Friday, February 20, 2015

Lisbon, Portugal: Discovering a city of discoverers

Triumph Arch is the gateway to Rua Augusta, the commercial hub of Lisbon, Portugal  (wikipedia)
LISBON, PORTUGAL -- Rome has its seven hills.  Paris features wide boulevards and a tower built by Gustave Eiffel.  And San Francisco showcases the Golden Gate Bridge and its famous trolleys.  But if you want to see them all, or at least reasonable facsimiles, try Lisbon, Portugal.

Nestled upon the shores of the Tagus River, which can accommodate major cruise ships because it flows into the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon traces its roots to the ancient Phoenicians as well as a seafaring heritage where famous navigators sailed forth to explore a new world.

St. George's Castle overlooks the streets of Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Much of Lisbon is immediately captivating from the majestic Moorish stronghold of St. George’s Castle to the elegant tree-lined 300-foot wide boulevard known as Avenida da Liberdade which was built between 1879 and 1882.  No matter where you turn in Lisbon, there is something of interest including spacious squares and countless monuments such as the Padrao dos Descobrimentos honoring Portugal’s Age of Discovery.

While Lisbon is a great walking city, it does require local transportation to reach many of the places where a leisurely stroll can offer a treasure chest of rewarding surprises. Lisbon’s  seven hills are higher and more dramatic than its Roman counterpart.  In fact, the Portuguese capital features three funiculars to manipulate the ups and downs of certain districts.
April 25 Bridge looks much like the Golden Gate (wikipedia)

Begin at St. George’s Castle (Castelo de São Jorge) which overlooks the historic city center and the Tagus River from a dominating position at the crest of the highest hill of Lisbon.  Behind the walls of the once fortified citadel, the interior is largely filled with spacious promenades, gardens, houses, a church and countless panoramic views of the lively metropolis below.  There is also a multimedia history of Lisbon, the Castle Gallery and the Tower of Ulysses which was once the royal treasury.

One of Lisbon's famed yellow trolleys makes its way through Alfama  (wikipedia)
Outside the walls of the castle, amble through the Alfama, the oldest part of the city.  This exotic area thrived under the Moors. It is a tangle of narrow, winding streets that twist and turn past charming cafes and colorful shops.  (Tip -- Don’t be afraid to get lost.)

To reach the top take tram #28.  It’s the most interesting way to get there.  The inexpensive little yellow “Toonerville Trolleys” that bump and grind through town are usually crowded, and frequently uncomfortable, but you’ll get more than your share of local culture during the ride.  It’s all part of the adventure.

Rossio Square in  Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Lisbon is a city with many faces, each with its own personality. Baixa is perhaps the best known district. The commercial hub of Lisbon is famous for its colorful street-life on Rua AugustaThe neighborhood of this main pedestrian street with its gridded configuration was rebuilt after an earthquake leveled the city in 1755.  Now, more than 250 years later, Baixa is a rich blend of history and culture.

Another popular shopping area is Chiado which represents the primary intellectual and cultural section of Lisbon.  Like Florian in Venice and Café Greco in Rome, the A Brasilera Café was once a haven for writers and artists during the late 19th century and early part of the 20th.  Little wonder then, that Chiado would be known for its galleries, bookshops and eclectic cafes.

Praco do Municipio, the City Hall of Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Everywhere you turn in Lisbon visitors encounter huge plazas, parks and historic monuments honoring its rich and diverse history.  Even the 8,000 seat bull ring with its Moorish-style architecture is impressive.  Bullfighting was once used as a means of training Portuguese soldiers and, unlike Spain, the bull is not killed in the ring in Portugal. 

Heading north from Restauradores to Marques de Pombal Square is the lovely and elegant 19th century Avenida da Liberdade.  It is said to be patterned after the Champs Elysees in Paris, but the fountains, sidewalk cafes and historic mansions give the boulevard an ambiance that feels more like Rome’s Via VenetoHere you will find most of the upscale hotels and designer shops of the city.
Avenue of Liberty in Lisbon  (wikipedia)
Of particular interest is the pavement on the mile-long stretch with its abstract decorations made of black and white stones.  Eventually the avenue spills into the Marques de Pombal, a huge square and monument honoring the prime minister who rebuilt Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755.  Appropriately, the monument is also the gateway to one of the most breathtaking panoramic views in the city. 

No visit to Lisbon is complete without a visit to the waterfront along the Tagus River.  Here, too, is an area filled with museums and monuments, not the least of which is a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Inaugurated in 1966, the Bridge of 25th of April (Ponte 25 de Abril) links Lisbon with the municipality of Almada.  It was originally named the Salazar Bridge after Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, the prime minister at the time of construction.

Though Salazar was no longer in power in 1974 when a coup known as the “Carnation Revolution” ousted the authoritarian regime of the New State (Estado Novo), the citizens of Lisbon quickly changed the name to Ponte 25 de Abril in honor of the date of the victory in the coup.  The Carnation Revolution refers to the fact that no shots were fired during the uprising.
Discoverer's Monument  (wikipedia)

Another impressive memorial along the shores of the Tagus is the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrao dos Descobrimentos).  Celebrating explorers who sailed from the site of the sculpture in search of new worlds and trade with India and the Orient, this poignant work of art honors 33 adventurers who brought Portugal to prominence in the 15th and 16th centuries.

For the traveler, Portugal’s capital is one of the least expensive major cities on the continent of Europe.  The sights mentioned above are but a taste of the treasures that can be found in a city that built much of its history on exploration.  Now, five hundred years later, you, too, can enjoy your own personal “Age of Discovery” in Lisbon.