Lisbon Rising

Portugal’s capital is an off-beat charmer

By: Joyce Gregory Wyels

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The Castelo Sao Jorge
towers over the city.
Underrated and overlooked: that’s been the fate of Portugal’s capital. Until recently, most Americans bypassed Lisbon’s traditional pleasures flamboyant architecture, jacaranda-shaded gardens, melancholy fado (Portugese folk music) bars, gilded churches and museums in favor of more familiar European capitals. But now, stylish new hotels, restaurants and nightclubs are springing up in revamped dock areas and once-neglected neighborhoods, attracting new admirers and lending the city a cosmopolitan flair worthy of its storied past.

For your clients who are ready for an offbeat, laid-back charmer, Lisbon is a delightful surprise. They’ll never confuse this unpretentious capital with Rome, Paris, Madrid or any other metropolis.

Actually, Lisbon does share one attribute with Rome: it’s built on seven hills and therein lies much of its quirky personality. Clanging trolleys, funiculars and elevators transport bemused visitors as well as residents to hilltop neighborhoods.

A favorite ascent of first-time visitors is the upward jaunt on Tram #28 to the ruins of Castelo Sao Jorge. The trolley rattles past the magnificent 12th-century cathedral, built on the site of a mosque, and the smaller church dedicated to Santo Antonio, the saint whose June 13 feast day inspires raucous celebrations.

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Lisbon’s Arab quarter, known as the
Alfama, is one of many historic sites
that dot the Portugese capital.
Besides offering splendid sunset views over the city and the Tejo River, the castle grounds reveal a history going back to the Iron Age. Built by the Visigoths in the 5th century, later fortified by the Moors and conquered by Christians, the castle served as the home of Portuguese royalty until the 17th century. Today visitors admire the voluptuous contours of the cityscape from its ramparts, perhaps pausing for a bica (espresso) at the cafe. A statue of Dom Afonso Henriques, who ended the Moorish occupation in 1147, dominates the miradouro.

On Nov. 1, 1755, the view from this lookout point framed an earthquake-shattered city. Thousands of people celebrating All Saints’ Day perished in the collapse of their churches. Others died in the fires that followed. But from the rubble arose much of the modern city: the fashionable Avenida da Liberdade, later widened to resemble the Champs Elysees, leading to the Baixa, the downtown grid, where the immense Praca do Comercio fronts the river. Beyond the lowlands, the elegant boutiques and cafes of the Chiado climb the slope toward Bairro Alto, the old working-class neighborhood dotted with bars and shops.

The narrow twisting lanes that snake downward from Castelo Sao Jorge to the river constitute the medieval Arab quarter known as the Alfama. Here the spellbinding, if plaintive, sounds of fado envelop listeners. There’s even a museum devoted to fado, where the recorded songs reflect the hard times that befell Portugal in the last century.

Other museums, filled with the treasures of Lisbon’s more distant past, flaunt the glories of the Age of Discovery. During the 15th century, sea captains sailed from Lisbon in ever-widening routes, bringing back riches from Africa, Asia and South America. The 16th-century Tower of Belem marks their point of departure, and the nearby Monastery of Jeronimos celebrates Vasco da Gama’s successful 1498 voyage to India.

Known as Manueline, from King Manuel I (1495-1521), the exuberant architectural style of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites incorporates nautical themes in its decoration and borrows freely from exotic distant lands. In fact, everywhere you look, from the Japanese screens in the Museu de Arte Antiga to the Indo-Portuguese furniture in the Decorative Arts Museum, you see evidence of early Portuguese discoveries. Fortunately, excellent pastry shops and cafes stand ready to fuel all this sightseeing; the delicacies from Antiga Confeitaria de Belem have fortified visitors for two centuries.

Portugal has always been a place apart, looking toward the Atlantic rather than toward the rest of Europe, and tending to revel in its glorious past. The country’s entry into the European Union in 1986 spurred Portugal and its capital toward a promising future. Send your clients to Lisbon, and chances are, they’ll return extolling their own discoveries.

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