Lisbon is a city of tightly packed streets. Periodically you’ll find yourself emerging into the sunlight and presented with tremendous views over the city and the River Tejo. Ancient looking yellow trams rattle their way up cobbled roads; people drink strong coffee in cafes or sip chilled Vino Verde at outdoor restaurants. Overhead washing hangs from windows. Life here has its own rhythm, one that has dominated the city for centuries.
Lisbon is full of beauty. Whether it is the small alleys leading into intimate plazas; red tiled rooftops stretching off into the distance; ornate blue and white tiled buildings; ancient monasteries and overwrought, elaborate church interiors; or outdoor restaurants serving up perfect fish; small cafes with delicious Pasteis de Nata and expresso, this is a city that is a joy to explore. If they could sort out the rush hour traffic mayhem, it would be perfect.
I hesitate to say this, but compared to many other cities across Europe, Lisbon feels truly ‘authentic’. ‘Hesitate’ because what I really mean is there is a pleasant lack of the all-enveloping tourist consumerism that seems to suffocate some cities. The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos may become crowded with coach loads of day trippers, but the streets of Alfama and adjoining neighbourhoods feel remarkably tourism (if not tourist) free.
The hassle-free nature of visiting Lisbon allows you to absorb the town’s history without having to haggle your way down the street…and Lisbon’s history is worth taking time to absorb.
Founded around 1200BC, this is one of of Europe’s oldest cities. Civilisations have come and gone from Lisbon: Celts, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Barbarians, Visigoths, Berbers and Arabs all knew Lisbon before the Reconquista re-established Christianity across the Iberian Peninsula. Under Moorish rule Christians and Jews were granted equal protection under the law, no such luck for the Jews and Muslims under Christian rule: convert, flee or die were their options.
The Reconquista of 1147 re-established Christianity and there are dozens of churches to act as witness to this fact. From the 15th Century onwards, it was from here that Portuguese navigators set sail to discover the ‘New World’, sparking a Europe-wide competition to first trade and then colonise vast swathes of the globe. Portugal became wealthy from the spice trade, entering a ‘Golden Age’ in the 16th Century – cue yet more church building.
In more recent times, Lisbon’s fate (and that of Portugal) has been a long slow decline, not helped by a couple of monstrously destructive earthquakes along the way. By mid-20th Century, Portugal became one of the poorest countries in Western Europe. A series of 20th Century Republics resulted in a Fascist dictatorship, which only ended in 1974 with the loss of Portugal’s remaining colonies.
This decline is clearly visible in Lisbon today. As is the result of the recent financial crash which has massively impacted on Portuguese society, disproportionately affecting young people, thousands of whom have voted with their feet. It may never see the Golden Age again, but the vibrancy of that time seems to pervade modern Lisbon. This is a global city, its world view shaped by its past but also with an eye to what looks like a bright and progressive future.
Walking the streets of Lisbon evokes a powerful sense of this long and extraordinary history. Walking these same streets at night under the ethereal orange glow of the city’s street lights is altogether other-worldly. It really is one of Europe’s great capitals.