Hip Lisbon combines history and modernity
Bruce Springsteen and his E Street Band were rocking Lisbon the day I arrived last month. The three-hour concert – and three-day Rock in Rio Lisboa festival which it was part of – were the perfect metaphor for the ancient / ultra-modern capital of Portugal. The country’s traditional fado music had morphed into the Boss’s songs of heartbreak and angst, performed before 67,000 fans at Parque de Bella Vista, and broadcast on TV for those who couldn’t squeeze into the venue.
With Lisbon’s many swank hotels completely booked, our party of five journalists were lodged in a quaint building, dating from 1621, renovated into short-term furnished apartments. The lane in the hilly Madragoa district, around the corner from the Puppet Museum, was so narrow that our van dropped us off at the corner. We carried our suitcases the last 100 meters to our rooms.
Across the street from my window was a balcony festooned with Portugal’s red and green flag. The building’s façade was covered with traditional tin-glazed azulejo tiles. Those same blue tiles have been hand-painted by Fábrica Sant'Anna since 1741. Should you wish to commission a design for your next renovation project, first visit the National Tile Museum, whose non pareil collection of decorative azulejo tiles is housed in a 16th-century monastery with a spectacular chapel.
Welcome to Lisbon, I thought to myself, uncorking the bottle of wine that was put out to welcome me together with a basket of fruit and a jar of delicious tomato jam.
Lisbon (pop. 600,000), I learned, is more than the former seat of a globe-spanning empire that stretched from Brazil in the west to Macau and Timor in the east.
Known as Olisippo in the Roman period, the glory days started with 15th century explorers sent out in their caravels from nearby Belém (Bethlehem in Portuguese) by Prince Henry the Navigator. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa. Nine years later Vasco da Gama crossed the Indian Ocean and established the colony of Goa. Portugal's golden age of imperialism was under way.
The wealth of Portugal’s empire, based on gold from Brazil, the West African slave trade, and spices from India, was converted into scores of impressive castles, churches and monuments studded across the city. Especially noteworthy are the Tower of Belém guarding the entrance to Lisbon harbor, and the nearby Monastery of the Hieronymites – construction of which began in 1502 – which exemplifies Portugal’s Manueline architecture at its best. Together the two places, registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are reminders of the maritime discoveries that laid the foundations of the modern world.
At the contemporary end of the architectural spectrum, Lisbon is home to modern marvels like the 19-km.-long Vasco da Gama Bridge across the Tagus River estuary, which was the longest bridge in Europe when inaugurated in 1998 for the city’s Expo ’98. Similarly impressive is the Oriente Train Station, designed by Santiago Calatrava – known to Jerusalemites as the architect/engineer who created the Holy City’s Bridge of Strings. The nearby Lisbon Aquarium is ranked by TripAdvisor as the best in the world.
Soccer lovers won’t want to miss the 65,000-seat Estadio da Luz stadium, completed in 2003. Fans of the Lisboa e Benfica team have dubbed their sports shrine “A Catedral” (The Cathedral). The stadium tour includes a visit to the Benfica Museum.
Lisbon’s nexus of the ancient and the modern occurred on Saturday, November 1, 2021 when an earthquake measuring 8.5 on the Richter scale rocked the hilly city. The survivors fled to the Rio Tejo riverside, only to be drowned when a tsunami inundated the low lying area. The many thousands of tapers lit for All Saints Day in the city’s grand churches, convents and monasteries fell over in the earthquake, igniting a conflagration. While no one knows how many died in the perfect storm of earth, water, fire and wind, evidence of the apocalypse remains to this day.
The roofless nave of the Convent of Our Lady of Mount Carmel stands as a photogenic reminder of the earthquake and inferno.
Erecting gallows to discourage looters, prime minister Sebastião de Melo (better known as the Marquess of Pombal), famously ordered, “Bury the dead and heal the living.”
The marquess reconstructed Lisbon based on the urban planning ideals of the Enlightenment. As Baron Haussmann achieved in Paris a century later, the marquess's legacy of replacing the medieval city's ramshackle byways with broad avenues and squares is what has made Lisbon such a jewel today.
The lower town, called Baixa Pombalina or simply Baixa, extends in a grid over some 235,620 square meters of central Lisbon. The marquess stress tested architectural models of his new city's buildings for their resistance to future tremors by having troops march around them to simulate an earthquake. So far, so good.
By the riverside is the magnificent Commercial Square. Avenida da Liberdade, a 90-meter wide tree-lined boulevard is noted for its chic cafes and typical
Portuguese pavement (calçada portuguesa) – patterned sidewalks made from basalt and limestone.
But it's Pedro IV Square, popularly known as the Rossio, which brought me to tears. The square, once the headquarters of the Inquisition where heretics were burned at the stake for judaizing, includes a monument to the Lisbon Massacre. Here on April 19-21, 1506, a mob of local Catholics and foreign sailors whose ships were anchored in the Tagus, tortured and killed hundreds of Conversos – Jews forcibly baptized in 1496 – whom they accused of clandestinely practicing Judaism.
The memorial to the massacre, shaped like a Star of David, is inscribed "O earth, cover not thou my blood, and let my cry have no place. (Job 16:18). Nearby is the polyglot Tolerance Monument, which includes Hebrew and Arabic.
American-Portuguese author Richard Zimler's bestselling novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon transports readers to the universe of Portugal's doomed crypto-Jews during the Easter massacre. Zimler's compelling murder mystery, first published in Portuguese translation in 1996, was initially rejected by 24 American publishers.
Thankfully today Jews are again welcome in Lisbon, and Zimler has become a national writer. As is common in Europe, the city’s Shaaré Tikvah synagogue – built in 1902 – is protected by machine-gun toting police and a Hebrew-speaking guard. Don't forget your Israeli passport. The address is 59 Alexander Herculano Street, not far from the Parliament and the Fundação Amália Rodrigues where the fado superstar once lived.
Lisbon has a long Jewish history, but it would be a distortion to emphasize only the tragic parts. That narrative is celebrated by the Jewish Museum of Lisbon, set to open in its new building in June 2017. The institution is located in Alfama, the oldest part of the city which survived the great earthquake of 1755. This picturesque labyrinth of winding lanes derives its name from the Arabic al-Hamma – the hot spring. It was here in the Moorish city below the Castelo de São Jorge that the Jews settled in their barrio.
With Lisbon reclaiming its Jewish heritage, one call only speculate if the British Library will loan the museum what would surely be its masterpiece – the Lisbon Bible, a three-volume illuminated Hebrew codex written in 1482 that has been in housed in London since 1882. Shmuel ben Shmuel Ibn Musa, known as Samuel the Scribe, copied the 24 books of the Bible in an elegant Sephardi script for the manuscript's patron Yosef ben Yehudah al-Hakim. The sumptuous decorations were created by a team of skilled manuscript artists.
Pending that, one can always cry the blues at Alfama's many fado nightclubs where musicians sing their plaintive dirges of nostalgia, longing and loss. Best to come after midnight when diners have finished their late night repast, and serious lovers of the mournful and melancholy show up.
Our guide Ruben Obadiah showed us a YouTube of Mariza, the Mozambique-
born peroxide blonde diva of fado, singing Minh' Alma (My Soul). Overcome by sorrow, she burst into tears. That heartfelt moment of beauty and pain symbolizes Lisbon – a place where emotion is genuine. No wonder the Portuguese love Bruce Springsteen.
Gil Zohar was a guest of the Tourism Board of Lisbon and the Tourism Association of Alentejo. The trip was supported by the Portuguese Embassy and Sun D’Or, which offers four weekly flights from Tel Aviv to Lisbon.