Lyrical in Lisbon

Travelling with children overseas is never quite straightforward and so it was with warnings of delays at Luton airport, due to a strike by security staff, that the Chapel Choir set off slightly earlier than anticipated for its first overseas tour in four years. Lisbon was the destination of choice for this year’s tour and the promise of sunshine, amazing venues in which to perform and fun in-between was an alluring prospect for the 20 children who took part. It’s quite a challenge preparing a full concert programme whilst also choosing music liturgically suitable for the Masses we were to sing as well, but pre-tour rehearsals complete and cabin bags packed, the big day came and off we went.

A hassle free experience, as it happens, at Luton and we were soon boarding our flight to Lisbon where we touched down to temperatures of 28ºC, before meeting Paolo, our tame Portuguese coach driver. Paolo’s English was not great unfortunately, and neither was our Portuguese, but we soon found common ground in French and, thankfully, Mrs Henderson’s facility with the French tongue is outstanding! Whilst having a coach takes away the excitement of tackling an overseas capital’s public transport system with the children and their luggage, it certainly trumped all transport options on the convenience stakes, especially as it was air conditioned. Hostel located and room keys distributed, there was just time to grab a delicious pizza for our evening meal before retiring to bed.

Friday was our first concert day and began with what was probably the pick of the venues: the fabulous Mosteiro de Jeronimos, a UNSESCO World Heritage Sight and Portugal’s biggest tourist attraction. The monastery is no longer inhabited but the church is used for services. It’s crowning glory, however, is the two story cloister, where every surface is carved in the most intricate detail. The Chapter House, off of the cloister, was the venue for our first performance, an a cappella rendition of the choir’s programme to hundreds of tourists who stopped, awestruck by the sound of the choir as the children’s singing reverberated in the room’s glorious acoustic. The children themselves became something of a tourist attraction within a tourist attraction, and there was a great deal of praise heaped upon them after their concert finished. There was just time for a short guided tour of the monastery before lunch and the opportunity to taste a traditional hot Portuguese custard tart. 

It was then back onto the coach and over the 25 de Abril Bridge (a spitting image of the Golden Gate Bridge) to one of Lisbon’s nearby beaches for an afternoon of surfing. Our team of surf instructors went through the motions before everyone hit the waves and had a go at getting upright on the board. A surprising number of children enjoyed success and the sea conditions were perfect for such an activity and three hours on the beach in glorious weather whizzed past in a jiffy. Sand removed, much to the delight of Paolo whose bus was kept fastidiously clean, and it was time to return to the hostel before dinner in a local restaurant where the children enjoyed Bitoque, a classic Portuguese dish of steak, fried egg, chips, rice and salad.

Saturday presented the first opportunity for a lie-in, which we duly took advantage of before a lazy breakfast and a trip to Lisbon’s amazing Oceanarium. The attraction is based around an enormous central tank featuring the usual array of sharks, schooling tropical fish, manta rays and sunfish. However, around the edges were various recreations of other natural habitats, including sea otters (which the children found adorably cute), antarctic penguins (complete with real ice) and various tropical exhibits. Following the route downstairs meant you could see underwater what you had seen before but with the main tank visible behind, thus the entire ecosystem of the ocean was visible from a variety of angles. Lunch in an outdoor restaurant consumed and there was just time for a trip on the Telecabine cable car with its exceptional views of the Tagus River.

The time had then come to head back into central Lisbon to prepare for our evening concert at the modern, and cavernous, Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário de Fatima. After much thought and having assessed the options, the choir sang their pre-Mass concert from the gallery at the west end of the church; the distance between the organ and the choir at the front proving too demanding. Their performance was greeted with warm applause and the choir was able to sing it’s final piece from the front of the church, once more attracting much admiration from those in attendance. Mass successfully negotiated and the choristers headed back for supper near the hostel.

For the choir’s final performance, at Mass on Sunday morning, we headed into central Lisbon to the historic Igreja de Santa Maria Madalena. Once again the choir sang from the west gallery, near the Baroque organ which Mr Reeves had great fun accompanying the choir on, largely because much of it did not work! Roberto, our link at the church, kept us all on track during the service, and the assembled congregation were appreciative of the children’s beautiful singing, which unexpectedly adored their Mass during Eastertide. After changing back into home clothes, our coach dropped us off near the Mercado de Ribeira Nova, an historic fish market, now covered into an enormous restaurant with communal tables and various outlets, cooking and selling a choice of delicious Portuguese cuisine. Lunch eaten, and there was just time to explore some more of Lisbon’s sights before heading back to the airport: a ride on the unbelievably steep Bica Funicular, a walk through the Bairro Alto before descending back the Baixa area from some souvenir hunting, a quick trip past the Sé cathedral up to the Porto do Sol for a final view over this beautiful city and a final descent back through the Alfama district (famous for its Fado music) and onto the coach back to the airport.

The trip would not have been possible without the efforts of Mrs Minting to prepare the choir so thoroughly ahead of their performances nor without the support of Miss Redmond who expertly made sure everyone got enough sleep. However, the biggest vote of thanks, and it’s an enormous one, must go to Mrs Henderson who not only masterminded the whole trip, ensuring that no detail was omitted, but above all ensured that the children had the best time possible with beautiful venues in which to perform and terrific activities for them to enjoy as well. She really did a terrific job and we all owe her a huge debt of gratitude for getting another overseas safely off (and back on) the ground. There is no doubt that many fantastic memories were formed on this trips, and that’s what tours are really about.

Mr Reeves, Director of Music