P aris, London, Rome, and Prague. These are European capital cities that probably come to mind when you’re looking for a destination that promises enrichment and renewal. But add one more – a place that’s often overlooked, frequently misunderstood, and overflowing with surprises and delights.
It’s a six-hour nap from Newark aiport to Lisbon, Portugal, a city that some seasoned travelers consider the current bargain of Europe. It is also the site of the 2013 Rotary International Convention, 23-26 June.
Portugal is the land’s end of Europe – the last place on the continent before everything becomes the Atlantic Ocean. It encompasses the central, western section of the Iberian Peninsula, which is otherwise overwhelmed by Spain. The country has a disproportionately large coastline and contains many geographies. It seems to have few flat surfaces. You’ll find an abundance of hills and small mountains in addition to beaches, and enjoy a mild, almost Mediterranean, climate that makes for comfortable living all year. Some people compare the weather to Southern California’s; in June, temperatures should be in the 70s. The only warmer European city is Athens, but none has more daily hours of sunlight.
Modern and antique
Like the rest of Portugal, Lisbon is packed with eclectic influences. The city is both modern and red-roofed antique. It maintains the winding, often inclined streets that spill into unexpected squares and neighborhoods that are five and six hundred years old. Some of the buildings are magnificently tiled, covered with predominantly blue squares that never become commonplace, no matter how often you pass them. Lisbon is awash in these beautiful tiles. They adorn palaces, churches, monasteries, fountains, railway stations, houses, restaurants – almost anywhere with a wall. Called azulejos , from the Arabic meaning “polished stone,” the tiles are the felicitous residue of the Moors’ presence on the Iberian Peninsula, and came to Portugal by way of Spain in the 15th century. King Manuel I was so impressed by the Alhambra in Granada that he ordered similar adornment for his palace in Sintra. The earliest examples were mostly blue, yellow, green, and white, and featured only graphic elements; they did not depict human figures, in accordance with Islamic law. During the 17th century, Asian influences, particularly from the Ming Dynasty, came into play, and tiles became more like murals that portrayed historic events. By the 18th century, Portugal was making more tiles than any country in Europe. Today, you can find stunning examples that are surprisingly inexpensive. In Lisbon, visit Elisabete Silva and Dina Nunes, in the Alfama district.
Lisbon is a city built on hills, each offering postcard-worthy views. Look out over the ramparts of Saint George’s Castle, and all of Lisbon is in plain sight. The castle was home to Romans (who called the area Lusitania), Visigoths, and Moors – and later to the early Portuguese kings. It was here that the Moors were finally driven from the area. If you face the Tagus River and look to the right, you can make out the Belém Tower, which stands as a monument to the country’s maritime glory. From this river, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan set sail to explore the rest of the world and bring an unprecedented era of wealth and power to Portugal. To the left, up the river, is the site renovated for Expo ̓98. Today it’s a humming commercial area that includes a large shopping mall, a world-class oceanarium, and the Atlântico Pavilion, where the RI Convention plenary sessions will take place. Lisbon has excellent tram, bus, metro, and train service. It even has a bright-yellow funicular that rattles up the hill from the Avenida da Liberdade to the Bairro Alto, a lively area of shops and restaurants favored by generations of artists. Factor in the plentiful taxi service, and getting around is simple and pleasant.
If “ charming” weren’t so insufficient a word, it would be easier to describe Lisbon. The city is relaxed and Mediterranean but takes its modernity seriously. It is European in its manners and attentiveness, and wildly aggressive about its food. With the continent’s fresh fish market still swimming off its shores, it offers some of the finest seafood available anywhere. The daring and thoughtfulness of its chefs and restaurateurs rival those of any major European city, save Paris (if only to avoid tedious arguments). It has nightlife, is a beacon to hipsters, and has raised the torch song to excruciating heights with fado. What’s not to like about a city that honors cuisine and heartache equally?
Let’s talk about the food. We go to different restaurants for different reasons – some for the atmosphere, some for the chef, some to be seen, some to not be seen. For a taste of history, go to Martinho da Arcada on the Praça do Comércio, or main square. It’s a lovely bistro where Portugal’s revered poet Fernando Pessôa hung out. Inside, his table is still held for him. Peer into an iced display case near the front door to see what seafood is available that day. (I opted for grilled, skewered squid, which was terrific.) It’s a handsome restaurant, beautifully located. Some argue that it’s Lisbon’s answer to La Coupole in Paris.
