For almost three millennia, Lisbon exhibits and at times even trived before the people ever had control of their own destinies. Phoenicians founded the city. It was then taken over by the Celts, Carthaginians, Romans, Lusitanians, Visigoths, Moors, and a series of kings. Enter Spain when Lisbon experiences a failed attempt at democracy (45 governments over 16 years) and 42 years of dictatorship (by Antonio Salazar). It did not become a democracy until 1974.
Despite having a history of foreign control and dictatorships, Portugal and Lisbon enjoyed a number of prosperous decades. It fared pretty well under the Moors. Even during World War II Portugal managed to prosper by remaining neutral and by selling goods (especially tungsten, which was used in shell casings) to the highest bidder.
Its greatest prosperity, however, came during and when Portugal subsequently enjoyed the fruits of its Golden Age—the Age of Discovery. At that time it was the world’s leading seafaring power. It effectively held a century-long monopoly on the spice and sugar trade with India, captured the gold and other mineral wealth of Brazi,l and controlled colonies from Eastern Africa (Angola, Mozambique, etc.) to Brazil and Macau.
All, however, was going too well. In 1755, Lisbon suffered a roughly 9.0 earthquake. Collapsing churches during one of the most important religious days of the year and a 20-meter tsunami killed thousands of people. If that weren’t enough, it endured a devastating five-day fire. By the end of the devastation, 85% of the city lay in ruins and 80,000 to 90,000 people (out of a total of about 200,000) died.
And then it had a year in which the city experienced about 500 aftershocks of 3.0 or greater. And in a great irony that ended up taxing the people’s faith in God and King, the hard-working, religious parts of the city experienced the worse damage when the Red light district (Alfama), which lays on another geologic plate, escaped with little damage.
As a result, different sections of the city have very different histories and very different characters.
Baixa is the central business district nestled between the river and two hills, Alfama on the east and Barrkio Alta on the west. After the earthquake totally devastated the area, it was rebuilt in a grid. Today wide avenues and large squares flank largely by neo-Classical buildings. Among its landmarks are some of its grand squares including:
- Praca Dos Restauradores is a public square marked by a large obelisk and commemorating those who fought in the 1640 War of Restoration in which Portugal won its independence from Spain;
- Rossio is a large, popular square with a statue surrounded by two water fountains and faced by the National Theater;
- Praca da Figueira, originally the city’s primary marketplace, is now a transit hub for buses, trolleys, and streetcars;
- Praca do Comercio is a huge square along the river that used to be lined by the Royal Palace. It has since been converted to a three-sided plaza of yellow administrative buildings. It is surrounded by pretty arcades (that are now lined by cafes) and broken by an elaborate triumphal (see below) that leads to a pretty, popular pedestrian avenue.
These squares are connected by two especially important avenues:
- Rua Augusta, a wide, mosaic-paved pedestrian street lined with cafes and stores;
- Avenida da Liberdade, a grand, tree-lined boulevard surrounded by large commercial buildings and mansions.
Although Baixo doesn’t have many buildings of particular architectural or historic note, two buildings and two structures are of some interest:
- Rossio Station is a 19th-century Neo-Manueline-style building (see below) is named after the former, architecture-loving King Manuel 1. It blends multiple European styles with Moorish Arches;
- Teatro Dona Maria II, an 1840’s Neo-Classical building;
- Elavador de Santa Justa, a 1902 iron and filigree structure that was built in the early 20th century (by an apprentice to Gustave Eiffel) to ease the uphill commute from Barrio Alta to Baixo;
- Arco da Rua Augusta, a triumphal arch, begun shortly after the earthquake to celebrate the city’s spirit and to commemorate a few of the city’s great citizens, took nearly a century to complete but now serves as a ceremonial entrance into the downtown area.
Barrio Alta and Alfama
Baixo or Central Lisbon is surrounded by two hills: Alfama and Barrio Alta. Both are accessible via uphill walks, or with various combinations of streetcars, trams, funiculars, and elevators. And, while Baixo is aligned on a well-planned grid with wide streets and boulevards lined with large, typically Neo-Classical buildings and portrays a rather staid atmosphere that is crowded during the day, but quiet at night, its neighbors are just the opposite. They have narrow, winding, cobblestone streets that are difficult to navigate, lined with small, inconsistently designed buildings from various stages. and are younger and edgier. They also both come alive at night.
Alfama, which was the only neighborhood to escape the earthquake, the fires and the flood unscathed, is the oldest neighborhood in the city, and was built and fortified with a hilltop castle by the Moors. An originally affluent quarter, it began losing its prestige to more westerly neighborhoods in the Middle Ages and fell into disrepute, as the home of fishermen, paupers, bars, and brothels. The hill is crowned by the 850-year-old Castelo de Sao George—originally a fortress, then transformed into a palace of kings. Although it fell into disrepair, it has since been restored to highlight the battlements and the views.
The most interesting part of Alfama, however, is along the streets and alleys that lead up to the castle, in the Santa Cruz neighborhood. As would be expected, it is loaded with churches. Primary among these is Se, built on the foundations of a mosque destroyed by multiple earthquakes and continually renovated to incorporate a number of styles including its Romanesque bell towers and virtually windowless exterior and its Gothic nave and cloister.
The most interesting part of the neighborhood, however, is a neighborhood itself, with people stopping to speak with each other on the streets, the friendly neighborhood bars where we sampled flaming chorizo (where we couldn’t get the rubbing alcohol-like taste out of our mouths), the light, fizzy green wine and the potent, sour cherry Ginja liquor, that reminds us (in a good way) of Cherry-flavored cough syrup.
We particularly enjoyed Barrio Alta, where we did both a daytime tour and spent an evening. This upscale neighborhood (settled by people who left the less respectable Alfama), has an upscale residential neighborhood, an upscale shopping district (Chiado), and a hot, fun entertainment and dining area (Rua de Norte and Casas de Fado). And, since the neighborhood stands atop a hill overlooking Baixo and Alfama, it also affords wonderful views
Rua Garrett and Largo d’Chiado, Chiado’s main streets, are busy day and night. Nighttime is especially fun with squares and pedestrian areas filled with street performers including one that particularly intrigued us and a number of others—a performer whose feet were entirely off the ground, and appeared to be balanced on a cane that was held on one hand. While so balanced, he moved his feet, as if dancing in the air, shifted his weight so that his legs were almost parallel to the ground, and other seemingly gravity-defying feats. Although it appears that the cane was anchored in the ground and had a metal brace that went up through his jacket sleeve, we still couldn’t be sure.
And since Chiado was also the home and hangout of many of Portugal’s most revered novelists and poets, it is only fitting that they are remembered there with statues: such as those for Antonio Riberio (for his poetry), Luis Vaz de Cameos (who wrote what is considered the Portuguese “Odyssey”) and Fernando Pessoa for his “heteronyms” (in which he wrote about himself as 136 totally different characters). The Pessoa statues are especially fun: one with his head as an open book and another sitting at a Chiado table, with an empty seat next to him.
It also has some historic sites such as the Sao Roque church (which was, unfortunately, closed by the time we arrived) with its Baroque chapel and tiles), Bertrand’s bookstore (the Guinness-affirmed oldest in the world) and especially Igreja do Carmo, once the largest church in Lisbon, whose roof collapsed in the 1755 quake but whose walls and arches still stand (now housing an archeological museum). And then there is a so-called Palace of Diamonds, a mansion, financed by the Indian spice trade, that was based on a Florence palace.
Some of our favorite sites, however, were the bars along Rua de Norte, especially a wine bar called Grapes and Bite, whose list claimed hundreds of wines by the glass and over 1,000 by the bottle. On top of this were more than 50 ports by the glass and another couple hundred by the bottle. We experimented with a green wine (that was far too astringent for our tastes), a nice 2014 Bacalhao white (Semillon, Albarino, and Sauvignon Blanc), a spicy and acidic 09 Margareda red (Alicante Bouche) from Alentejo, and lovely Talyor’s dry white port.
This historic neighborhood, about 10 km from Baixo, was the headquarters of Portugal’s Age of Discovery. It is where the caravels set out on their voyages and where they returned and where Manuel I spent many of the profits that he earned in creating Manueline-style monuments. The neighborhood, which has some lovely gardens (a Tropical and an Italian Botanical Garden) and a huge concentration of museums (Coach Museum, Archeological Museum, Maritime Museum, Popular Art Museum, and Planetarium), also has two of the city’s greatest remaining Manueline buildings and the greatest monuments to Portugal’s Golden Age. These Manueline monuments are:
- Jeronimos Monastery is a huge, grandiose, Manueline-style monastery commissioned by Manuel I in 1501, upon Vasco da Gama’s return from India. Financed by a tax on the spices, gems, and gold brought back from the voyage, the massive structure is the primary surviving showcase of original Manueline architecture. Although the line to get into the main structure was far, far too long for us to even consider, we did visit the church with its spectacular vaulted nave, its beautiful chapels and the tombs of poet Luis Vaz de Cameos and of explorer Vasco da Gama.
- Belem Tower, another Manueline structure, was commissioned by Manuel I as a fortress and the departure point for major trade voyages. The design, which is typical of the Manueline style, combines elements of styles including Gothic, Renaissance, Moorish, and nautical themes to produce extravagant buildings that harken back to Portugal’s seafaring heritage. This building has it all, from its Italian Renaissance-style loggia to its Moorish Tower and its nautical-themed rope-braiding.
Monument to the Discoveries, a much more recent reminder of the Golden Age is located on the river a few hundred meters south of the Belem Tower. This massive, 170-foot tall monument to Henry the Navigator, was built in 1960 to commemorate not only Henry—standing on the prow of a caravelle (clutching a smaller model in his hand)–but also other Portuguese navigation pioneers and patrons.
And if you’re looking for a little royal glamour, there is also the Belem Palace (a former royal palace that is now the official residence of the president). And just to make us long for our return to San Francisco, a suspension bridge that looks like a poor man’s version of the Golden Gate (lacking the dramatic towers), down to its International Orange color,
Restaurante Santo Antao, a seafood specialty restaurant where we began with tiny clams in a butter/white wine/garlic/parsley and mustard sauce that was delicious, The fried calamari was nice, but a slightly bit underdone (the first time we have ever been served a dish that we would have preferred be cooked a minute more) and a very good seafood cataplana–mixed seafood (clams, mussels, shrimp, calamari, mixed fish) and potatoes in a tomato sauce. All were very good, although we weren’t crazy about the rather acidic white wine (Adega de Legoes Verdelho/Chardonnay) from the Setenai Peninsula.
Casa de Fados, where we went for dinner with a sampling of Portugal’s trademark Fado music. The food was mixed. Joyce‘s roasted octopus with olive oil, garlic, and roasted potatoes was very good. Tom’s Gilthead bream on seafood stew was too overcooked to be edible. The wine was another fruity, straightforward, easy-to-drink red; 2012 Quinta de Cabriz Reserve from the Dao region. As for Fado music–whose singing is supposed to convey a deep sense of melancholy yearning for the past—Tom thought it was somewhat engaging (but felt none of the passion it is supposed to elicit. As for Joyce; she felt nothing except a burning desire to leave the building.
Solar do Bacalhau, where we had lunch. Joyce, staying with seafood, had as very good grilled sea bass. Tom, tempted by a veal chop, reverted to meat. Both were cooked perfectly and both were very good.
We saw a lot of beautiful buildings in Lisbon, but our all-time favorite building was our hotel. Although we stayed in a number of lovely hotels this trip (especially a number of the Riads in which we stayed while in Morocco), Lisbon’s Hotel Avenida Palace was special. We were immediately floored when we walked and saw an incredibly Neo-Classical salon in which a classical piano solo was being played (with a different performance almost every day). Walks through our floor took us to a number of similarly sumptuous public meeting, sitting, and breakfast rooms.
Then, after Joyce asked whether they had any upgrades (our $150 per night fare came with a free upgrade, if available, since she made the reservation at the hotel’s own site), we were taken up to our room. And what a room! The large bedroom, with its 20-foot ceilings and sitting area was beautiful. But just as Joyce began to congratulate herself on finding this hotel (at such a great price and remembering to ask for our upgrade), the bellman asked if we wanted to see our other room. He then opened a set of double doors that led to a magnificent sitting room that was at least the size of the bedroom, filled with antique furniture and with walls painted as hanging cloth and hung with oil paintings. We felt like royalty from the moment we walked in to the moment we left. We almost kicked ourselves for staying in Lisbon for only two nights. This is definitely a place to return to—and to book on their web site in case an upgrade is available.
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