Lisbon was a delightful surprise.
Anecdotally the oldest city in Europe, it is claimed the Ulysses once visited. The Phoenicians settled here 3000 years ago, then the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, various fighting tribes and then the Moors. They called it Lissabona and held it for 400 years until the Crusaders took over. With the spices and other treasures Vasco de Gama brought back from Asia it became a rich city, more so when the 18th century Portuguese navigators found gold in Brazil.
The city of half a million people (with a greater metropolitan population of nearly 3 million in a country of 10+ million) is spread across 7 steep hills with the business/retail/formal centre, the Baixa, sitting in the riverside valley. It is a vibrant city of rich and poor, old and new, locals and visitors, nostalgia, romance and cutting edge.
To avoid travellers’ fatigue, the trick we discovered after a few days is that there are escalators scaling the hills … known to insiders but so integrated in the fabric newcomers can miss them. Inside one railway station there are escalators down to the station then up the other side to a totally new neighbourhood. Similarly from the core of the city at the sea level, there is an elevator beside a supermarket that takes you to yet another quarter where the castle stands.
The famous Elevador de Santa Justa is 45 metres tall and was built by one of his admirers in the style of Gustav Eiffel of Paris fame. It takes you up from the Baixa to the hip party Barrio Alto neighbourhood.
Lisbon is divided into distinct districts. We stayed in the Chiado district.
Again my travelling companion outdid herself in selecting accommodation, an old baron’s house now run as a boutique hotel by family. The Casa do Barao in the Chiado district was a few hundred metres off a lively square, the Praca Luis de Camoes. In the square was the subway with the magic elevators that saved hours of walking, a tram stop, a wonderful church, an alfresco café, a Portuguese tart bakery, and a change machine. What more could any traveller want?
In the square are two churches. One with a plain exterior and first built in 1670 on the site of the old city wall is the Igreja do Loreto, a church built primarily to welcome many Italians in the city (hence its nickname “Church of the Italians”). It was severely damaged in the earthquake and rebuilt in 1785. It consists of a central nave and twelve chapels representing the twelve apostles. despite the plain exterior, the interior is quite splendid in the baroque fashion.
To orient ourselves we took a walk that luckily began in our square where we met at the base of a grand bronze statue of the poet Luis after whom the square is named. While I included a history timeline in my Porto blog, I did not dwell on any particular period. However, two things stood out for me from the walk, both disastrous events but both reaping a silver lining:
Portugal was under control of a dictatorship from 1932 to 1974. This is the longest continuous dictatorship of modern history. Antonio Salazar was Prime Minister from 1932 to 1968. He died in 1970 and four years later, the Carnation Revolution occurred to end the dictatorship.
Under Salazar Portugal was officially neutral in World War II, but in practice Salazar collaborated with the British and sold them rubber and tungsten. In late 1943, he allowed the Allies to establish air bases in the Azores to fight German U-boats. However, as tungsten was a major product of Portugal, it was also sold to Germany until June 1944, It was a surprise to read Salazar admitted several thousand Jewish refugees during the war. But …. for a price.
Lisbon, maintaining air connections with Britain and the U.S., became a hotbed of spies from several countries and was the base for the International Red Cross in its distribution of relief supplies to POWs.
The silver lining of those times and the subsequent disaster of the Global Financial Crisis might well be the current growing economy and seemingly contented population in contrast with much of Europe (see end musings).
On All Saints Day 1755 three earthquakes hit Lisbon in rapid succession. They are among the largest ever recorded at between 8.5 and 9.0 on the measurement scale. Much of old Lisbon was devastated by both the quakes and the subsequent fires and tsunami.
The king commissioned the Marquis de Pombal to rebuild the city. He redesigned the city in a simple grid fashion to ensure its safety in future earthquakes. The resulting neoclassical streetscape of Biaxa is the silver lining.
Later Pombal when Prime Minister also abolished slavery in Portugal and its colonies.
The heart of Lisbon, redesigned by Pombal, begins with the grand Praça do Comércio. Seen as the entrance to the city this square was the scene of the assassination of the last King and Prince Royal in 1908. While we were there, a great TV screen playing World Cup fixtures entertained the crowds of a different era.
The square is framed by two curving monumental colonnades which meet at the Triumphal Arch. Leading from the arch into the city proper is the pedestrianized Rua Augusta thronged with shoppers, tourist and of course, their accompanying buskers.
On another pedestrian street, Rua Garrett, there’s the oldest continuously operating bookshop in the world, Bertrand, which dates to 1732. A few doors down, the art nouveau A Brasileira, is the first coffee shop in the city, opening in 1905
Past the end of the Rua Augusta is the very large Praca Dom Pedro IV where one can watch the world go by sipping a cocktail at an elegant outdoor café or even visit a shop that sells overpriced tins of sardines stamped with the year of one’s birth.
The Alfama neighbourhood
Some commentator wrote that Lisboetas carry around with them a sense of saudad or profound melancholy and nostalgia. It may well be that the old people who lived under the dictatorship and subsequent hardship do emanate this feeling but I saw little to support that in the modern city.
However great melancholy is expressed in the music Lisbon is famous for, the Fado. The home of the Fado is Alfama, the steep neighbourhood of red-tiled houses and narrow lanes that was established by the Moors in the 8th century. Here are real neighbourhoods of the city where washing is strung out in tiny squares and older people chat from window to window as if the wandering tourists did not exist.
We strolled through during a festival where bunting in the national colours was strung out across the streets and coal fires ignited to grill sardines.
