Seven dramatic hills, nestled on the northern bank of the Rio Tejo, near its mouth, attracted ancient peoples from as far back as 3,000 years ago. The Phoenicians were the first to settle beside the largest of Portugal’s natural harbours. They called their new home Alis Ubbo (Delightful Shore) and if you stretch your imagination, you can see the beginnings of the name Lisbon. Over the centuries, the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans and eventually the Moors came and conquered, pillaged and were replaced by the newest and most ambitious general and his army.
The Moors fended off the Christians for 400 years, but they too were eventually defeated after a 4-month siege by Dom Afonzo Henriques and his allies the British crusaders. Lisboa became the new capital because of its strategic position and excellent port. After Vasco de Gama found a sea route, around Cape of Good Hope to India, the city enjoyed a period of success as the center of a massive empire, rich from trade with the East. Many of the treasures of the world were bought and sold in the markets of Lisbon and the profits were poured into elaborate buildings with extravagant architecture.
A new architectural style inaugurated in Portugal and was named ‘Manueline’ after Manuel I who reigned from 1495 to 1521. Everything related to the sea was incorporated into the style, ropes, shells, sailing vessels, and coats of arms. These features were mixed with Christian iconography and decorated doorways, lintels, balustrades and interior columns. At times it is so elaborate it takes the observers breath away.
The voyages of discovery continued and in the 18th century, gold was discovered in Brazil. The building frenzy carried on unabated. However, on November 1, 1722, All Saint’s Day, three earthquakes followed by devastating fires and a tsunami brought much of what had been built up, crashing down. It is felt that as many as a third of Lisbon’s 270,000 residents died in the catastrophe.
The rubble of the damaged buildings was carted to the centre of the city, between the hills and a simple grid design was laid out for the city’s streets. The new buildings were built in a simple style meant to withstand future quakes. The city was never to return to its previous glory, but its position on the natural harbour near the Atlantic Ocean ensured its survival.
In 1974, some of Portugal’s African colonies gained their independence and an influx of refugees changed its cultural demographics, making it a much more diverse and interesting city. Portugal joined the European Union in 1986 and the funds pouring in were put to good use cleaning up the streets, redeveloping the infrastructure and restoring some of the most dramatic buildings in the city.
The current economic recession has hit Portugal hard and signs of high unemployment are everywhere. It appears that Lisbon’s Golden Age is at an end, but there is plenty to see and do for tourists who want to help the residents by continuing to support their businesses and their livelihoods.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Our flight from Ireland to Portugal was a direct flight on Aer Lingus, one of the few direct flights available on any airline. Anil is getting to be very good at researching flights and hotels, and this find saved us tons of time and money. It was a comfortable flight, and because it left very early from Dublin, we arrived in the early afternoon so it was easy to find our way in another new city for the first time.
We stopped by the Tourist Information Desk in the airport to get some advice and some maps and when we asked about a taxi to our hotel, the young man suggested we go to the Departures entrance, walk out the doors and down the sidewalk to the first roundabout and hail a taxi there. In this way, we avoided the difficulties people sometimes encounter when they take a taxi from the queue at the Arrivals entrance. Our hotel wasn’t far from the airport and the drivers get very frustrated when they wait in a long line and then get a passenger going only a short distance away.
Before we knew it, we were delivered to our hotel with no problem whatsoever, and check in was a breeze because we had booked on line and prepaid. The staff at reception was particularly friendly, and this continued to please and surprise us as we went about touring the city and checking in and out of the hotel as we came and went to different parts of Portugal. As you know, we stay in a lot of hotels each year, and when the staff goes out of their way to smile and be helpful, it really makes an impression.
We were feeling pretty fresh so we decided to go for a long walk and check out the city. We could see there was a clear route from our hotel on Av. Roma all the way south into the city centre, so we decided to walk as far as we could and then we could return on the metro. The distance was approximately 5km but we knew we could do this with little effort. In the end, it was quite easy because the land slopes rather gently downhill all the way from near our hotel to our destination near the banks of the Rio Tejo.
