One of Europe’s most ancient cities, Lisbon’s relaxed charm and cultural vibrancy have made it one of the continent’s go-to destinations of recent times. It wasn’t so long ago that Lisbon was considered to be a ‘hidden gem’ or ‘off he beaten path’, not so these days. The path is well and truly beaten, and with good reason. This City of Seven Hills has a history stretching back 2,500 years and a contemporary culture that enraptures visitors from all over the world.
Lisbon straddles the River Tejo (or Tagus depending on who your speak to). At 1038km the Tejo is the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula, in Lisbon it meets the Atlantic Ocean. It is a dramatic setting. Witnessed from the top of the 12th Century Castelo de São Jorge, or one of Lisbon’s many vantage points, on a day when the sun sparkles on the water it is truly magnificent.
This is a city where expectations are regularly exceeded. There is something deeply moving about wandering Lisbon’s ancient streets and alleyways. If you happen to be walking down the street in one of Lisbon’s old working class barrios and are fortunate enough to hear Fado drifting out from a neighbourhood bar, you feel transported back in time.
Fado is considered by UNESCO as global ‘intangible cultural heritage’, something anyone who has heard the haunting melodies of the divine Mariza will instantly appreciate. Although born in Portuguese-controlled Mozambique, one of Portugal’s favourite musical daughters was raised in the narrow streets of Mouraria and Alfama. Walking those twisting, turning streets today you can still feel the tightly knit nature of this former working class fishing community. History seems to seep out of the walls.
The Alfama district is Lisbon’s oldest quarter, and the past seems to shroud the narrow streets. The name derives from the Arabic Al-hamma, meaning ‘hot baths’ or ‘hot springs’. Knowing this makes sense of the medina-like labyrinth of streets that sprawl up and down the hillside. Another memory of the Moorish occupation is the glazed tiles that you see on many buildings in this area; the tiles were the invention of Arabic culture.
Gone are the mosques that once formed part of Moorish Portugal and an intimate part of these streets. In their place are numerous elaborate and highly decorated churches, including the Church of Santa Engrácia, which has been turned into the National Pantheon where many of Portugal’s most famous are buried. The nearby Monastery of São Vicente de Fora is equally stunning, equally enormous.
We only had a short time in Lisbon, but it is a smallish city that lends itself to easy exploration – although those seven hills take a toll after a while. Whether you’re on foot or hopping on and off the iconic yellow trams, with two or three days to spare you can cover quite a lot. Two or three days is also just enough to make you realise that the city has much, much more to offer.