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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Portugal: The Route to Lisbon

Glancing at a map of Europe, with the Iberian peninsula jutting out from under France, it is easy to reflect upon this piece of geography as just "Spain." But Portugal, that country that looks like an incongruous slice taken out of the "Spanish" peninsula, is unique, and as one of the oldest nations in Europe, predates the "nation" of Spain by more than 350 years.
My wife, Margaret, and I entered Portugal by car, driving to Lisbon from Seville. I had hoped to traverse south through the Algarve, Portugal's scenic southern coast, site of its most popular seaside resorts. But my time was limited and so I chose the shortest route. Before entering Portugal, we stopped at a truck stop for provisions and to exchange the last of our pesetas for escudos. (With the Euro becoming Europe's universal currency, next year no exchange will be necessary.)
The countryside was flat with occasional rolling hills spotted with small farms, hilltop castle ruins, and one factory towns in a perpetual siesta. About 30 miles from the Spanish border, we came upon Beja. The Romans conquered the area. French troops sacked the city in 1808. And a general attempted a coup here in 1962. Perfect description of Beja - conquered, sacked, couped. We climbed high, over cobblestone streets, to the center of the old town marked by the towers and ruins of a 13th century castle. And though it was mentioned in the "tour" books, Beja's castle seemed the lesser of several others we passed on the road.
Further along the road to Lisbon, we came to the city of Evora. The ancient city is a U.N. world heritage site and sits behind Roman and medieval walls, its sights deep within a web of narrow streets maddeningly difficult to navigate. On a trek through Evora there are Roman ruins, over twenty churches, a monastery, a museum, and curio shops. We made Evora a short stop and got on the A2 toll road. Lisbon was but an hour away.
From the southeast you enter Lisbon across a great suspension bridge, the Pointe 25 de Abril. The bridge was inspired by the the Golden Gate and the view of Lisbon as you cross over the Tejo River is similar to the view and terrain of San Francisco as you cross the Golden Gate. On the south bank of the Tejo, as you cross the bridge, stands a 92 foot statue of Christ, arms outstretched, atop a 269 foot pedestal, modeled after the statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro.
Our hotel, the Tivoli Lisboa (351 213 198 940, double room with breakfast, $150), is a modern eight story 300 room hotel with an elegant two story lobby, easy to find, and perfectly located on the Avenida da Liberdade, the grand boulevard that bisects the heart of old Lisbon. Excellent service began with arrival. Our car was parked, baggage retrieved, and check-in completed in just moments. Our room had a south facing terrace with a wonderful view of the city, the Castle St. George, and the river in the distance.
For our first evening in Lisbon, we took a taxi to the Fado restaurant, Senhor Vinho (Rua do Meio a Lapa 18). The staff was exceedingly friendly, our waiter informative, the food great. They were so gracious that after we inquired about another table's wonderful smelling meal, they brought us a taste of their Portuguese bouillebaise. With dinner came a series of Fado performances - guitar and songstress - American blues sans understanding.
In the morning we waited in front of our hotel for Fernando to take us on a tour of the city. We were an hour early. We forgot the time zone change. Portugal runs an hour earlier than Spain. Fernando (916913110) was the taxi driver we met the night before. English speaking, friendly, and informative, we hired him to show us about his city. About 40 years old, married with children, Fernando lives in a Lisbon suburb. He told us about his career in the Portuguese special forces, a service he loved but had to quit when the force was disbanded. Now he works 12 hour days including weekends and dreams of leaving crowded Lisbon to open an artesan's store in a small town near the ocean. He was an excellent guide and if you get to Lisbon soon, call him for a tour and make his dreams come true sooner than later.
Our first stop with Fernando was the Cathedral do Se - the church that honors Lisbon's patron saint. Then, through the old hillside narrow streets of the Alfama district, we proceeded to Castelo de Sao George. Here, atop one of Lisbon's seven hills are the remnants of a great medieval citadel with great views of the city and a wonderful garden of unusual statues by the contemporary Portuguese artist, Folon. You can make reservations for dinner here at the Casa do Leao, a restaurant housed in part of the former royal residence.
Next, we passed the Parliament building and headed down the riverfront road to Belem, an area restored to honor Portugal's ancient maritime glories. Belem Tower, which guards the Tejo River, is a 16th century fortress. Set out in the water, one crosses a metal gangway to get there. Its great central tower has Moorish watchtowers and battlements decorated with carved stone shields. There is a vaulted dungeon with cannon and rooftop views of the sea lapping at its walls from all sides. There are portals to peer through and turrets to climb. The Torre de Belem is a grand, adult climbing toy. Just a short distance down the road is the Monument to the Discoveries, an immense stone memorial to the royal patrons and mariners responsible for Portugal's golden age - a statue of Henry the Navigator stands at the prow of a ship, at the head of a pack of Portuguese discovers including Vasco da Gama and Magellan.
Fernando then took us to Lisbon's National Pantheon, whose interior dome is indeed as majestic as Rome's or Paris' pantheon. But this Pantheon houses only cenotaphs of national heroes. These are memorial tombs with the bodies of the famous buried elsewhere. Planted in the middle of a nowhere hillside, along narrow roads, impassable by tour buses, with little access for parking, this pantheon is less frequented by tourists than the more famous pantheons of other cities. Our last stop was the 16th century Jeronimos Monastery with its distinctly Manueline-Portuguese architecture with carved and decorated columns supporting a spider web of arching domes, and art depicting the glories of Portugal's once great empire.
Tired, we sat down for lunch in the Rossio, a downtown shopping area, near the Praca dos Restauradores, a major plaza honoring the country's liberators. Here we sat, sipping beers, cooling off, and curious about but trying to avoid a myriad of beggars - women with infants, women in veils, limping-trembling women, the blind, even an old man with a collection of pets to assist his begging.
Unlike Paris or Madrid, we didn't find Lisbon to be a shopping mecca, but if you're searching for variety and bargains, Columbo Mall is perhaps the best choice. This huge mall with its interesting architecture, many children's play areas, and more than 400 stores and a dozen or more international restaurants, can easily be reached by metro - sitting right above the Colegio Militar station.
Of the Western European nations, Portugal is perhaps the poorest. One can still see fields tilled with oxen. It's glory days are centuries gone, and much of its former grandeur is poorly preserved. The cities and towns - compared with its neighbor, Spain - seem less crowded with tourists. But its sights also seem less tred, fresh to my discovery. Read me next week, when I enjoy more of Portugal, visiting its center and and the Lisbon coast.