If you have not been to Europe yet and you had to choose one place to go for that wonderful laidback way of life, the precious old-world charm, narrow cobbled streets, baroque street lamps from another century, Lisbon is It. Gnarled women sit at doorsteps knitting away but hurriedly put them away to examine strangers, bunches of portly men with white hair and fedora hats sit around cafés, hunched over a game of cards or sometimes dominoes. Others lounge around with newspapers in parks, while some sit in local bars and watch football with great passion. Often did I wonder if I had not stepped into another age and another time. Lisbon does that to you.
They do not really make places like Lisbon, anymore. When tram no. 28 winds through the narrow alleys of the old districts in Lisbon, you cannot stop thinking, “I want to tuck that tram into my bag and carry it home.” These pre-war, yellow trams, known as Remodelado Trams, were made by the Lisbon state-owned operator, Carris, in the mid-1920s. They were made in such a way that they could successfully navigate the notoriously sharp twists and turns while ascending the undulating roads of Lisbon. Yet the inspiration for these vintage trams came from across the Atlantic – from the electric railroad cars developed by the American J.G. Brill Company.
With the quaint trams of Lisbon, passing me by at intervals, what I was witnessing was a functional American idea adapted in an endearing form to European roads. Of course, I would not have objected to the early trams of Lisbon which had horse-drawn carriages. Now, there are Trams 12, 15, 18 and 25 too that crawl their way across the far-flung districts. There are the red and green trams too. But they are exclusively for tours.
Okay, enough blathering on about trams.
Legend goes that Lisbon was built upon seven hills. It did not seem much of a legend though when I found out that the capital city of Portugal is spread out extensively over steep hills.
I was always huffing and puffing, climbing the very many stairs or charting incredibly steep descents and ascents, oh so gingerly – the possibility was dangerously high that I would find myself rolling down its many cobbled lanes. The irony is that I did slip and slide but on the shiny cobbles of Avenida da Liberdade (Liberty Avenue), one of Lisbon’s main boulevards, which hosts a roll-call of the big fashion houses.
The most important thing to keep in mind while packing your bags for Lisbon are walking shoes. Unless you want a hobble on the cobble, do not don heels. If you do, it is on you. I have to confess that I had a weight, the size of a boulder, resting on my heart when I did not stow in a pair of heels. I can live in heels. But apparently not in Lisbon.
I have visited Lisbon twice now. On my first Lisbon tripping, I had a pair of block-heeled boots which left my feet blistered and callused, all over. A vital lesson learned, I switched on my second visit to a pair of navy blue sneakers with white polka dots and chirpy, pink laces and alternated it with a pair of cuffed, tan boots. Who says comfortable shoes have to be boring?
This second trip was a lengthy stay of 14 days. Those shoes saved me. I walked about 13 miles every day because I am a walking fiend. Also, I believe that there is no better way to see a city.
The second thing that you have to figure out is a layout of the city. The districts are many and you do not want to miss out on the curious mix of colour, culture and eccentricity.
I shall take you about them in a minute.
Before it skips my mind, do look out for the miradouros. They are viewpoints on the highest points of each hill. The best part is the kind of views they offer for which you have to pay nothing. The ones that I loved the best were the Miradouro Dos Portas Do Sol and Miradouro De São Pedro De Alcântara. The monuments that offer a bird’s eye view of the city are the castle, the Rua Augusta Arch, the Santa Justa Elevator, the National Pantheon and the Cristo Rei. They are paid for entrances only but the tickets are so very reasonable that you would probably scoff in disbelief.
Things you hear about Lisbon are not mostly exaggerations. Such as the fact that the city, called Lisboa (pronounced Lish-boa) locally, has three abiding passions. Football, Fatima and Fado.
Of the first, I learnt when I was dithering outside Porta Azul, a faded, old bar in the Bairro Alto area. The barkeep stepped out and just waved me in with expansive gestures and a big smile. His name was Carlos and he had come from Brazil at a young age to Lisbon because his family hailed from Portugal. I ordered a glass of port wine (cost me just a couple of Euros – Lisbon is incredibly friendly to the pockets) and sat down inside the bar. The third person in there was a wizened deaf man, fervent in his observations (in Portuguese, of course) about a Villarreal match. I sat there, watching a Champions League match, sipping on sweet and potent port wine, with Carlos and the old man. Them frequently shaking their heads at fouls and exchanging notes in Portuguese while Carlos interspersed them with some Portuguese for me. He acquainted me with the local favourites, “Esta aqui é a cerveja” (This here is beer). Then he made me repeat Portuguese lines after him and I had no idea what it was that he said on that hot afternoon.
Later, in the evening, I returned to Porta Azul with my husband and a Spanish friend for cocktails. Carlos’ Caipirinhas made severe dents into my senses. I spent the entire next day in bed, recuperating from the after-effect.
Beware of a Caipirinha made by a Brazilian, if you do not know when to stop.
My second reference was to Fatima. Right. She is the Roman Catholic version of Virgin Mary and she even has a town eponymously dedicated to her. The Portuguese town of Fatima has a Catholic church, The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fátima, at the spot where in 1917 three teenagers had apparently seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary, “brighter than the sun, shedding rays of light clearer and stronger than a crystal goblet filled with the most sparkling water and pierced by the burning rays of the sun”. This apparition wore a white mantle, edged with gold and held a rosary in her hand. I saw her everywhere. No, I was not on LSD, thank you. She came in various heights, tall, medium, teensy and a respectable short stature. Actually wait, there could have been more height variations. I bet I am missing out more because I just remembered thinking, “Boy, there are tons of her around.”
Now, back to earthly matters. Bairro Alto is where all newcomers to the city head for Fado, cerveja and bacalhau.
Wait, have I not mentioned the bacalhau yet? It is something you will eat usually in Portugal and its former colonies, or in Spain. Bacalhau, my friends, is Portuguese for dried and salted cod. It is a local peculiarity though certainly not a native to Portugal’s Atlantic waters. The Basque country of northern Spain is said to be where to cod was first cured, while the Vikings, way back in the 12th century, are known to have survived brutal winters in Newfoundland with hard-as-wood supplies of dried cod. Remember that in those days, there were no modern conveniences of refrigeration. Yet, even today, it is difficult not to tuck into the ancient bacalhau and say, “Ah, that was so-o-o good,” at the end of a meal.
The Portuguese have more than 1000 ways of cooking the bacalhau. My favourite dishes were Bacalhau à Lagareiro (grilled, salted cod with olive oil and served with garlic and potatoes) and Bacalhau à Brás (oh that delicious fried-rice like texture created by tiny fried potato matchsticks, scrambled eggs and marinated olives). Bacalhau is a strong tasting fish, almost meat-like in its chewiness and absolutely a winner in my food memories. The grilled octopus and squids of Lisbon are strong contenders too.
Bairro Alto, meaning Upper City, is the historic, central district packed with hip n’ happening bars, ramshackle ones, alfresco chairs lining the cobbled lanes where people sit even during the day and catch a drink or two.
Once dusk sets in, the air of Bairro Alto is rendered by the soulful strains of Fado. The word loosely refers to the Portuguese saudade, or, “longing”. On evenings that I listened to the captivating, emotional renditions, I could not help but be moved by the haunting quality to the genre – a timber of loss, fatefulness and melancholia ran through them. But then the singers livened things up and brought a sudden perky rhythm for the listeners to involve them with some amount of clapping and foot tapping.
There is a social context to Fado. Originating in the old Mouraria, Alfama and Bairro Alto quarters, Fado is said to have been linked to the marginalised parts of society. Read: Prostitutes, sailors, coachmen. It is indelibly linked too with the Salalzar regime that locals even today recall with great reluctance. I watched a poet (on Anthony Bourdain’s episode on Lisbon – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QU9T2dDZlg) not be able to come to terms with Fado even today because he had lived through the dictatorship years of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, between 1932 and 1968. Fado took him back to the terror of that reign.
A local insisted upon me the knowledge that Fado had its origins in ancient Moorish customs – in the chantings of Muslim women.
It was clear that in these areas in which their heart commands them, the Portuguese are a passionate people.
I was in a city that was peopled by the Phoenicians who named it Allis Ubbo (‘calm harbour’), the Romans and the Visigoths. The people who left a lasting mark upon the city, however, were the Moors from North Africa. They came into the city that they referred to as Lishbuna during the early 700s and established the Alcáçova (a Muslim palace) once where the castle stands today. The Moors settled down around the Alfama, the area with the hot springs, and developed a network web of closed-in streets that were meant to be defensive and keep hot summers at bay. But after weeks and weeks of resistance, they had to give in to a band of European crusaders, who in 1147 laid siege to the castle. The Moors were killed or they were sent off to live renewed identities as “New Christians” in the quarter of Mouraria. Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first monarch, then in 1150 raised the Sé (cathedral) where the main mosque used to be and it was thus that in 1255 Lisbon acquired its status as the capital of a Christian country.
From the 15th to 16th centuries, it became extremely influential in Europe with explorers setting off to new countries by sea and opening up new trade routes.
Then the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 happened. It shook the city to its core on All Saints’ Day (November 1) and opened up fissures that were reported to be 15 feet wide in the centre of Lisbon. The quake’s magnitude ranged between 8.5-9.0 and it brought in its wake a fearful tsunami to the waterfront. It reduced most of the city to rubble but three districts survived its ravages. Bairro Alto, Alfama and Belém.
From Bairro Alto, I walked to the Estrela district and gaped at the baroque-neoclassical Basilica of Estrela and ancient Carmelite convent. Then through the green environs of the Jardim da Estrela (Gardens of Estrela), I made my way past monkey puzzle trees and pine trees and a giant banyan tree, in an effort to locate the Cemitério Inglês (the city’s only English Cemetary). In that cemetary is buried the 18th century English writer of ‘Tom Jones’ fame, Henry Fielding. Suffering intensely from gout, dropsy and the exhaustion of dealing with criminals (Fielding was a magistrate in London and had started its first police force of the Bow Street Runners), he had travelled to Lisbon for a cure in 1754. He died a couple of months later and was buried in Lisbon. By the time, I reached the cemetary it had shut. A notice said that it remained open till 1pm.
That was that and I instead spent my time in the museum of puppets in the vicinity. For 5 Euros, it was not a disappointment. Though the collection of puppets I had seen in Lübeck previously were far more extensive and engrossing. You would be better off spending 2 Euros on seeing the Calouste Gulbenkian museum in the civil parish of Avenidas Novas instead. The museum has the private collections of an extremely wealthy British businessman and philanthropist of Armenian origin, Calouste Gulbenkian. He is credited to be the first Western person to exploit Iraqi oil. Gulbenkian was quite the traveller and lived in cities such as Constantinople, London, Paris, and Lisbon.
My other pick was the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum) which is again priced so reasonably at 5 Euros. It is somewhat out of the way but you can always walk down from the Alfama past the Santa Apolonia railway station.
On other days, heading down Rossio Square (the most convenient meeting point in the city), I explored the Baixa, Lisbon’s business district which is marked by a Pombaline style of architecture (a school that gets its name from the Marquis of Pombal who rebuilt the city following the earthquake). Down the axis is the Praça do Comércio where a triumphal arch leads to the River Tagus. If it is a cheerful sight today, filled with trams and tourists, once it was the site of an assassination, that of the penultimate king of Portugal.
West of the Baixa, is the chic district of Chiado, filled with hi-street shopping and artsy cafés. My thrill lay in entering the oldest bookshop in the world. The Livraria Bertrand traces its beginnings to 1732. Within its portals, I discovered the beauty of the writings of Fernando Pessoa and picked up ‘The Book of Disquiet’ as a valuable addition to my library. I think his preface had me: “I’m astounded whenever I finish something. Astounded and distressed…I begin because I don’t have the strength to think; I finish because I don’t have the courage to quit. This book is my cowardice.”
Nearby, in Chaido is the coffeehouse, A Brasileira, that Pessoa often frequented. Nowadays, he sits there, a bronze statue on a bench, the customary hat and spectacles perched upon his visage. While hordes of tourists pout and pose next to him.
There are also other writers whom you find references to in Chiado, such as the romantic writer João Batista de Almeida Garrett after whom a street has been named in Chiado, and the poet Luís de Camões, who has a square dedicated to him. There is a strange strain of melancholia haunting the writings of most of these literary figures of Lisbon.
I will leave you to mull upon these lines by the 19th century Portuguese poet, Cesário Verde.
