All great cities have a legend or two. Some weave their marketing motif around them. Mythical figures and tall tales are claimed and even fought over when it comes to setting one centre of civilisation apart from another.
Though Lisbon is a pivotal port of such vast, impressive documented history that it hardly needs the added sheen, it is quite prepared to toss into its tourist-teasing mix the story of how the Greek hero Ulysses founded the city on his way home from Troy.
While that can be taken with as many grains of salt as you wish, it does seem certain that the Phoenicians established a trading post on the site, there on the left bank of the Tagus River just inside the rugged Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, around 1200 BC and it is certain that the Romans came by in 205 BC and installed Julius Caesar as governor sixty years before Christ.
It must have been a pleasing posting; it still would be. The city is bright and white, sparkling in a sun that never seems to be absent. It boasts springtime temperatures during the winter and cool summers invigorated by Atlantic breezes. The food is rich and plentiful, the architecture stirring and enveloping, the panoramas broad and breathtaking. With the intertwining of old and new realms has come another realm again, appealing as it is unique, as inexpensive as it is intriguing.
Claiming over twenty centuries of history, Lisbon has been Portugal’s formal capital since its conquest from the Moors in 1147. Some see it as the first true world city, the centre point of an empire spreading across the continents and sub-continents. All the western European nations amassed colonies but the Portuguese Empire was the first, longest-lasting and perhaps most diverse. After its flag was flown at Ceuta on the North African coast in 1415, this small nation took its language, culture and cuisine to Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, the Azores, Goa, Brazil, Macau and East Timor – where it remains to this day.
That it was recognised by even its adversaries as the City of Explorers was due to Prince Henrique the Navigator who established a navigation school at Sagres which made possible Vasco da Gama’s epic journey to India that fulfilled the Medieval dream of finding a direct trade route to the riches of the Orient, and initiated other epic adventures of discovery by Bartholomew Dias and Ferdinand Magellan (sailing for the Spanish crown). Like the bar scene in Star Wars, Lisbon was a crossroads of the universe, a magnet for wayfarers. In 1477, Christopher Columbus was in residence and, with his brother, worked as a cartographer and studied geography before taking up sea-borne commissions to the North Atlantic and Africa. It seemed the right place to do it.
“To someone born and raised in a Mediterranean sea port, his new home must have seemed magical, alive with anticipation,” contends historian Thomas Tirado. “Sitting at the mouth of the Tagus, Lisbon’s rhythm was that of the crashing ocean at its doorstep. Thrusting into the Atlantic, facing water on two sides, Portugal had become a center for maritime activity and Lisbon was a haven for explorers, adventurers, entrepreneurs, merchants and any others who saw their fortunes tied to the trade winds and ocean currents.”
Since 1960, on the riverbank in the Avenida de Brasilia in the district of Belem where the Tagus meets the sea and the mighty ships of sail first set off to lay claim to the New World 500 years before, the Portuguese Age of Discovery has been marked by the imposing Monument to the Discoveries. It’s a good place to start your own expedition, given its proximity to the Tower of Belem, a UNESCO World Heritage site that could well be the city’s most photographed edifice. Built in the 16th century to serve as a fortress in the middle of the River Tagus, its outer walls are adorned with a stone-carved rope and openwork balconies, as well as Moorish watchtowers and shield-shaped battlements.
Draped, like Rome, around seven hills, Lisbon is a walking city. It not only gives you ready access to the restaurants, taverns and markets, to the churches and cobblestone alleyways, but ensures that you fully appreciate the mosaic pavements, tiled facades, wrought-iron balconies, tall houses and churches for which it is famed and that you take full advantage of the strategically-positioned miradouros (viewpoints) that seem to present panoramas at every turn. Of course, it helps to know where to walk and where to start – which of those seven hills.
It could be the highest of them, the one crowned by the moated St. George’s Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge), guarding the Tagus, a fortress since the 5th century that came into its own during the Moorish occupation of the 10th when it was the ancient seat of the Saracens. There you can walk esplanades, climb ramparts and filter your gaze and eventually yourself down over the spread of the medieval Alfama district, the city’s most ancient quarter where many buildings display fading coats of arms bearing testimony to the fact that what would become (and, in some cases, still is) the home of stevedores, traders and sailors was once a most aristocratic quarter. Having largely survived the massive earthquake of 1755, it is true to its original layout and adjacent to it, on the western and northern slopes, are the nearly-as-old districts of Castelo and Mouraria.
But it perhaps should be Lapa das Mouras (the Moorish Rock) in Barrio da Lapa, the exclusive western quarter of the city (a twenty minute walk from downtown) that has long been the residential district of choice for nobility, foreign diplomats and the significantly wealthy. It is said to exemplify, with its shading trees, thick gardens and grand buildings (many now embassies) the 19th century Portuguese concept of “calming luxury”.
Like Columbus, Sandro Fabris is an Italian who settled in Lisbon, a city he also found alive with anticipation and not a little magical. One of those larger-than-life characters who can analyse Umberto Eco, accurately hum the sweep of symphonies, pluck a passage from an historical biography or cite lines from a slew of cinema classics, argue the importance of Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra and tell you about his embryonic book of photographs and anecdotes of the markets of the world – all within ten minutes of meeting you – he was considered such an asset by both countries that Giorgio Napolitano, the President of Italy, conferred the Knight of the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity upon him when he last dropped by Portugal.