On some of the houses there are photographs of the residents. Apparently there was an art project to capture the faces of the Alfama and the residents were so pleased they are proud to have their photos placed on permanent display.
The castle, the church of the Knights of Malta and the tram ride down
Above Alfama is the Castle. This hill has been a defensive fortification since the Phoenicians. While the castle walls are impressive I found the interior, except for an archaeological museum and a roaming peacock, quite uninspiring. The view however was fantastic.
In a city which tumbles down hillsides there are of course many Miradouro. From one (below) you can see the castle on the hill as well as the city in the distance.
Wandering down the hill from the castle we came across Santa Luzia Church. The origins of this Church date back to the first years of Portuguese nationality (12th century) during the reign of the first Portuguese king, Dom Afonso Henriques. It was built by the Knights of Malta. The Crusaders of course played a major role in ridding the city of the Moors.
The present building, built over the previous temple, dates from the 18th century, with many alterations after the 1755 earthquake and tsunami.
Exhausted after the climb up to the castle we then waited at Stop 12 and took the famous old rattling tram back to our own neighbourhood. The tram experience is amazing. There are streets where if you leant out you would be able to touch the houses on either side and sometimes these are street so steep you could be on a mini roller-coaster.
In the ‘hood
Tired on our first day, we fell into a small workers café on the corner of our street and had the best sardines ever. They came complete with a very grumpy proprietor but still an indicator of the culinary treats in store.
Food In our neighbourhood, the food was so good we didn’t stray. In the parallel street, on the Rua das Flores is a small (7 tables of two) unpretentious restaurant where the food was so fantastic we ate there whenever we could be early enough to beat the queue. The menu tempted with duck livers with port and cherries, mackerel ceviche, seasonal vegetables, sautéed baby squid to name a few. All with excellent house wines.
At the Taberna I could not resist photographing the couple below. Their silence said so much:
When we couldn’t get into the Taberna da Rua das Flores, we moved 70 metres down the street to By the Wine, a large cosmopolitan wine bar that served great wine and equally delicious food – a quesadilla, spicy sardines and ceviche teriyaki (salmon), a charcuterie selection and lime pie.
Tram 28 tour
The Tram 28 Food Tour began when we were met at the final tram stop on the route. It happened to be by the cemetery gates.
We wandered through a gentrifying trendy neighbourhood on a guided tour of markets and restaurants and the home of the best chocolate cake ever. True. We ate cake and mussels and pork and came to understand how important food is in Portuguese culture.
Some trivia from the tour:
• 93% of Portugal is sea
• May through October is the only time to fish for sardines
• All cod is imported
Then in the midst of all this walking and food, this girl appeared on the street.
Lisbon is now such a stop on the hip travellers tour that Time Out has opened a huge food market with both market stalls and delicious casual eating.
In hindsight there are many contemporary art galleries in Lisbon and alas, I failed to put them high on my itinerary but we did manage to trek for miles along the sometimes very unattractive waterfront to the LX factory.
This urban renewal project under the bridge close to river and harbour is a redesign of an abandoned industrial space which started life as an industrial fabric plant in 1846.space.
An investor had the idea of revitalising the area and now the space is home to more than 200 businesses ranging from cafés, restaurants, design houses, show-rooms, shops, offices, and projects all of which trade on cultural and artistic aspirations. Whether or not it was the twilight timing of our visit, the excitement of the project eluded me, as primarily it was the craft shops that were open.
Lisbon is an appealing city and I know we scratched only the surface. I see it as the Major or the Minors in terms of great cities only because it lacks the High Culture of other centres. There is no obvious collection of great art, no gallery to compare to say, the Uffizi or the Prado; no orchestra to compare to the Berlin Philharmonic; no standout architecture or international symbol such as the Eiffel tower of St Peter’s in Rome; no accessible archaeology like the Parthenon.
Yet is a city of vitality and unique offerings, the Fado, the streetscape of the Baixa, probably the contemporary art I missed, and the delightful cobblestone streets. There is certainly something here acting as a magnet; the 300 busy bars in the Barrio Alto district with their crowds of young internationals are a testament to that.
For me, one marker of the great energy around is the progress Portugal is making as a nation and Lisbon is emblematic of that. Recent history saw Portugal lagging behind the rest of Europe. As recently as 1989 literacy was so poor that there were still newsreaders wandering the cities informing people of events. Then during the 1908 Global Financial Crisis Portugal was dealt another blow with the consequences more serve here than anywhere else except perhaps Greece.
Ironically this may have provided one plank in Portugal’s recovery as I have read some argue that disaffected Europeans, the French in particular, seek to relocate to more affordable cities, ones with strong a cultural history and an inventory of beautiful buildings ripe for restoration.
Lisbon’s position on the Tagus River near where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean, close to unspoiled beaches, the popular holiday destination of the Algarve, the vineyards of the Douro Valley, and landscapes rich with magnificent old castles and villas, have made it (some have argued) irresistible for many.
Another plank may be that the constitution, after the long dictatorship was written as late as 1976 after the Carnation Revolution.
Much more significantly though the current socialist government with its anti austerity measures appears to be working. Portugal’s 2016 budget deficit of 2.1 % of gross domestic product will be the lowest since democracy was restored in 1974. Unemployment, which topped 17 % in 2013, was 6.8% in January 2019. The left government has also introduced significant reform policies in a number of areas including corrections and drug law.
So life for the people of Lisbon is much improved. Any wonder there is a new lightness in the air, a lightness charming the visitor. Even some of the signage was no deterrent.
This more seemed more appropriate: