Lisbon, once a departure point for fearless explorers, is now a friendly port for curious souls. Take a wrong turn down the serpentine streets that radiate from Castelo de Sao Jorge, the ancient citadel that was first manned by fifth century Visigoths, and the wayward traveller suddenly finds himself in an arrangement of tightly clustered homes accompanied by hushed conversation, lines of laundry rustling in the wind, and dice clattering against a dominoes board.
Lisbon had beguiled me for years. In my favourite film, Casablanca, the Portuguese city is the staging point where refugees from the Second World War hope to flee to America (“The plane to Lisbon,” remarks Capt Louis Renault to the mysterious Rick Blaine as a twin-engined Lockheed Electra roars overhead, “You should like to be on it.”)
Later, after exiling myself to Hong Kong in the 1980s, I made my first visit to neighbouring Macao, a Portuguese colony charmingly gone to seed. In the mid-1990s, as a Tokyo-based reporter, I encountered the remnants of Portuguese imperium in Nagasaki, where Lisbonese explorers had made landfall in the 16th century.
On the map, Portugal is a narrow slab of terrain that occupies three-quarters of the Iberian coastline. How, I had often wondered, did such a small country manage to rule half of the known world? The only way to find out of course, was to take Insp Renault’s advice. So last spring, when my wife, Christina asked where I’d like to go for a holiday, I suggested Portugal.
Our journey, decades in the making, was well worth the wait. From one of the city’s iconic trams, the lovingly restored workhorses that obligingly shudder, squeal and groan as they round the rails, we surveyed glorious, quotidian Lisbon: flirting young lovers, bountiful markets, tiny cafés and wine shops, and elderly men chatting conspiratorially on park benches, their shadows shifting slowly under the late afternoon sun.
One of the world’s oldest cities, shaped by not one but two great civilisations, Lisbon has the lightly-worn charm of a matron that does not have to announce herself. Inhabited since the Paleolithic era, Portugal has hosted Phoenician traders, Greeks, Carthaginians, Celts and Goths. For six hundred years, beginning in the late third century BC, it was part of the Roman Empire, which endowed the city with roads, aqueducts, vineyards and legal systems – many of these structures remaining in place today.
But it was the Moors – the North African Muslims who drove out the Roman-usurping Visigoths in the eighth century – who defined Iberian culture. As they did in Andalusia and Sicily, the Muslims rebuilt Portuguese cities with intimate, narrow streets, vaulted ceilings, arched windows and edifices enamelled by colourful tiles. They nurtured close relations with Jews and Christians and embroidered local culture with Arabesque music, literature, ceramics, and cuisine.
Over the next millennium, Portugal would come to be occupied by Spaniards, Britons and Napoleonic Frenchmen. It would become the incubator for the Age of Discovery, boasting a cadre of steely-eyed navigators during the High Renaissance – Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan are to Lisbon what the Beatles are to Liverpool – and it endured 60 years of dictatorship in the last century before it finally settled down as a stable and stately republic. Today’s Lisbon, along with its smaller cousin to the north, Porto, boasts world-class museums, restaurants, bars and vibrant theatre and music scenes.
Though the country remains an underappreciated destination and is relatively inexpensive by European standards, that could soon change; The New York Times last year identified Lisbon as the second most desirable tourist spot (behind Laos), citing the city’s growing prominence as a cultural centre. In Restauradores, the city’s epicentre, there are four female allegories at the foot of the statue of Dom Pedro IV, the first emperor of an independent Brazil. They represent Wisdom, Strength, Justice and, in harmony with the city’s laid back vibe, Moderation.
Businessmen wear their suit coats jauntily over their shoulders the way university dons wear capes, elderly women dress in black as if in perpetual mourning, and young people, many of them tattooed and pierced, gather outdoors for espresso or beer at cafés like Casa Brasileira along Rua Augusta, a cobbled avenue lined with bars, boutiques, restaurants, and hotels.
Among the tables and chairs outside Casa Brasileira is a bronze statue of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s greatest 20th-century poet and a libertine habitué of this very street until he was claimed by cirrhosis in 1935. Pessoa’s cautionary example notwithstanding, Old Lisbon is a good place for lunch, holiday-gift shopping, and as a staging area for a do-it-yourself tour of the city.