As, until recently, General Manager of the opulent Lapa Palace Hotel, Fabris was the king of his own castle on Lapa das Mouras, such a sturdy guide on what must be seen and done that it is hard to believe that he was also a visitor. Fresh from preserving treasures in Venice, he enthusiastically took upon the task of maintaining the remarkable standards of a remarkable building; a lavish private house built in 1870 and transformed into a palace thirteen years later by the Counts of Valenças.
And what a palace it was. Rafael Bordalo Pinheiro, one of the greatest Portuguese ceramists of the 19th century, created pieces of furniture and tiles. Columbano, the celebrated “painter of broken souls”, applied his art to the walls and ceilings. There was a ballroom, a Louis XV room (used as a ladies’ boudoir), a Noble Floor, river view towers and all manner of splendour. A family home until 1992 when the family of the Count sold it, it was turned into a hotel six years later by the family Simões de Almeida and then acquired by the Orient Express group.
The Lapa Palace has become accustomed to lavish praise, celebrated by a raft of reviewers as “Lisbon’s smartest hotel with luxuriant gardens”, “a voluptuous retreat” and “a hidden gem in Lisboa”. It hosts concerts by the Metropolitan Orchestra of Lisbon and the Ballet School of Lisbon uses its health club as a workout home, sharing the facilities with a steady stream of guests of renown, ranging from more crown heads of Europe than can be counted to Sting, Cher, U2, Catherine Deneuve, Paul McCartney, Tina Turner, Bryan Adams, Robin Williams, George W. Bush and a brace of Nobel Prize winners. When they were in residence, Sandro was in attendance though the most you’ll get from this discreet hotelier about the demands placed upon he and his team was, “…generally speaking the important people are not a problem, it’s their entourage which is difficult to manage.”
From Barrio da Lapa, it is a quick cab ride down to the main squares, the imposing statues, the seafront, the theatres, the tramcars tackling impossibly steep rises and the Bairro da Alto – the Upper City. An historic enclave like the Alfama, dating back to 1513, it is, as one guide book gushes, “a colourful district that resounds to the calls of vendors and fishmongers, its windows and balconies festooned with laundry and bird cages”. Reached from the lower city by the Santa Justa Elevator (sort of a mini Eiffel Tower), it really comes into its own at night when visitors come to streets lit by Victorian lamps to frequent the Fado cafes, fado being a music and dance form of lament and despair not unlike the blues that was introduced to Portugal by 19th century African slaves.
There is so much packed in to Lisbon, so much reward for investigation, that is seems almost greedy to want more. Yet foolish be the visitor who chooses not to take the brief bus or train ride to Sintra, billed as a riot of 14th century palaces and 19th century pastel-coloured whimsy architecture. The poet Lord Byron described it as a “glorious Eden … perhaps the most delightful spot in Europe” and his view was shared by UNESCO which has bestowed further World Heritage status.
The Serra de Sintra is a ten kilometre long granite outcrop thrusting upward between a vast plain to the north and the Tagus estuary to the south. This twisting mini-mountain range projects into the Atlantic Ocean as the Cabo da Roca headland – continental Europe’s westernmost point. Anciently associated with astral cults – evidence of which is seen in archeology and myriad monuments – it came to be known as Mons Lanae (Hills of the Moon) and, thanks to a micro-climate all its own, has always been draped in dense, verdant vegetation.
Portugal’s tourism bodies seem to move into the highest of their gears when selling Sintra. Earnestly assuring that “The visitor can choose between descending into the Neolithic era at Tholos do Monge; enjoying the view of distant horizons from the walls of the Castelo dos Mouros, an 8th century Moorish defensive construction; experiencing the harsh austerity of the Franciscan monks of Convento dos Capuchos; strolling through the delightful mysteries of the Palacio da Pena, a mythically magical palace that seems more like a continuation of the actual mountain; or savouring the nooks and crannies of the Parque da Pena, a place of love and exoticism that exudes great peace and serenity”.
None of which is overstated, for a day spent negotiating the labyrinthine streets and steps and poking about the palaces and examining the art is a day exceedingly well spent.
The same can be said about a swift sweep down the coast to Cascais which, with nearby Estoril and Guincho, is a stylish summer resort zone of sea-swept seafood restaurants, flash resort hotels, nightclubs and discotheques intertwined with 15th to 18th century churches, hermitages, fortresses and a sea museum. Here are the hotels and bars, some still intact, where Nazi and Allied spies swapped secrets and did deals during World War II. The places where those desperate souls prepared to do anything to obtain travel documents in Casablanca dreamed of finding themselves. The places that contemporary author Robert Wilson weaves so wonderfully into gripping historical thriller-fiction in A Small Death In Lisbon and The Company of Strangers.
With today’s tourism flow there is perhaps greater interest in seeking out the shop, on the way to Cascais, where the Portuguese Tart was first baked. The queues extending out onto the footpath have a strong English component, as does the southern Algarve region, the destination for more than a few charter flights out of London and land of the time share arrangement and holiday hotel. The connection between the Poms and the Portuguese is long and strong, with the Iberian inhabitants more often with them than against them during skirmishes with France and Spain over the centuries. Even while sticking to its policy of neutrality, Portugal granted Britain the right to establish a naval base on the strategically important Acores Island in 1943, to Germany’s considerable displeasure.
Before he departed for Madeira, Sandro Frabris liked to think that he’d fingered the source of solidarity. It is all about a gift of practice and culture that rather took on in a kingdom not always united. “When Catherine Braganza went to Britain to marry Charles II, she took tea with her,” he explained simply. Seems he shared that one with Sting while adding lemon.
Text and images copyright Glenn A. Baker 2014.