Lisbon: Portugal’s newer old city

To finish up our trip, on Monday, after exploring Porto, Braga, and Coimbra, we traveled by train to Lisbon, Portugal’s largest city.

Lisbon simultaneously holds the title of Europe’s second oldest capital and the newest city of any we’ve explored thus far in Portugal, although it’s still ancient by US standards. This is because it was almost completely redesigned and rebuilt after a 1755 earthquake measuring 8 to 9 on the Richter scale destroyed nearly 85% of the city.

Sebastiao de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, is credited with spearheading the new design: replacing medieval alleyways with wide streets and plazas on a central grid, and also engineering buildings to collapse in on themselves in the event of another catastrophic event.

Our tour began at the Rossio Square, with its baroque fountains and wavy tile design, connected via the wide Augustine Lane to Lisbon’s iconic Arco da Rua Augusta, the Triumphal Arch and the Praça do Comércio near the mouth of the Tagus River (click on the photos to enlarge if you want to see the tile waves in Rossio Square).

This is where having a tour early in your visit is important. By this point in our journey, we’d climbed about eleventy bajillion stairs in Porto, dragged rolling luggage up the steep cobblestoned inclines of Coimbra, and turned our noses up at the 600 stairs of Braga’s Bom Jesus because we were just. too. damn. tired. to see another world renown thingamajig.

Since Lisbon’s nickname is the “City of Seven Hills” it didn’t look like we were in for any kind of break.

Fortunately, Anna, our guide, knew enough about the town to be able to lead us around the lower Baxia neighborhood and the historic Alfama district with very little climbing, through buildings that collected us on escalators on one floor and deposited us near street exits a couple levels up, and through a couple of free public elevators to see the views.

We could have stood in a long line and paid around 6 euro to take the Santa Justa Lift, an Eiffel Tower-looking, 45 meter elevator connecting Baixa to the higher Largo do Carmo area, but thanks to Anna’s system of escalators, we ended up at the backside of the medieval ruins of the Carmo Convent (destroyed in the 1755 quake, but left as an archeological monument and museum), where one can simply step onto the tower viewing platform for free.

The Alfama neighborhood, overlooking the downtown Braxia area where we were staying, is the oldest part of Lisbon and traditional home of some of its poorest residents. With narrow, cobblestone streets delivery trucks avoid, it is the birthplace of Portugal’s signature Fado music. Some think Fado was influenced by the Moors, but our guide told us it came from the sailors and fishmongers of Portugal. The most famous Fado singer was Maria Severa, a 19th century prostitute from Mouraria (the Moorish quarter of Alfama).

Anna told us legacy residents of this neighborhood are tight knit, with their own dialect of Portuguese. As per Portuguese tradition, the primary source of news in this region is via the older women who hang out their windows and keep track of the goings on below.

On our last night in town, we returned to one of the viewing platforms Anna showed us for dinner at the Chapitô à Mesa, a circus-themed restaurant in Alfama with a humble entrance that makes it look like a hole-in-the-wall cafe, but which is also purported to have one of the seven best view terraces in the world.

Since the earliest reservation we could get was 9:30, we enjoyed views of the sunset from platforms on our way up to the restaurant via the free public elevators Anna shared with us, and then tucked into a dinner of grilled cod and vino tinto from our table overlooking the city.

I was going to wrap this post up with a Portuguese food round up, but that section devolved into story time (how does a person who thinks she’s ordering four hot dogs wind up with four tuna salads instead?) and probably deserves its own post. In case you’re wondering, though, the food here would have been worth waiting for a 9:30 reservation, even without the promise of such a stunning view.

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