Built in the 18th century, Lisbon’s magnificent Águas Livres Aqueduct has 109 arches in all and stretches 19 kilometres (11 miles) from Caneças to the Casa de Água reservoir in the city’s Amoreiras district. And the tallest of the aqueduct’s 14 arches spanning the Alcântara Valley stands 65 metres (213 feet) high and is the tallest of any ancient structure in the world.
But as they speed past in a taxi, most tourists who admire its magnificent framework are largely unaware of its long and fascinating history.
Lisbon has always been a difficult city to supply with water. During the Roman occupation, it was piped into the city by means of an extensive network of pipes. And despite the fact that in the Middle Ages the capital had wells and public fountains supplied by the water tables of Alfama, water was already in short supply and the population would suffer drought every time there was a spell of dry weather.
The economic growth that followed Portugal‘s glorious maritime adventures and the subsequent population boom caused the city to expand further away from the fountains that provided most of the water. Furthermore, a sprawl of palaces, convents and churches was built on the hill of the Bairro Alto quarter, which was not an easy place to pipe water into on account of its elevated position.
There simply were’t enough wells and public fountains to meet the needs of the increasing number of residents and it became a problem of great urgency.
Many hydraulic projects were put forward for consideration and new fountains were built and repairs were carried out on the older ones. But the problem called for a more radical solution and the king proposed a series of measures to help alleviate the problem.
It was city prosecutor Cláudio Gurgel do Amaral who finally set things in motion by sending a letter to the king urging him to do something about the catastrophic situation in the western part of Lisbon due to the shortage of water, there being no other solution than to pipe the water from the Águas Livres stream into the city.
King João V acceded to the request and officially initiated the construction of the aqueduct on the 12th of May, 1731.
Until the year of its completion in 1799, there was an interminable succession of complications, most notably the great earthquake of 1755 which the aqueduct somehow resisted.
Today the aqueduct stands as one of Lisbon’s best-value tourist attractions and visitors can appreciate this unique monument in the best way possible, by walking along its heights and savouring the striking city vistas on both sides.
And whilst ambling along enjoying the head-spinning views, consider this macabre chapter in Lisbon’s history. One of Europe’s most notorious serial killers, Diogo Alves, would throw his victims off the highest point of the aqueduct after robbing them in the middle of the 19th century. He had obtained a false key to gain access and was finally caught after murdering over seventy people, the majority of whom were initially considered to be suicides.