It was a beautiful evening and our walk was pleasant, though we were both surprised at the state of disrepair of many of the buildings, especially as we got nearer and nearer to the city center. There was also a lot more litter on the streets than we had been used to seeing in Ireland, so it too was a little bit of an adjustment to avoid not being disappointed in the city itself. Once we arrived at the heart of the pedestrian streets in the core, we found the beautiful historic buildings and clean streets that we had been expecting.
We later learned, after a week spent exploring Lisbon by tram and on foot, that we had walked through one of the roughest areas of the city, the district where most of the refugees and new immigrants find places to live because the buildings have been left to decay and the shopkeepers have moved on to more upscale neighbourhoods. We were never in any danger at that time of day, but we were later advised not to walk through the area after dark, but to take a taxi or the metro to our hotel if we happened to be out late at night.
I’ve gone into this amount of detail, mainly to explain that our first impressions of Lisbon were somewhat disappointing, but from our second day onwards, for the almost three weeks that we spent coming and going from the city, we came to appreciate Lisbon’s charms and vibrancy. There was no looking back.
On our first full day in the city, we took the metro into the centre and searched out the starting point for the historic Tram 28 that makes a scenic loop up and across one of the several hills in Lisbon, then back down through the core and up and over a second hill on the opposite side the of historical district. We knew that eventually we would wish to ride the entire route, but on our first full day in the city, we used the tram to get us to the starting point of the walking tour outlined in our Lonely Planet guidebook.
We rode the tram up through the narrow, winding streets to the Graça neighbourhood and began our walking tour there. The route is only 2km but the suggested time is two to three hours depending on how much time you want to linger admiring the beautiful buildings and the views from the three miradouros that you visit along the way. We made a whole day of it, boarding the tram just before noon and finishing off at the foot of the Alfama district just before 6:00pm.
We had enjoyed the day to the fullest, despite the fact that we declined to pay the 7 entrance fee for the Castelo do São Jorge, perched at the top of the hill overlooking the city. We had just seen a number of castles in Ireland and we weren’t quite ready for another one just yet. Besides, it was a holiday weekend, and the crowds were thick at the castle, so if we chose to see it, we could easily come back another time and have the place almost to ourselves.
We arrived at our second miradouros after a steep uphill climb so we found a nice bench in the shade and rested for a while. I pulled out a few snacks for a light lunch and after a short time a well-dressed blonde man, sitting on the stone wall at the edge of the viewpoint, turned and spoke to us in English with a heavy British accent. He must have heard us speaking to each other in English and was looking for a conversation that afternoon.
He seemed harmless enough, and indeed he turned out to be exceedingly harmless, but while we spent the next hour talking with him about Lisbon and Portugal, he downed a total of six cans of beer in quick succession. We hadn’t noticed them when we first started talking; he had them tucked close to his body out of sight as if he knew he shouldn’t be drinking so many, so quickly.
He told us he had lived in Lisbon for many years, that his wife was Brazilian and that his family was all back in England. He was very entertaining and full of information about the city and advice on what to see and what to avoid. I kept waiting for the ‘other shoe to drop’, for it seemed that there was more to ‘Johnnie’ than met the eye. I was on my guard for a scam artist, but in the end, I think he was just a lonely man, looking for some friendly English-speaking people to pass the time with. He was finished his beer and we needed to continue on our walking tour. We said goodbye to him and I took a photo of Johnnie and Anil together before we parted. He was more than a little wobbly on his feet, I wonder if he does this every day, or just on Sundays and/or holidays.
Our route took us in and around the lovely streets below the castle and then plunged us down into the Alfama district, a labyrinth of narrow streets where the Muslims lived during the Moorish occupation of the city. This is one of the more distinctive parts of Lisbon, but we were passing through during the siesta hours and the lanes were almost deserted. I would love to return one morning when the women are out hanging their wash, sending their children off to school, shopping for the day’s groceries and visiting with each other.
The other interesting time to visit Alfama is in the late evenings when the cafés and restaurants that line the Ruas de São Pedro and São João come alive with the sounds of Fado, the Portuguese blues. It is said this style of singing, mainly by women, developed its mournful tone because the women longed for the return of their men folk from the sea. If it’s at all possible, I hope to return to Alfama one evening and listen to a Fado singer over a meal and a bottle of Portuguese red wine.