“Oh Lisbon, old city,
Full of enchantment and beauty!
Always smiling, so well shaped
And in dressing always airy.
The white veil of longing
Covers your face, oh wonderful princess! “
Like that used to sing Amalia Rodrigues with her consuming voice, bringing together the past and the present. Lisbon is indeed a city of passion, of nostalgia, of the brave, of the great conquerors. And for me, Lisbon was love at first sight. Or, to be honest to the end, I think I loved Lisbon long before we met, in a sunny spring, under the breath of a gentle breeze.
Somewhere at the end of the old continent, or to quote Luis de Camoes, not far from the place where “the land ends and the sea begins”, there is where Lisbon lay for centuries, perched on the hills that guard the mouth of the river Tagus (Tejo).
We all know about Lisbon, if not from the lyrics of Amalia Rodrigues or from the writings of the great Portuguese writers, at least from the geography books. The Age of Discovery and names like of Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias lead us, undoubtedly, to think about the capital of Portugal.
Lisbon is a city that has known the glory and opulence, that scattered its sailors worldwide, that reconfigured the map of the globe and that was filled with treasures brought from newly discovered lands. But Lisbon is also the city that has experienced the decline, the poverty, the city that has been put down by an unforgiven earthquake. And Lisbon is the city that reborn. Maybe not as rich, but as graceful as nostalgic as alluring. For yes, once you know Lisbon it runs in your veins, creating a kind of addiction that you can no longer cure. You remember Lisbon relaxed, with its narrow streets, where the gentle Atlantic breeze meets the appetizing flavor of fried chestnuts or fish. And undoubtedly you start to miss roaming without a specific direction, to get lost in Bairro Alto and stare at the beautiful Renaissance and Baroque buildings or to jump on the tram 28, which strolls through the old Alfama district.
I spent nearly three weeks in Portugal and, from the beginning, I had the feeling that somehow it’s a country where I could feel at home. Lisbon was the first stop and I was assured that I will not forget it easily. In fact, I mean I will never forget it. And I am convinced that many of Lisbon’s guests will agree. If you have not visited Lisbon yet, I will only say: you MUST go to Lisbon! Below I will share with you the reasons why I’d always return to this superb city, with great love.
The sky of Lisbon
I have not seen anywhere in Europe a sky filled with fluffy clouds, bluer and brighter than that of Lisbon. Just like in an Impressionistic painting, the sky of Lisbon was for me an attraction in itself and a reason to smile during my entire stay. I do not know if the sky of Lisbon is like that all year round, but I certainly know it works as a therapy for the soul.
The orange roofs of Lisbon
You do not need much time to understand that Lisbon is one of the most photogenic cities in Europe. You do not even have to search on any hidden street, looking for old, quaint buildings. It’s enough to climb somewhere high and let yourself conquered by the panorama. The orange roof tiles combine themselves into a huge puzzle that will take your breath away.
Lisbon’s avenues, dressed in jacaranda flowers
If you choose to travel in the second half of May or the first half of June, you can expect to find Lisbon dressed in its best clothes. The jacaranda tree flowers, in beautiful shades of purple, adorn the city boulevards, like in a fairytale.
“Calçada” – the streets covered in mosaics
Lisbon’s streets have certainly declared war to the high heels. And although I love heels fiercely, no matter how high, in the Portuguese capital one must obey the rules imposed by the “calçada”. Unless you insist on breaking an ankle. Calçada refers to a type of pavement made of small pieces of stone that blend in real mosaics. In the old city, almost all avenues and pedestrian streets are covered with mosaics, which (as a high heel aficionado) you will love and hate alike.
Tagus (Tejo) and its flagship bridges
All Lisbon’s history is linked to the water. The city name itself seems to derive from Lisso (Lucio), the pre-Roman name of the river Tagus. The largest river of the Iberian Peninsula, Tejo, makes his triumphant exit into the Atlantic’s waters close to Lisbon. Tejo is mentioned in countless legends and sang in the Portuguese fado just as much as it is present in the everyday life of Lisbon. The two bridges crossing Tejo make a kind of backbone between Lisbon and the newly developed settlements nearby.
