Lisbon glows. You walk on light. This isn’t a figure of speech. It’s a matter of fact, of science. The seven hills on which the city sits form a vast natural amphitheatre that collects and reflects light. This amphitheatre is open at one end, where it meets the broad estuary of the Tagus, which acts as a huge mirror, reflecting still more light. The pale stone buildings, many painted yellow, pink or ochre, send the light bouncing around the hills; innumerable windows redirect it into the deepest and narrowest of alleys, so that even the shadows seem radiant, reverberant. Above, the prevailing northerly winds disperse clouds and increase visibility. Below, the intricately patterned limestone pavements, calçada portugeusa, cause the light to rise from the ground as well as from the water.
It’s the combination of these various factors – geographical, topographical, material and meteorological – that give Lisbon its otherworldly luminosity and make it unique among European cities.
PLACES TO STAY
Lisbon hotels: 13 of the best
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THE 10 BEST ROOFTOP BARS IN LISBON
EATING & DRINKING
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THE BEST SHOPPING IN LISBON
STYLE & CULTURE
The best shops in Lisbon
The attitude here is different too. You find none of Berlin‘s angst or Paris‘s hauteur or Rome’s braggadocio. Instead, a modesty that borders on reticence, a wistful humour tinged with melancholy. (Note that the less-than-modest and not obviously reticent José Mourinho, perhaps the most famous living Portuguese outside Portugal, is from Setúbal, not Lisbon, and should be understood as exceptional in any case.) You see it in people’s eyes and hear it in their music, their poetry. The word saudade is sometimes mentioned in this connection. It’s impossible to translate. It refers to a bittersweet kind of longing, although it can also refer to a premonition of future loss, nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened yet. The loss may be personal – lost love, most likely – or collective – an apprehension of the distant but unforgotten glory of the nation as a whole.
Distant but unforgotten glory is something of a Portuguese speciality. The explorers who set sail from Lisbon during the Age of Discovery – principally during the 15th and 16th centuries – were among the greatest seafarers the world has ever known. ‘O mar sem fim é português,’ as Fernando Pessoa splendidly put it: ‘The endless sea is Portuguese.’ And so, for a while, it was – along with all the spoils that the endless sea afforded. If you’re curious about what that order of imperial success could buy, pay a visit to the Jerónimos Monastery, where Vasco da Gama is buried among mad stony flourishes in the Manueline style; or to the Chapel of St John the Baptist in the Church of São Roque, a baroque hymn in marble, amethyst, alabaster, ivory, porphyry and lapis lazuli, and reputedly the most expensive – not to say ostentatious – chapel ever constructed.
This was a very high point from which to fall. And in Lisbon’s case, the fall, when it came, was dreadful. The Great Earthquake of 1755 reduced 80 per cent of the city to rubble. The shock was felt as far away as Brazil. The terrible fires that followed were extinguished by a tsunami. Afterwards the Portuguese king refused to live within stone walls. He moved into a tent while his prime minister, the Marquess of Pombal, rebuilt the capital in a style widely admired by architects for its resistance to seismic disturbance and by everybody else for its exquisite, pared-down elegance.
Lately Portugal has entered a second Age of Discovery – only this time the traffic is flowing in the opposite direction, as travellers from all corners of the globe make their way over land and sea to discover Portugal, and Lisbon in particular.
When I first came to Lisbon in my late teens I was struck not so much by the light as by the lettering. Lisbon is a living museum of fonts, a safari park of typographic styles, in paint, in neon, etched in glass, carved in stone, on signs and storefronts and trams, everywhere. The country’s political and economic difficulties during the 20th and early 21st century – dictatorship followed by the doldrums followed by near-bankruptcy – meant that, commercially, little changed at street level. The international names didn’t come, or not until very recently. So Lisbon isn’t a ‘branded’ city in the way we’ve become used to. The quirky, the independent, the family-run is still the norm, not yet the exception. The writing that was on the wall 20, 50, 100 years ago is still on the wall. ‘Reading’ Lisbon is one of the delights of spending time here, even if you don’t speak the language.
Hence the sense you get of drifting effortlessly through layers of history. This impression isn’t limited to one part of the city. You feel it wherever you go. Suppose you were to pause for a moment to refresh yourself with a sip of ginjinha, a cherry liqueur, at one of the atmospheric, hole-in-the-wall bars around Rossio station that dispense the stuff (and nothing else) for about a euro a shot. Having greeted the nonagenarian regulars and sprightly bartender – a whippersnapper in his sixties – you might find yourself glancing across the street at the entrance to a hip new graphic-design studio or hi-tech start-up outfit. Doing your best not to turn an ankle on the ginjinha-cherry stones that have been cast like so many ball bearings onto the footpath outside, you might step further into the street and extend your gaze towards the nearby square, which is dominated by a towering statue of Dom Pedro IV. (Though some say it actually represents Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, who looked a little like Pedro. Maximilian was executed by firing squad soon after the statue was completed; no longer needed, it was supposedly sold on to Lisbon at a knock-down price.) It’s overlooked from a hilltop by a severe scowl of Moorish fortifications, which were built over existing Roman ramparts. Which were erected on the site where, some 3,000 years ago, pre-Celtic peoples – the forebears, no doubt, of the cherry-stone-chuckers whom you greeted at the ginjinha bar just a few minutes ago – pitched their rudimentary encampments.
Lisbon is like that. I once met the claimant to the Portuguese throne. Portugal became a republic in 1910 but Dom Duarte continues to fly the flag for the House of Bragança, which had ruled until then. With his proud bearing and well-tended moustache, he reminded me of William Faulkner. With his polite but firm insistence on his family’s role in the life of the nation, he reminded me, too, of Faulkner’s observation that, to certain people in certain places, the past is never dead – it’s not even past.
Be that as it may, there is plenty happening in the present. New bars, restaurants, boutiques, clubs, galleries and hotels are multiplying at a dizzying rate. Parts of town that five or 10 years ago were no-go areas, or at least areas to which you had no obvious reason to go, have been reclaimed and reinvented. The entire city is thronging with visitors bearing pleasantly baffled expressions that seem to say: ‘Awesome. Who knew?’
Which must, I suppose, be an odd spectacle for those old enough to remember the lean years when nobody paid Lisbon any attention at all. During my most recent visit this past summer I popped into a shop called A Vida Portuguesa, which sells traditional bits and bobs. I commented on the tremendous charm of the place and then suggested that this must be something that only a foreigner would say. The assistant corrected me. No, she said. Elderly Portuguese who have heard about the shop will sometimes burst into tears of joy at the sight of simple things – a particular kind of toothpaste, a certain style of ruled exercise book – that they remember from their childhood but thought had ceased to exist. Saudade sorted.
I’ve been coming to Lisbon for nearly a quarter of a century. I honestly don’t know what took the rest of the world so long. I can’t think of another city that more richly deserves the attention. Long may Lisbon’s moment last. Long may it see its extraordinary beauty mirrored in the eyes of others. Long may it rejoice, in its own modest way, in its own inimitable glow.
HOW TO GET TO LISBON
AIRPORT AND GETTING THERE
Lisbon Portela Airport is 7km from the city centre, with frequent buses running between the two.
Original Travel (+44 20 3740 7598; originaltravel.co.uk) offers four nights in Lisbon from £560 per person, based on two sharing, staying at the Hotel Valverde, including flights and transfers.