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LISBON – heartbeat of Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon street scene

Lisbon – the city you have to see twice

LISBON can easily claim to be one of the oldest, most beautiful and most historic cities in the world. It can equally pass as one of the friendliest.

For an English person abroad, it is simply a piece of cake to hop on its Metro system – ticket machines all offering English screens – and, for just over 5 euros, spend the whole day travelling from one place of interest to another.

A stop at Baixa (downtown Lisbon) puts you straight in the historic old centre of the city. Completely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1755 with streets flanked by classic buildings, it was Europe’s first great example of neoclassical design and urban planning. It was considered one of the finest European architectural achievements of the age.

Within walking distance are all kinds of monuments to a city which began life hundreds of years before other European capitals such as London, Paris and Rome. Under Julius Caesar, it was a Roman city called Felicitas Julia

After the Romans came Germanic tribes and then the Moors in the eighth century. In 1147, the Crusaders under Afonso Henriques reconquered the city. Lisbon’s ancient cathedral was built by Portugal’s first king on the site of an old mosque in 1150 for the city’s first bishop, the English crusader Gilbert of Hastings.

Lisbon and the age of discovery

Its golden era and age of discovery came in the 15th and 16th centuries, starting with the 1415 conquest of Ceuta, North Africa. Madeira was discovered in 1419, the Azores in 1430s and in 1497 Vasco da Gama found the sea route to  India.

With most of these expeditions leaving from its coast, Lisbon basked in new wealth as Portugal’s empire grew. The architecture of this period can still be found in the city’s Belem tower and Jeronimos monastery, both UNESCO wold heritage sites.

But much of the glory that was then Lisbon – Europe’s richest port and the hub of trade between Africa, India, the Far East and later Brazil – was lost to the great earthquake of 1755 which destroyed 85 per cent of its structures and killed an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 of its residents.

The city had to pick up the pieces, in the process discovering ancient Roman remains which include a theatre. It started with the Praça do Comércio, a huge square which forms the city’s main access to the Tagus River and point of departure and arrival for sea-going vessels, adorned by a triumphal arch and monument to King Joseph 1. Another great square, the Praça do Rossio became the central commercial district and the location of the older cafés, theatres and restaurants.

Lisbon is built on seven hills and touring it can be a bit stamina sapping. The highest is home to St George’s Castle (Castelo de Sao Jorge), which dominates the area from its elevated position of more than 300 feet. It served as a Moorish royal residence until Portugal’s first king Afonso Henriques captured it in 1147. It was then dedicated to St. George, the patron saint of England, commemorating the Anglo-Portuguese pact dating from 1371.

More than 100 years ago, mechanical elevators were installed to help people challenged by the city’s hills, most notable being the Elevador da Santa Justa. This giant  steel elevator was installed in the centre of Baixa in 1902 by a student of Gustave Eiffel, who built the Eiffel Tower of Paris, and is a tourist attraction in itself.

There are plenty of castles, palaces and historical structures to make you linger in the heart of Lisbon but for a complete change of environment – almost from the old to the new – take the Metro to Oriente station the terminus of the line that was built for the 1998 Lisbon World Exposition.

The bright modern exposition buildings remain and a long walk or a taxi ride takes you to one of the most stunning sights in the world, the Vasco da Gama bridge, the longest bridge in Europe at 10.7 miles, which opened just in time for the Expo to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery by Vasco da Gama of the sea route from Europe to India.

Lisbon is at the start of Portugal’s Silver Coast which stretches to Fiqueira da Foz, once a favourite haven of the rich. Quiet roads lead to fascinating towns and villages like Fatima, Alcobaca and Tomar.

It gets its name from the effect of the sun on the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and offers beaches undiscovered by the mass tourism market.

Surfers know it well and near Lisbon you will find them at favourite spots like Ericeira, Cascais, Peniche and Nazare.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon viewpoint over River Tagus…so blue.


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