The 25th of April Bridge – with a length of 2 km, the 25th of April Bridge, crosses the Tagus estuary, linking Lisbon and Almada. Often compared to the famous Golden Gate in San Francisco, the bridge was opened in 1966 and until 1974 it was called Salazar Bridge (after the name of the Portuguese dictator).
Vasco da Gama Bridge – was opened in 1998, during Expo 98, which also marked the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the route to India by the great Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama. It is the longest bridge in Europe, with a length of 17 km and built to withstand an earthquake with a magnitude 4.5 times higher than the earthquake that collapsed almost entirely Lisbon in 1755 (estimated at 8.7 on the Richter scale).
“Cristo Rei” – under the blessing of Jesus
On the rocks of Almada, with arms wide open towards Lisbon, stands the imposing statue of Jesus Christ, completed in 1969. Although the main inspiration element in raising the statue seems to have been a visit of Lisbon’s Cardinal to Rio de Janeiro for the opening of the famous monument “Christ the Redeemer”, the statue on the river Tagus was dedicated to Jesus Christ as a sign of gratitude for protecting Portugal during the second World War. The statue is 28 meters high and is built on a trapezoidal pedestal measuring 82 meters high, dominating the impressive surroundings.
Monument to the Discoveries
From the city that was home to so many great explorers, could not miss a monument to commemorate the Portuguese maritime supremacy. The Monument to the Discoveries was inaugurated in 1960 on the North bank of the river Tagus, as a testimony of the glory of the XVth and XVIth century, marked by the great discoveries of the Portuguese navigators. On both sides of the monument are depicted famous explorers like Vasco da Gama and Fernando Magellan, Pedro Alvares Cabral, led by Henry the Navigator, considered to be the initiator of the Discovery Age.
You can not get to Lisbon and miss to pay a visit to Belem Tower, located on the North bank of the river Tagus. Built between 1514 and 1520 from the order of King Manuel I, the tower is an architectural jewel that once had the mission to strengthen the defense system of the river. In 1983 it was included in the World Heritage List by UNESCO, as one of the most iconic architectural monuments built in Manueline style (Portuguese late-Gothic). The Belem Tower is constructed of limestone, brought from the surroundings of Lisbon, is carried out on four floors and it measures 30 m in height. The tower can be also visited from inside.
A few km away from Belem Tower, another major landmark that can not be overlooked, is Jeronimos Monastery, a masterpiece of the Manueline style. The monastery was completed in 1602 to commemorate the successes of the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama, whose tomb to be found here. Along with it, inside the monastery can also be seen the tombs of the poets Luis de Camões, Fernando Pessoa and Alexandre Herculano and of the king Manuel Sebastião. Jeronimos Monastery’s beauty is hard to describe in words, a real lacework in stone, whose construction lasted a century. In 1983, together with Belem Tower, the monastery was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Pasteis de Belem
After roaming the boulevards and bridges of Lisbon, from Almada to Belem, you will probably get hungry. Although there is so much to see, so much to admire and learn, any tourist will take a break at the “Pasteis de Belem”, a traditional pastry of Lisbon. The star of the pastry and I would dare to say even of Portugal, is an egg tart, the so-called “pasteis de nata“, prepared once inside Jeronimos Monastery. Since the egg white was used to stiffen monastic garments, the remaining yolks were used to prepare various pastries, among which was pasteis de nata. Later, the monks began selling pasteis de nata near the monastery, close to a sugar refinery. When in 1834 the monastery was closed, they decided to sell the recipe to the refinery owners, and in 1837 they opened Pasteis de Belem. Their descendants are the ones who take on the tradition, keeping intact the recipe for almost 200 years. At Pasteis de Belem the queues are always impressive and the sellers barely cope with the number of visitors. But who can fight the irresistible smells that tickle your nose and make your mouth water? Once you get to taste this delicacy you understand that it was worth every minute of waiting.
With the smell of the freshly baked pasteis de nata and I will leave you, for now, awaiting a new episode about the capital of Portugal. In the next article, we enter the city and we venture into the old neighborhoods of Lisbon, where one can listen to the Portuguese guitar and enjoy the voices of the fado singers.