I’m sitting in the bright early summer sun—still pleasant, by tropical standards—by the fountain at the Praça do Rossio in the Baixa district of Lisbon, under the gaze of Dom Pedro IV, King of Portugal and first Emperor of Brazil, who’s standing on a 23-ft-high pedestal.
I’m munching on a pastry, and wondering: What took me so long?
To return, I mean, to one of the oldest cities in the world, now booming from a thriving tourism industry that offers something for everyone within its tiny 100-sq km urban area.
Lisbon is home to efficient transport systems, world-class shopping (El Corte Inglés is here!) and mind-boggling food, along with ancient monuments and a number of excellent specialty museums, including one for tiles and another for the fado, the heartfelt national ballad.
I was in Lisbon 17 years ago, right after 9/11, on an organized tour that whisked us off to the 16th-century Torre de Belem, a fortified tower, and the sleek, ship-shaped Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument of the Discoveries), completed in 1960 to celebrate the Portuguese Age of Discovery.
Both sit on the bank of the Targus River, where sailboats still wind by, fitting monuments for a country of legendary explorers, led by hometown boys Vasco de Gama, who discovered the sea route to India, and Fernando Magallanes—the same Magellan who stumbled upon Limasawa and named the Philippines for the Spanish king.
Today, the monuments remain well-maintained, and are easy to visit via a constant stream of open-topped tourist buses. Conveniently located right across the street: the superb Jerónimos Monastery, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and, like the Torre, a fine example of the Manueline style of Portuguese late Gothic architecture, characterized by embellishments and maritime themes.
Place of honor
Vasco de Gama and his men spent the night in this monastery, when it was still a run-down hermitage, before leaving on their historic voyage; thus, the navigator’s tomb occupies a place of honor inside the adjacent Church of Santa Maria.
Lisbon remains a very walkable city, however, if you have good knees and the right shoes. Also, no vehicles, other than slow but scenic trams, wind through the cobblestone streets of the old Alfama district.
It’s circuitous and hilly, but you are rewarded with beautiful views at every turn, pretty shops, and close encounters with genuinely warm locals who generally speak English.
The gamut of influences, from marauding Moors to Christian crusaders, is evident in the remarkably preserved buildings.
If you walk to the very top of the city (or take an elevator that actually brings you up and down different street levels), the tiny Castle of Sao Jorge, with its panoramic view of the city, is also the site of excavations dating back to 1200 BC.
Hurry on down to the Praça do Comercio, a huge square by the water, and a crowd has gathered to watch Brazil beat Costa Rica in the World Cup play-offs on a big outdoor screen.
I don’t remember what we had for meals in Lisbon on my first visit, other than a sumptuous arroz do marisco, wet seafood rice oozing with flavor. Of course I had that again, complete with gargantuan mussels, shrimp, and squid, washed down with cold vinho verde.
But it was also sardine season, and the smell of the grilled fish, which locals relish even more than the famed bacalhao (cod), wafted from small restaurants all over the Alfama.
A must-stop: Time-Out Lisbon, a hip cavern of cuisine, with chef-run kiosks, seafood stands, wine bars, and pastry shops with the ubiquitous pastel de nata and more.
You can spend days exploring Lisbon, but you are bound to find your favorite spots.
I learned that Anthony of Padua, the saint who made his name in Italy—better known as the dude who always finds lost things for you (he delivers, trust me)—was born in Lisbon around 1195, so I sought out his lovely little igreja (church), a national monument. The flower-strewn courtyard in front, as well as souvenirs like blessed bread and handkerchiefs, was evidence of the locals’ devotion.
In 1982, then Pope John Paul II visited the very spot of the saint’s birth, under the church, to kneel and pray; he inaugurated the statue by sculptor Soares Branco that stands in the courtyard to this day.
Fado is a musical genre that belongs to Lisbon alone.
The mournful, melancholic melodies—saudades is the word they use to refer to such longing—were sung by lonely sailors or working folk contemplating their lives at the end of a hard day.
It’s traditionally performed by a single singer, accompanied by a Portuguese guitar; even today, you can walk into any fado house in the evening, order a ginginha (cherry liqueur), and listen to a man or woman with a rich, soulful voice singing from a corner, to the quiet accompaniment of strings.
In 2011, the fado was added to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List. It was Amalia Rodrigues, a national heroine known as the Rainha do Fado (Queen of Fado) until her death in 1999, who elevated this to a higher art form, giving voice and music to the words of Portuguese poets like David Mourao-Ferreira, who wrote lyrics just for her.
The Museu do Fado, made possible through donations from fado performers themselves and their families, is a small landmark in the Alfama that opened in 1998. There are photographs, memorabilia (like old guitars, gramophones and records), and fado-related artwork.
Most riveting is footage of the great Rodrigues herself, as well as a comfortable listening area—put on earphones, and music from Rodrigues or modern-day stars like Mariza and Carminho fill your ears.
Then there is the superb Museo Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum), in a former convent and opened in 1980. The cloister setup is a delight in itself, with a central courtyard and lots of natural light, as well as an eye-popping church, choir and sacristy filled with paintings and gilt wood. It’s the tiles that are most remarkable, however.
From the Arab word azzelij, referring to a small, polished stone, an azulejo is a square glazed ceramic piece, and such pieces come in many beautiful forms. There are decorative wall tiles and grand altar pieces, blue-and-whites by masters from the Netherlands, molded and embossed objets d’art, and even minimalist modern depictions that decorated public places, like the subway.
On the top floor of the museum, the pièce de résistance: a great panoramic view of Lisbon, circa the 18th century and stretching several meters, taken from the ancient palace of the Counts of Tentugal, Lisbon. The city is depicted entirely in tiles as it was before the great earthquake of 1755, and landmarks like the Torre de Belem are already visible.
I did visit Fatima, a mere two-and-a-half-hour bus ride from the Sete Rios bus station. I was here, too, 17 years ago, but this time the square was nearly empty, with fewer pilgrims braving the sun.
I heard Mass in one of the air-conditioned underground chapels; curiously, I could have sworn I was the only Filipino in the group. I visited the graves of the young visionaries: Jacinta and Francisco, and now,
Lucia, still alive the last time I was here, and already bound for sainthood.
It was good to soak in the quiet, and the love of Mama Mary. I lit candles for my loved ones, picked up souvenirs, and headed back. There was still more time for Lisbon.