Rick Steves’ Europe: Lisbon inspires travel (and travel writers)

If San Francisco had a sister, it would be Lisbon. Both cities have impressive suspension bridges and famous foggy weather. Both are located on the best natural harbors on the west coast of their respective continents. Both have trolleys that rattle up and down their steep hills past distinctive buildings. Both have experienced horrific earthquakes.

In 1755, an estimated magnitude 9.0 earthquake leveled two-thirds of Lisbon. Within a month, a new city was designed and the center of Lisbon was rebuilt on a progressive plan with wide boulevards and square squares. Today, Lisbon is a boisterous but charming mix of now and then. Bird-flecked statues line grand squares, taxis screech around cobbled corners and haggard people hang out in Art Nouveau cafes. And just as in the time of Magellan and Vasco da Gama, the city continues to welcome ships into its great port. Even today, Lisbon still feels like Europe’s gateway to the world.

Descending from the castle to the river, Alfama is Lisbon’s salty sailors’ quarter. Its tangled street plan is one of the few aspects of Lisbon that survived the great earthquake, turning Alfama into a cobblestone playground in Old World color. The city’s jungle roads are squeezed into a maze of confusing alleys designed to thwart invaders trying to reach the castle. What was defensive then is now atmospheric. The stooped houses comfort each other in their romantic dereliction. The air drips with laundry and the smell of clams and raw fish.

When I first visited here in the 1970s, Alfama was one of the places that fascinated me to become a travel writer. On my last trip here – 40 years later – I noticed that much of the sand in the neighborhood had been cleaned. The old fishermen’s families have been replaced by immigrant workers. The once characteristic fish stalls have moved from the streets to “more hygienic” covered shops. Widows no longer wear black after the death of their husbands. But despite modernization, Alfama remains one of the most photogenic neighborhoods in all of Europe.

About five miles from the center, Belem is a majestic needle of important landmarks, reminding visitors of the days when Portugal was the wealthiest power in Europe. After the earthquake, Portugal’s shaken royals chose to live here, in wooden rather than stone buildings. The Royal Stables and a large, newer hall nearby house the National Carriage Museum, displaying 70 dazzling carriages in chronological order and tracing their technological improvements. The oldest bus dates back to 1600 and was used by King Philip II to shuttle between Madrid and Lisbon. You’ll have to trust me on this one, but if you lift the seat cushion you’ll find a potty hole – also handy for road sickness.

Close to the Jerónimos Monastery is Lisbon’s most imposing church. This is where navigators like Vasco da Gama prayed before starting their voyages. The church is one of my favorite examples of Manueline architecture, an ornate, unique Portuguese style featuring airy interiors, slender palm-like columns, and motifs from the sea, including shells, artichokes (eaten for vitamin C to fight scurvy), and monsters , representing the mystery of undiscovered lands.

Across the street, the glittering Monument to the Discoveries celebrates Prince Henry the Navigator and offers great views of Lisbon and the Tagus River. Before you leave Belem, try a delicious pastel de Belem, a wonderful cream cake invented in this neighborhood.

The more modern-feeling Baixa is the restored center of Lisbon. This flat commercial area is characterized by gridded streets and utilitarian architecture (the buildings are the same, with the same number of floors and similar facades). Baixa’s pedestrianized streets, inviting cafes, lively shops and elegant old storefronts give the area a certain magnetism. I find myself pacing up and down the pedestrian-only main boulevard in a people-watching stupor.

The neighborhood is also home to the city’s oldest jijinha restaurant. Served in shot glasses, this popular drink is made from cherry-like ginja fruit, sugar and grappa. (When locals are impressed by the taste of something, they say, “Sabe que nem ginjas” — “It tastes like ginja.”). A shot of ginjinha is especially nice if you ask for a gelada (poured from a chilled bottle).

Whenever I go to a bar in Lisbon, my favorite snack is pastel de bacalhau, fries and cod croquette. Bacalhau (salt cod) is the national dish of Portugal. Imported from Norway, it is never fresh and the local children mistake it for a triangle fish because of the way it is sold. I think that Portugal should have the only national dish that is imported from afar – strange but at the same time befitting a culture whose centuries-old economic foundation is the result of great explorers.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guides, hosts travel shows on public television and radio, and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick’s favorite spots over the past two decades. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.


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