“All through our streets at nightfall
There is such a sullenness, such a melancholy,
That the shadows, the bustle, the Tagus, the salt air
Stir me with an absurd longing to suffer”.
Whatever you do, do not be conned into a fado and dinner proposition in the Alfama. They will lure you with the words, ‘cheap tasty, local food and Fado’. Reserve both for Bairro Alto.
Alfama and Mouraria are my chosen quarters in Lisbon. The larger part of my days were spent peering into their nooks and corners, alleys and churches.
The Mouraria is a warren of old streets, the plaster peeling off the facades of old houses, sudden blue doors startling the sight, ancient tiled house fronts, old people lounging in their windows and doorways idly sizing you up through rheumy eyes. In the 12th century, after the Christian re-conquest of Lisbon, the Moors were relegated to the Mouraria and hence its name. Later in 1497, they were expelled altogether along with the Jews.
When I strolled through the Mouraria, I was a little wary of the especially rundown part of it that is home to a multi-ethnic bunch of immigrants from Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, and Mozambique. But I persevered and soon enough, the character changed and I was taken up by the quiet, old houses in the interiors. There was even an alley dedicated to its Fado singers.
The Mouraria took me into the heart of Alfama, a conglomeration of poor fishermen’s cottages. If you climb up from the Alfama, the roads inevitably lead to the São Jorge Castle and if you descend, they take you to the river.
In this oldest part of the city, which derives its name from the Arabic ‘Al-hamma’, meaning “hot fountains/baths”, fishermen continue to live. Old members of their families sat at window ledges, sunning themselves, while clotheslines ran across the house fronts, faded clothes fluttering around in the wind. I was in another time and space.
While in the Alfama area, right behind the 17th century Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, you will come upon a flea market that is truly one in every sense of the word. Every Tuesday and Saturday, the Feira da Ladra or Thieves’ Market sprawls over an extensive area that overlooks the stunning National Pantheon and the blue river on the horizon. The market is said to have existed since the 17th century and might even trace its roots to the 12th century.
Exploring the castle is something I ended up doing, just by dint of the fact that it was a castle built by the Moors, and that it had an incredible view of the river, the Cristo Rei (Christ the King monument, inspired by Christ the Redeemer of Rio de Janeiro) in the parish of Almada across the river, and the 25 de Abril Bridge which connects Lisbon with Almada. The suspension bridge was once deemed Ponte Salazar (Salazar Bridge), but the people hated him clearly enough to remove the plaque with his name on it and painted a provisional 25 de Abril in its place. You see, April 25 marks the Carnation Revolution in Lisbon when the military overthrew the existing political regime in 1974. The April 25th coup became the day of Lisbon’s liberty when locals put carnations on the barrels of the rifles of the soldiers in solidarity.
This, my friends, is the final bit. In case, my long post has somehow got you wavering. I could not but take you to the part of Lisbon that is a paean to the Age of Discovery, the waterfront of Belém from where Portugal’s greatest navigators set sail. It is the romantic story of these seafarers, the most prominent of whom was Vasco da Gama, that is encapsulated in the monuments here – the 16th century ceremonial gateway to Lisbon that sits upon a basal outcrop of rocks on the river in the form of the beige-whitish Belém Tower; the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (Jerónimos Monastery); and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries), a monument to the discoverers who departed from there to explore new places and trade opportunities in India and the Orient, during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Of these, I loved the almost filigreed look of the Jerónimos Monastery, which was designed in the Manueline school of architecture. It was an ornate architectural style, with maritime elements and objects discovered during naval expeditions, carved into it in limestone. The monastery was home to the religious order of Hieronymite monks at the behest of King Manuel I. He wanted them to pray for his eternal soul and to give navigators spiritual succour before they left to discover the world. The monks apparently carried out the orders for over four centuries. Only in the 19th century, were the religious orders dissolved.
Inside the church, adjoining the monastery, lies the mortal remains of Vasco da Gama and Luís de Camões (who had chronicled the Age of Discoveries), while inside the monastery are the tombs of the poets Fernando Pessoa and Almeida Garrett.
Every day in Lisbon was a discovery. It was made all the more fascinating by the fact that the people of Lisbon are an interesting breed. As Fielding had noted in his Journey of a Voyage to Lisbon. “If the customs and manners of men were everywhere the same, there would be no office so dull as that of a traveller…”