Lisbon – Window to the OceansBy Alison Hojbjerg • Feb 24th, 2006 • Category: Portugal, Quinta Lifestyle
Lisbon – a city rich in history; the window to the oceans; one of the beautiful capitals of the world; the beating heart of Portuguese culture
tear yourself away from the golden algarve coast for a day or two and you’ll discover just why so many people leave Portugal’s capital city so entranced.
Lisbon was once one of the world’s wealthiest cities, second in influence only to Venice. The port of departure for discoverers and adventurers, such as Vasco da Gama and Pedro Cabral, it was here where the riches of the newly discovered world arrived from Brazil, India and Africa, and from where spices, gold and precious wood were sold into Europe. In the 15th and 16th centuries, Lisbon boasted 3,000 palaces, 100 churches and was a magnet for artists, adventurers, architects and scientists.
THE JOURNEY TO LISBON
Getting there by car is straightforward: the Portuguese have invested in some important pieces of infrastructure, including the A2/IP1. Put on the cruise control at the legal limit (stiff fines beckon above 130kph!) and, from the Via do Infante (A22) turn off at Paderne; you’ll be there in less than three hours.
The drive through the mainly uninhabited vastness of the Alenteijo takes you through soothing vistas of endless fields and meadows, interspersed with scattered, majestic cork oaks and disciplined lines of olive groves, standing like serried ranks of soldiers.
At Setubal it’s decision time. Continuing on the A2 will take you into Lisbon across the spectacular ‘old’ bridge, ‘Ponte 25 de Abril’ and straight into the centre of town; veering off on the IP1 takes you across the even more spectacular, 18km-long ‘Ponte Vasco da Gama’ bridge to the Parque das Nações (the Expo grounds) area of Lisbon. This, incidentally, is also the best way to Lisbon Airport.
Of course, you can always take the train, so sparing yourself the headache of parking in Lisbon and driving within the city. Neither is recommended. From Faro, Loulé, or Albufeira, five trains daily will take you to Lisbon in 31/2 hours; alight in downtown Lisbon (Entrecampos) or continue to the fantastic new station ‘Oriente’ within the Parque das Nações. Taxis are cheap and, of course, there’s the underground system and good buses and trams.
The great way to explore Lisbon is aboard an old style tram, the number 28 electrico, a delightful vestige of days gone by, and the route reminds you that the city is built on seven hills. Services operate about every seven minutes, making it easy to hop on and off. Eastbound trams for the Alfama are invariably crowded by the time they reach the Rua da Conceição in central Lisbon, so travel towards Estrela and Prazeres and return to the Alfama from that end of the route.
The tram delivers you into the heart of the city. Cameras out for the splendid Praça do Comercio, a three-sided piazza on a par with anything in Rome or Venice, behind which you’ll discover the Baixa. This area is dominated by specialist traders easily identified by street names: Rua do Ouro (goldsmiths), Rua da Prata (silversmiths) and Rua Augusta (clothes and footwear). Marvel at the geometric layout of the streets and the way they funnel cool breezes off the River Tagus.
Although Lisbon goes back millennia, few ancient buildings remain. In 1755 the city was rebuilt after a powerful earthquake. The Marques de Pombal seized the opportunity to remodel it entirely, constructing a modern city with efficient sewage, wide avenues, parks and a host of miradourus – open spaces affording excellent views over the hills of this intriguingly beautiful city. The best views on the route are to be savoured from the Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte.
But first we climb the steep and tortuous streets of Alfama, the oldest part of Lisbon spared total destruction. Some houses hail from the 16th century, completely clad in azuleijos, beautiful hand-painted tiles, the streets so narrow that opposite balconies almost touch. The clanking tram threads through twisting cobbled streets with an Arabic atmosphere, acres of laundry providing a shady canopy. From tiny restaurants, in every little square and backyard, waft smells of grilled sardines. Once dilapidated buildings are now being renovated and converted into artists’ studios or galleries a new stage in the life of Alfama.
Lisbon Cathedral is a heavy pile in the Romanesque style from the 12th century. During the Moorish occupation, like so many other churches all over Portugal, it served as a mosque. It survived the earthquake relatively unscathed, a fate not shared by the elegant and lofty Gothic church of São Roque, on the opposite hill in Chiado; the skeletal ruins pay witness to its former glory.
The Castelo São Jorge, dominates the old town. It’s true story is obscured in the mists of myth and history, but we know the Romans built a fortress here in 48 BC.
The Chiado, to the west of the Baixa, rises up yet another hill. This is theKnightsbridge of Lisbon, thick with elegant boutiques and designer shops. A disastrous fire in 1988 destroyed a huge area, but made space for elegant boutiques. Follow the Rua Garrett and slip into the mahogany booths of Brasileira, Lisbon’s oldest and most respected café. This was once the favourite watering hole of poets, such as Fernando Pessoa; today a bronze statue of him has taken a seat, eternally and pensively, at a curb-side table.
If tea is your tipple, find ‘Bernard’ in the Chiado. Refurbished, air-conditioned and famous for its pastries, it is a popular meeting place for government officials, business people and shoppers. Tea, remember, was brought to Europe by Portuguese seamen and introduced to England by the Portuguese queen of Charles II, Catherine of Bragança. The pleasant black tea from Mozambique is well worth sampling.
The Bairro Alto, or upper town, is the Latin Quarter of Lisbon, the district for restaurants, bars and fado nightclubs. Fado, the soulful Portuguese national music, recently made popular internationally by Mariza, is played slowly and dramatically on special guitars and lutes, and sung with passion and vigour. Fado is more than moving folklore. It is Weltschmerz, saudade, longing,epentance and confession, self-pity and self-mourning, suffering and passion and the most sublime form of happiness – all wrapped into shared tears and quiet observance. Remember: real fado aficionados listen without comment or disruption. Going to a fado club early in the evening is only for tourists; go late and stay late.
As our tram ride continues westward the roads straighten and the gradient eases. This is Estrela, where Lisboans work in offices and shop in street markets. From this plateau one has views across the terracotta roofs to the Tagus river and to Alcantara, the docks. The white tower of Belem and the Jeronimos Monastery as well as the new Cultural Centre of Belem building are well worth a visit.
Above it all towers the enormous statue of Christo Rei on the other bank, looking down not only on the stupendous suspension bridge, but the mouth of the river that pours out its waters into the vast Atlantic Ocean. From here, courageous seamen once ventured to sail into unknown waters and discover mysterious shores on the other side of the world.
EATING OUT IN LISBON
Try one of the many typical restaurants of the Bairro Alto; the ‘Bota Alta’ on Travessa Queimada 35, tel: 00351 213 427959, or ‘Pap Acorda’ on Rua da Atalaia 57, tel: 00351 213 464811, are both popular and reservations are recommended. John Malkovich co-owns one of the trendiest restaurants in Lisbon, the Bica do Sapato, and this is not to be missed. They offer traditional Portuguese food, but the restaurant is better known for its sushi on the top floor. Be sure to book! Tel: 00351 218 810320.
Another experience is Lisbon’s oldest restaurant, ‘Tavares’ on Rua da Misericordia 37, tel: 00351 213 421112 – over 200 years old and very fashionable; don’t be surprised to find yourself sitting next to someone famous. Reservation is a must, and if you fail, try the ‘Trindade’, tel: 00 351 213 423 356 or “Aviz”, tel: 00351 218 876472.
WHERE TO STAY IN LISBON
We recommend ‘York House’. This is a charming small boutique hotel with a very colourful history, and which began life 1606 as a convent. Each room is completely different and they vary from plush and cosy to minimalistic. There is a restaurant and bar, as well as a very charming courtyard where you can breakfast and take your afternoon tea. Tel: 00351 213 962435.
For more palatial accommodation try the ‘Lapa’. This is a truly magnificent hotel. Ask for a room high up with a view to the Tagus River. Tel: 00351 213 949494.