All the peoples that were on the move in historic times were interested in the site of Lisbon, it may be a myth that Ulysses discovered it, but there is proof that the Phoenicians did at around 5000 BC, they called their colony ‘Alis Ubbo’- ‘lovely little port’. Later the Romans, the Visigoths and Moorish conquerors from North Africa came, the latter stayed for 300 years (some Portuguese have Arabic features), in 1147 King Alfonso succeeded in driving them back with the help of Crusaders (occasionally one sees tall and blond Portuguese) to say nothing of the Spanish and French occupation.
The 16th century saw the real beginning of Lisbon as it is today, Portuguese navigators sailed round the world bringing back gold and diamonds from South America (today Brazil), slaves and ivory from Africa (Angola and Mozambique), silk and spices from India (Goa) to mention the most important places making the city and the country unbelievably rich.
One would assume that architectural gems mirror the former wealth, that the city is full of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings as is the case with so many other rich cities in Europe, alas, that is not the case. Tourists interested in ticking off sights in the afore mentioned styles are disappointed, they realise that they’ve come too late, in fact they should have come before 1st November, 1755 when an earthquake lasting nine minutes and a following tsunami destroyed most of the city; from what I’ve read I get the impression that this date is one of the - if not the - most important dates in the history of modern Lisbon.
We began our first day walking from our hotel, Sana Executive, Rua Conde Valbom, (when we knew the layout of the city we always took the underground, clean, on time, cheap [for us]) to the big round Praça (place) Marquês de Pombal with an enormous monument in the middle showing a male figure with a lion at his side; Pombal, foreign minister to King José I, was responsible for the reconstruction of the city after the earthquake. Uphill is the 500m long geometrically laid out park Edoardo VII, downhill the wide and elegant Avenida da Liberdade leading to the part of the city that shows Pombal’s planning hand, the Cidade Baixa (low city), a grid of rectangular streets, a modern concept for the 18th century.
The Rua Augusta is a pedestrian precinct with mostly expensive shops on either side and open-air cafés in the middle, from there we got through a triumphal arc to the Praça do Comércio. A big equestrian statue of King José looks out at the river Tejo passing Lisbon for 30 km before it flows into the Atlantic, its mouth is between 3 to 17 km wide so that one has a feeling of the sea in the city; unfortunately a direct access to the bank is not possible due to a busy motorway.
Standing on the Praça do Comércio and looking back at the city one can see the Castle Saõ Jorge on a hill to the right, the quarter beneath is the Alfama, the oldest part of the city, not destroyed by the earthquake and full of narrow and crooked alleyways with washinglines spanning between the houses. A tram goes up to the castle which many tourists take just for the fun of it, walking up is not so hard as the guide-books describe, though.
We passed the cathedral. Begun in 1147 on the remains of a mosque in Romanesque style it hasn´t changed much through the centuries, no Renaissance frescoes or Baroque religious knick-knack adorn the bare grey sandstone walls to show off the incredible wealth Portugal had accumulated, after all it’s the most important religious building in the capital of a former empire. Very modest, the Portuguese!
From the back end of the right nave one can visit the cloister where Roman remains are being excavated, one has to buy a ticket to see them. My guidebook told me that the reconstruction work after the earthquake (in 1755!) is nearly finished. Not the fastest, the Portuguese!
The outer walls of the castle have been reconstructed, the inside is empty, i.e., there are no buildings, one of the inner yards has a stage for concerts and a self-service open-air restaurant (we saw two other restaurants on the premises). I noticed a steep flight of stairs leading to the top of the wall and suggested to my husband we climb up there to have an even better view of the city, the river Tejo, the 2287m long suspension bridge and the Rio de Janeiro-like statue of Christ on the opposite bank of the river. The moment I had reached the top I knew I had to get back down at once, I hadn’t looked properly from below, the inner wall was only knee high, the outer one was high enough but consisted of a row of pinnacles with wide openings and no railings anywhere.
Tourist interested in shopping go to the Bairro Alto (high quarter) opposite the castle hill, an area which is a bit elegant but not too much. Lisbon is rather shabby, many façades want painting, the pavements all over the city are covered with small square cobble stones and you won’t find 100m without a hole so that you always have to look down in order not to stumble and fall. It’s not dirty, though, on the contrary, hardly any dogs around, in one week I didn’t see more than 15 (and not a single cat!), so hardly any dog poop, hardly any graffiti on the walls, the underground spick and span although with the exception of junctions all stations are without staff (there are automatic ticket machines). Lisbon is obviously poor but well kept, it exudes the charme of having seen better days.
What else is there to do? Portugal has about 10 million inhabitants, one fifth of whom live in Greater Lisbon, yet the city centre is not big, one day is enough to see it including a museum. We abstained from visiting one on our first day, we preferred sitting at the tables in front of the Pastelaria Suiça (pastry shop, Lisbon is full of pastelarias, the pastry is excellent!) on the central place Rossio in the Baixa watching the Portuguese world pass by. We saw only few tourists, conventionally and still winterly dressed Portuguese, noticed many black Africans from the former colonies, street musicians played for us, beggars wanted money.
On the following day we went to Belém, approximately 10 km from the centre, the quarter of the city on the bank of the river Tejo from where the ships of the Portuguese seadogs started. The tram leaves from Praça do Comércio. The three sights of Belém are the tower built in 1516 to protect the harbour and (from the guidebook) ‘the strikingly modern monument praising the discoveries rising dramatically above the river, the streamlined prow of an explorer’s caravel with Prince Henry the Navigator symbolically heading a crowd of famous figures from that rich and golden era of Portuguese history’ and the Jerónimo Monastery built by King Manuel I in the 16th century in honour of Vasco da Gama who had discovered the seaway to India, it´s late Gothic with lavish decoration in the so-called Manueline style.
We visited the adjacent Museu de Marinha, very educative and enjoyable with models of the sailing ships of the explorers, one had a door in the side of the ship out of which a plank came, across which a sailor was leading a horse, the explorer Albuquerche had transported horses from Persia to India. We saw also nautical instruments, weapons from cannons to torpedos and captains’ uniforms through the ages. The last hall houses real life size boats, the most luxurious is the Royal Barge built in 1780 which was rowed by 78 oarsmen, her last task was to transport Queen Elizabeth II on her state visit to Portugal in 1956.
With Belém ‘done’ one has seen what is Lisbon famous for, if one stays longer than two or three days it is to see the towns along the coast or in the hinterland, if the weather is favourable, the tourist can easily and pleasurably fill a week.
What about the night life in Lisbon? The thing to do is to go to the Casas de Fado, restaurants with Fado singing and guitar playing. ‘Fado’ comes from the Latin word fatum = fate, generally sad and melancholy songs sung with heartbreaking fervour. I would have loved to hear them, but the performances begin at midnight and after a day out walking we just couldn’t add a night out. West of the train station Cais de Sodré is a row of old warehouses transformed into top restaurants, shops and discos, one shouldn’t go there before 2 am!
Adeus! (A – da – oosh, stress on the second syllable), Bye-bye!