In the heart of the city, you’ll find a quirky restaurant idea at Guilty, which celebrity chef Olivier da Costa has added to his stable. Dedicated to simple, feel-good cuisine, Guilty restyles decidedly American food – pizza and hamburgers. Stainless steel wood-burning pizza ovens dominate its full-view kitchen, and its décor is lounge-like, with cow-hide carpets and wine-crate walls. It attracts a diverse crowd that doesn’t seem to mind the sometimes distracted staff, and it’s usually mobbed on Saturday.
Bica do Sapato is a riverside restaurant owned by John Malkovich and four partners, one of whom is the seasoned restaurateur Fernando Fernandes. An old boat factory serves as its shell and houses three distinct dining areas. There’s a sushi bar, a “cafeteria,” and the main restaurant. The latter is where the culinary fireworks go off, with inspired variations of traditional Portuguese food. The place is cheerily packed with trendsetters and the hipper-than-thou. But it’s worth a visit for the fare.
My favorite restaurant is Pedro e o Lobo (Peter and the Wolf), on Rua do Salitre. The two young chefs, Diogo Noronha and Nuno Bergonse, use a sophisticated approach in refreshing the native flavors of Portugal. The knowledgeable staff is helpful in explaining the thought behind the dishes, and in suggesting selections from the impressive cellar of regional Portuguese wine to accompany your order. The octopus salad, and the sea bass with white beans and oysters, are particularly good. But I suspect you can’t go wrong with any of the restaurant’s offerings, and you’ll likely get something you didn’t realize you were in the mood for.
If you’re not one of the 175 million people who speak Portuguese, you may worry about a language barrier. Even those who have some knowledge of Latin and the Romance languages may feel disoriented. The Romans brought Latin with them to the Iberian Peninsula in 212 BC. Later they retreated from the invading Germanic peoples, who adopted some forms of the Vulgar Latin. Portuguese grew out of these influences and the language of Galicia. If you know Spanish, you’ll likely be able to pick up some written and perhaps spoken Portuguese. But even if you don’t understand it, you’ll notice that Portuguese is propelled by soft consonants, with a Latinate suppleness. It makes for beautiful sounds.
Chicago has blues. Lisbon has fado. Blues music describes hardship and heartache, and elevates complaint to a danceable, hypnotic, cathartic experience. Fado cultivates the quality of saudade – an untranslatable word that captures the notions of loneliness, sadness, longing, and an unrelenting sense of loss. This leaves little room for dancing or catharsis. Fado appropriates poems from Portugal’s past, and likely has its roots in Brazilian and North African music. It coalesced sometime during the 19th century in Lisbon’s Alfama area. In the most celebrated form of fado, a female singer performs with a guitarist who toils on a 12-string Portuguese instrument, probably descended from a Congolese lute. What they produce together is a music of exquisite misery. Amália Rodrigues is the acknowledged queen of fado, and her work lives on through recordings. You won’t experience the full impact of fado, however, until you hear it live, in one of Lisbon’s fado bars (try Casa de Linhares). You’ll get to sit back and hear a skilled professional spill her guts and her heart all over the floor. It’s an odd sort of fun, and one that confirms that there’s a dismal emotional miasma in this world to which we don’t often have access.
The utter otherness
While you are admiring the many sites of Lisbon, be sure to look where you’re walking. The limestone pavement, called calçada , is handmade. The black and white stones, shaped and arranged to make patterns, create an artisanal infrastructure that doesn’t exist elsewhere. The more elaborate designs take advantage of the level surfaces where the city slides down and eases into the Tagus River. Lisbon’s undulating contours are nonetheless adorned with this same mosaic treatment. The skilled laborers who do this work are called calceteiros . Let’s hope, through the city’s many renovations, that their numbers never dwindle. A word of caution, though: Walking across a patterned pavement that’s been worn smooth and polished by foot traffic, after rain, may resemble your first time on skates.
Guidebooks will help you figure out where you want to go and how to get there. But none I’ve read do justice to the utter otherness of Lisbon. The city maintains its mystery while welcoming you to its secrets. It feels intimate while preserving a robust awareness of the world outside itself. Despite the economic troubles it shares with its European neighbors, it seems resolved to honor its complicated past and its remarkable art, and make the most of its many pleasures. Plus, it seems absolutely dedicated to showing you a good time.