caravels, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves against cobblestone and the raucous pitch of market traders peddling their assorted wares. Floating above the cacophony are the plaintive cries of roaming seagulls.
But it’s the D. Dinis Wall itself that truly captures the imagination.
Walking slowly along the length of this 800-year-old weather-worn architecture is to literally catch up with the past. Built in the late 13th century, it’s named after King Dinis, the monarch credited with establishing Portugal’s borders and enthusiastically promoting both domestic and international trade.
A section of the ancient wall, which dates from the 13th century — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Conceived originally as a sea defense to help thwart possible enemy attack, King Dinis’ Wall was in use for nearly 75 years and served as a landmark for merchants who’d set up shop against its solid and robust foundations. Its strength was such that during the early 16th century, it was used to support a section of the grand Ribeira Royal Palace, once sited where Praça do Comércio is today.
An excavation of the wall revealed traces of human presence that stretch back to nearly 2000 years ago — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
While admiring this extraordinary example of urban town planning, visitors can pause and refer to helpful explanatory notes (in English and Portuguese) that highlight particular sections of the wall. For example, one of the panels identifies the ceramic veneer that possibly covered one of the rooms in the aforementioned royal residence.
Also explained is the diagonal crack in the plasterwork that archaeologists believe was the result of a seismic event, probably the great earthquake of 1755, which reduced the palace and much of Lisbon to rubble.
Explanatory notes help visitors pinpoint important sections of the D. Dinis Wall — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
As a result of the catastrophe, the D. Dinis Wall was buried for more than 250 years. It was only after the initiation of an ambitious civil engineering project in 2010 to rehabilitate the city’s so-called Pombaline quarter (the area of Lisbon re-designed by maverick chief minister the Marquês de Pombal in the wake of the tremor) that this remarkable strip of masonry was rediscovered.
During refurbishment of the Church of S. Julião (deconsecrated in the 1930s and converted to service facility within the headquarters of the Banco de Portugal), a section of the wall was uncovered in the crypt deep under street level. The curiosity of archaeologists was immediately sparked, and in much the same way as the Núcleo Arquelógico in nearby Rua Augusta has been created, an Interpretation Centre was designed around the monument and opened to the public.
The D. Dinis Wall is free to enter. Visitors today can immerse themselves in this compelling subterranean environment and explore a world unseen for over two centuries.
Furthermore, the interior of the church standing above has been carefully refurbished and new spaces created where contemporary art exhibitions are regularly held, and where one of the Bank of Portugal’s former strong rooms can be viewed.
A view from inside the former strong room, looking out towards the interior of the Church of S. Julião — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt