The number 28 tram skittles through Lisbon’s colourful streets skating perilously close to homes and shops. Screeching around a tight corner it halts abruptly alongside scarlet walls festooned with laundry.
As I cross to a small piazza near the Cerca Moura, the sun glazes the broad Tagus River that lies beyond a patchwork of terracotta roofs and white walls.
Built on seven low hills – much like Rome – Portugal’s capital is a city of laid-back charm that’s gaining ground as an ultra-hip, emerging cultural force of 21st century chic. With the bold Berardo Collection Museum and projects involving Sir Norman Foster and Pritzker Prize-winning French ‘starchitect’ Jean Nouvel slated to be built, it’s little wonder that the GPS co-ordinates for Western Europe’s newest cultural capital have been adjusted.
For added cool, many rock concerts wind-up their European tours here. When in town, Bruce Springsteen adds star wattage to the Tiara Park Atlantic hotel at the top of Edward VII Park while Bill Clinton lays his head at Dom Pedro Palace, as does uber-model Claudia Schiffer while Madonna holes up at the magnificently restored 19th century Pestana Palace. The hip juvenile generation are adding their youthful exuberance to Lisbon’s street life whether juggling with fire amidst the splendid monuments of Largo do Chiado or worshipping Portugal’s nascent designers at Santos da Casa on Avenida Dom Carlos 1.
For a city that boasts a spectacular blend of vibrant street-life, glorious heritage buildings, edgy new architecture and medieval districts, Lisbon is an easy city to navigate. Each district is etched with clearly defined character whether it’s the Pombolino buildings of Graca or the waterfront’s gracious monuments. In Lisbon, history is part of the fabric of everyday life worn with casual élan. Narrow lanes meander past a brace of outdoor cafes to St George (Sao Jorge) Castle, a must-visit historical stop that boasts sweeping views from one of the city’s highest hills.
The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 indiscriminately destroyed 85% of the city’s buildings from humble hovels to grand palaces of Manueline architecture, killing around 40,000 souls. When the flames that raged throughout the city for five days were finally extinguished, so too were Portugal’s 18th century colonial ambitions.
Lisbon hasn’t forgotten its saviour, the powerful Marquis of Pombal, who led the recovery hiring architects and builders, engineers and labourers to create an ordered city of avenues and squares. With vision and forethought, his grid plan of roads and wide pavements also led to the creation of Pombaline buildings, the world’s first seismically-protected constructions. Wandering through Baixa Pombalina, many of these simple four-storey, flexible wooden buildings with pre-fabricated walls can be seen, their exteriors wittily decorated with Portuguese tiles or trompe-l’oeil.
From a pedestal set high on a roundabout, the Marquis de Pombal’s sightless gaze flows down Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s most distinguished boulevard modeled on the Champs Elysees straight to Lapa, an aristocratic area of steep streets and even steeper prices. Following the earthquake the country’s former nobles built their mansions and palaces here and it is now home to one of Europe’s finest hotels. High on a rock overlooking the Tagus River, Lapa Palace is a living piece of Portuguese history. Transformed from palace to luxury hotel in 1993, it’s a home-away-from-home for real and rock royalty including Sting who, it’s said, requests room 701, the Tower Suite, along with pop legends Cher and Tina Turner.
Downtown at Rua de Santa Justa, we take the Gothic-styled elevator to Camoes Square 45m above street level. Built by a disciple of Gustavo Eiffel of Paris’s Eiffel Tower fame and opened in 1902, the Santa Justa Lift takes us straight to the cosmopolitan Chiado district, a brave blend of the quirky and idiosyncratic. Shopfronts are decorated with Moorish-influenced Portuguese tiles where contemporary designers attract cult followings. Exquisite homewares are housed in old confectionary stores. I peer in the windows of Pratas Jewels, an atelier famous for its antique jewellery and silverware and Luvas Gloves, a tiny triangular-shaped shop that sells the finest kid leather gloves in every imaginable shade.
But Lisbon’s heritage is informed by the sea and at the Monument of Discoveries jutting over the Tagus River, an immense sculpture marks the departure point of the great navigators who, in the 15th century, put Portugal on the international trading map. Crowded around the prow of this mighty limestone ‘ship, thirty-two carved figures of shaven monks, armoured knights, silken courtiers and Henry the Navigator all search the horizon. This stirring imagery captures the spirit and zeal of Portugal’s great maritime adventurers whose caravels found the spice route to India in 1498, discovered Brazil in 1500 and set the foundations for the Portuguese empire.
A few paces from here and we plunge into the labyrinthine streets of medieval Alfama. Fado, Portugal’s mournful art form, is performed nightly here, folk songs that express the city’s melancholic soul. Translated from the Moorish word ‘Al-hamma’, the Alfama survived the earthquake and Berber traces can still be found strolling its winding alleyways. Sailing scenes depicted on hand-painted blue and white tiles point are a legacy of its traditional fishermen inhabitants and it’s in this venerable Quarter that the true spirit of Lisbon shines through
There’s an excellent information center at Lisbon Airport where you can purchase taxi vouchers, maps and information on a Lisboa card which gives discounts to many public buildings.
If staying in the city, a taxi off the airport rank is good value delivering you into the heart of Lisbon for around 10 Euros.
Trams: All tickets for single ride cost 1.30 Euros and can be purchased from machines on board. Best value – buy a 24 hour tram ticket for 3 Euros from any post office.
Tram No. 28 is not just another tram ride but a ride through Lisbon’s historic heart..
Wear flat, comfortable walking shoes as pavements are often uneven in this hilly city.
Accommodation at the luxurious Lapa Palace is available from around 300 Euros ($478) a night. See www.lapapalace.com
Formerly a merchant’s home, Heritage Avenue Liberdade is an atmospheric, newly opened hotel in the heart of the city. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.heritage.pt for rates.
St George Castle: www.egeac.pt
Tickets 5 euros; Open 9 – 9 March to Oct; 9 – 6pm Nov – Feb
For general information go to www.visitlisboa.com
Please look above at In The Picture and get a pictorial flavour of this month’s edition.