Devastated by an earthquake in 1755, Old Lisbon consists of the adjacent Chiada, Baixa, Mouraria, and Alfama districts. They line the city’s southeastern coastal rim which, along with Belém, a 15-minute tram ride westward, is the best stretch Lisbon has to offer the first-time visitor. We began in Mouraria, with the castle at its apex. The walled fortress – which the Moors occupied in the 9th century after ejecting the Visigoths, only to be dispatched three centuries later by Christian reconquestas – served as a royal residence from the 1500s to 1700s, and as a prison, arms depot, and a theatre centuries after that. Seen in 360-degree splendour from between the castle’s ramparts, Lisbon appears as a sun-splashed canopy of red-tiled roofs and whitewashed chimneys enveloped by the Tejo River.
Castelo de Sao Jorge seems to hover like a nimbus above Lisbon’s old quarters. The air within its battlements is fragrant from lush gardens, with nothing but whispering pines and clouds to shade them. Then there is Alfama, the Moorish kasbah that clings to the citadel’s southeastern flank, which thrives in the shadows and dark romance of its own labyrinthine layout.
Once a well-to-do Muslim neighbourhood, Alfama was reduced by an earthquake into a working class port district. Earthquakes are as much a part of Portuguese identity as Christian relics and goat cheese: like Californians, the Lisbonese discuss memorable tremors – particularly the Big One, which levelled much of the city when it struck back in 1755 – the way other people discuss classic World Cup football matches. Economic modernity, a process accelerated by Portugal’s membership in the European Union, has leavened Alfama with hip bars and clubs, as well as boutiques, museums and some of the city’s best restaurants. A must-see is Casa do Fado e da Guitarra Portuguesa, a museum where visitors can learn about Lisbon’s finest art form, the musical genre known as fado. Often likened to American blues for its soulfulness and elegiac longing, fado is enjoying a renaissance among young Lisbonese in concert with Alfama’s economic rebirth.
Christina and I dined that night at House of Fado, a kind of theme park for the genre. We enjoyed servings of dried ham, olives, and goat cheese. There I met Mario Pacheco, one of Lisbon’s top fadista guitarists. Tall and urbane with a patrician brow and a tightly clipped moustache, Pacheco was gracious enough to chat with me between sets. “The tradition of fado runs deep,” he told me. “It is a timeless form of expression and its importance is increasing.”
Having indulged our senses with a night of torch music, we satisfied our spirits with a pilgrimage to Sedes Episcopalis– known locally as Sé – a cathedral built for the first bishop of Lisbon by King Afonso Henriques in 1150, three years after he vanquished the Moors.
Medieval, Romanesque, and forbiddingly monastic, Sé suggests a more restrained Christianity than the one that went global after Portuguese explorers found new lands full of both pagans to convert and profits to be made. With the Age of Discovery and the fortune it unlocked, Lisbon went from austere to baroque. For a taste of the city’s golden era – its imperial bling, if you will – visitors must take a short ride on the Number 14 tram to Belém at the mouth of the Tagus River.
Belém was the fountainhead of Portuguese empire. Under King Manuel I, who reigned for a quarter century beginning in 1495, the great caravels set forth from this now-lazy seaport in search of new lands to colonise and resources to plunder. Da Gama, Magellan, Juan Sebastián Elcano and their free-spirited brethren established trading hubs of Hormoz, Goa and Macau, “discovered” Brazil, claimed the Spice Islands, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made landfall on both shores of Africa. In 1543 they became the first westerners to reach Japan; Nagasaki, which became an enclave for foreign legations, remains a Christian stronghold to this day.
The wily Manuel, who survived many a court intrigue and conspiracy, forged commercial treaties with China and Persia and emancipated the Jews imprisoned by his predecessor (they were later subject to forced conversions, however). The money came pouring in, and the king invested heavily in the accoutrement of empire.
The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a cathedral and monastery, is a jewel of Manueline architecture, with a soaring vaulted nave, an elegant refectory replete with a tiled mosaic of Christ feeding the multitudes, and a serene, if heavily embroidered cloister.
Both da Gama and Manuel, along with his wife, Dona Maria João III, are entombed here. The mosteiro, which was financed by a levy on the spices, precious stones, and gold harvested from Lisbon’s far-flung properties, is an imposing monument to the power of faith, trade, and imperial hubris.
We spent our last day in Belém, which, in addition to its museums, offers beautiful gardens and seaside strolls. We enjoyed a languid lunch of bacalhau – salty cod with roasted baby potatoes – at the Rosa dos Mares on Rua de Belém and noted that Lisbon, having spent much of its history exploring and colonising other lands, has settled into an easy old age, satisfied with being conquered by a world of inquisitive and appreciative passers-by.