Lisbon is known for its mild climate.
“It snowed 50 years ago,” our guide, Sandra, told us, “and it was a mixture of chaos and spectacle.”
Back in 1755 a huge earthquake rocked the ocean and sent a gigantic tsunami uphill, destroying much of the city. It’s still talked about today.
My favorite story of hers had to do with a stunning basilica built by a queen who was barren. She badly needed an heir, so she prayed to the Virgin Mary, and like the rich royal she was, built a gorgeous basilica in her honor. Shortly thereafter, she was pregnant with a son. By the 10th child, the queen was praying “enough!” to the Virgin. In the end, she had 16 children. So, forget about IVF: build a basilica and infertility won’t be a problem.
The most amazing thing I saw was an almost exact copy of the Golden Gate Bridge—because it was built by the same guy who did the Golden Gate.
Despite the white-bleached sandstone buildings I saw from the air, I didn’t find Lisbon as charming or even as interesting as I’ve found other European cities. Nearly a quarter of Portugal’s population lives here—some 2.5 million people– and from the dangling utility wires (not as bad as Mumbai, but still) to the crumbling walls, Lisbon (or Lisboa, as it’s called in Portuguese) seemed to have all of the earmarks of a large European city and little of its charm.
But let me talk first about what I did find pretty:
The old cobblestone sidewalks evoked a different era. As a result, though, and for safety’s sake, I saw no stilettos and very few heels at all. Shoes and attire seemed strictly for comfort.
Building facades made completely out of mosaic tiles lent an individual look to Lisbon.
I’m always up for a street café and there were plenty. And some of the very best coffee I’ve ever had.
The people are very likable.
Tuktuks are a great way to get around and far, far nicer than those we took in India. FARRR nicer. And motorized!
And the location, right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, is lovely.
The Avenida de Liberdade is the main boulevard, fashioned after the Champs Elysees in Paris, but I have to tell the truth: despite its gardens, leafy trees and waterfalls, it kind of fell short. Maybe because it was developed in modern times: 1985.
Today, Lisbon is proud that all of the major luxury brands are represented on the Avenida (from Cartier to, well, you name it) and from an economic development standpoint, it’s a good thing. I, however, avoided retail therapy during our time in Lisbon and felt the city’s shops gave it a generic feel. That’s all I’ll say.
Scratch a city in Europe and you’ll find monuments on every corner. The same is true in Lisbon, and the most interesting of these was the monument to discoveries in the 15th and 16th century, when Portugal played a key role in mapping the coasts of Africa, Asia, Canada and Brazil.
Portugal was home to Vasco da Gama, who sailed to Calcutta, India, bringing back spices and establishing a maritime route and trade. The voyage took 10 months. In a world without GPS and with only the most rudimentary of sailing ships, that took guts. And with guts comes some brutality, it appears.
Our guide failed to tell us how da Gama’s second voyage to India included the interception of a ship of Muslim pilgrims, including women and children. He locked them all up and burned them to death, despite the entreaties of the women, who offered up all of their jewels as they pleaded for mercy with their babies in their arms.
Any Catholic nation has basilicas, churches and monasteries. Lisbon is no different and we visited one with a particularly pretty cloister: The Monastery of the Hieronymites in the Belem section. Vasco da Gama was entombed in the church there. Also buried in that church was the poet Luis de Camoes, whose epic poem celebrated da Gama’s first voyage to India. I always like it when writers are entombed in European churches.
The cloister looked old, large, peaceful.
I loved that the confessionals in the church backed up on the cloister and that’s how the monks got in and out of them privately to hear confession.
We walked around the old Jewish quarter. I am always dismayed to hear yet another horrible story about the treatment of Jews…and in 1497 the King ordered Jews to convert to Catholicism or leave. Those who converted then had the pleasure of the Inquisition in 1536. I mean, what the hell is wrong with people, anyway? Back then, now, it boggles the mind.
The language spoken is Portuguese, which is sort of like Spanish, but not. In fact, our guide told us that we should do our best to avoid speaking Spanish to Portuguese, as there is a rivalry of sorts. But the language is close enough to be a little confusing. So I’d catch a word or two and then be completely flummoxed.
We really had only a limited time in Lisbon, so my view of the place is colored by that. It’s clear, though, that Lisbon’s a city that’s trying to make its mark. It’s not there yet, but worth watching.