Lisbon: Night Light

Oct 1, 2004
2004 / October 2004

Despite being surrounded on two sides by Spain, Portugal has undeniably carved out its own distinctive character. Different language, different daily schedule, different work ethic and different walking speed are just a few adjustments you should be prepared to make when you venture away from Spain’s leisurely embrace.

Lisbon is built over and around seven extraordinarily steep hills, making it the San Francisco of Western Europe. While this arrangement is endlessly scenic, some of the roads and alleys that traverse these hills make Lumbard Street look like a bunny slope. As you get ready to explore the city, it’s also a good idea to keep in mind that Lisbon is much bigger than the scale of most free tourist maps will lead you to believe.

My first tip-off to the expeditious mindset of the Portuguese people was their hurried, every-man-for-himself walking style. The Portuguese not only kick out the jams with their pace, but they are in such a delirious rush to get where they are going that, rather than waste precious seconds passing around a crowd, they will readily opt to plow straight through the center of a group of people, without so much as an offhand com licença (excuse me), like a linebacker lunging for the goal line. Things tend to become even more perilous when the Portuguese get behind the wheel of a car. Once settled into the driver’s seat, where they seemingly use their horns more often than their brakes, Portuguese drivers favor what I call the “God Is My Copilot” approach to navigating the open road. They drive with the accelerator stomped to the floor, coolly passing on blind curves and generally disregarding prudent driving habits, relying instead on faith and on-the-fly divi-nation. Unless you fancy yourself an exceptionally daring and gifted driver, it’s probably best to stick to taxis and public transport while in Lisbon.

When it comes to language, the fact that you may have a firm grip on Spanish will not give you a communication advantage in Portugal. Aside from the surprising dissimilarities between the languages of the adjacent countries, the Portuguese aren’t all that keen on even listening to Spanish — a result of Spain’s legacy of imposing itself on the country. In theory, resorting to English might help, but whereas many Europeans are required to study English for six to eight years, in Portugal English tends to be an elective third or fourth language; students just get the skills to navigate relatively simple transactions.

A long-ago Arab occupation left its mark on Lisbon in the form of the 900-year-old Alfama neighborhood. The streets of Alfama are tight, snarled and otherworldly, making the sweet thrill of random exploration and discovery enormously satisfying. Some streets are barely more than an arm-span in width, meaning opposite neighbors can converse —and even borrow a cup of sugar — without either having to step outside. This minimalist street design adheres to a Muslim cultural directive that dictates greater value be given to the interiors of domiciles, while public areas and outer facades are less significant. Alfama’s primary attractions include the Sé Cathedral, Sào Jorge Castle and the National Pantheon. Also worth a look is Santa Engrácia Church, which is so scrubbed and impeccably maintained that photos of it come out looking like an oversized child’s model.

Lisbon has the expected European capital city’s wealth of museum offerings, highlighted by the massive Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, touted as Portugal’s finest museum, with exhibits of paintings, sculptures, carpets, coins and ceramics collected from around the globe. If you set a measured pace, you can also take in the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, which sports outstanding examples of decorative tile art, or the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, home to the national collection of Portuguese paintings.

Four miles to the west of Lisbon is the ancient suburb of Belém, where you’ll find a more serene atmosphere, engaging attractions and a number of elegant, outdoor dining experiences that feature panoramas of the action on the mammoth Tejo River. The mind-bending size of the 16th century Jerónimos Monastery and its Manueline-style adornments — employing twists, turns, spirals and nautical themes for decoration — are so commanding and engrossing that you may temporarily forget about your appetite. It gets even better inside, where, in a grand departure from most of the rest of Europe’s historic religious sites, flash photography is permitted. A short walk west of the monastery is Torre de Belém (Belém Tower), Portugal’s No. 1 postcard model.

Despite being surrounded on two sides by Spain, Portugal has undeniably carved out its own distinctive character. Different language, different daily schedule, different work ethic and different walking speed are just a few adjustments you should be prepared to make when you venture away from Spain’s leisurely embrace.

Lisbon is built over and around seven extraordinarily steep hills, making it the San Francisco of Western Europe. While this arrangement is endlessly scenic, some of the roads and alleys that traverse these hills make Lumbard Street look like a bunny slope. As you get ready to explore the city, it’s also a good idea to keep in mind that Lisbon is much bigger than the scale of most free tourist maps will lead you to believe.

My first tip-off to the expeditious mindset of the Portuguese people was their hurried, every-man-for-himself walking style. The Portuguese not only kick out the jams with their pace, but they are in such a delirious rush to get where they are going that, rather than waste precious seconds passing around a crowd, they will readily opt to plow straight through the center of a group of people, without so much as an offhand com licença (excuse me), like a linebacker lunging for the goal line. Things tend to become even more perilous when the Portuguese get behind the wheel of a car. Once settled into the driver’s seat, where they seemingly use their horns more often than their brakes, Portuguese drivers favor what I call the “God Is My Copilot” approach to navigating the open road. They drive with the accelerator stomped to the floor, coolly passing on blind curves and generally disregarding prudent driving habits, relying instead on faith and on-the-fly divi-nation. Unless you fancy yourself an exceptionally daring and gifted driver, it’s probably best to stick to taxis and public transport while in Lisbon.

When it comes to language, the fact that you may have a firm grip on Spanish will not give you a communication advantage in Portugal. Aside from the surprising dissimilarities between the languages of the adjacent countries, the Portuguese aren’t all that keen on even listening to Spanish — a result of Spain’s legacy of imposing itself on the country. In theory, resorting to English might help, but whereas many Europeans are required to study English for six to eight years, in Portugal English tends to be an elective third or fourth language; students just get the skills to navigate relatively simple transactions.

A long-ago Arab occupation left its mark on Lisbon in the form of the 900-year-old Alfama neighborhood. The streets of Alfama are tight, snarled and otherworldly, making the sweet thrill of random exploration and discovery enormously satisfying. Some streets are barely more than an arm-span in width, meaning opposite neighbors can converse —and even borrow a cup of sugar — without either having to step outside. This minimalist street design adheres to a Muslim cultural directive that dictates greater value be given to the interiors of domiciles, while public areas and outer facades are less significant. Alfama’s primary attractions include the Sé Cathedral, Sào Jorge Castle and the National Pantheon. Also worth a look is Santa Engrácia Church, which is so scrubbed and impeccably maintained that photos of it come out looking like an oversized child’s model.

Lisbon has the expected European capital city’s wealth of museum offerings, highlighted by the massive Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, touted as Portugal’s finest museum, with exhibits of paintings, sculptures, carpets, coins and ceramics collected from around the globe. If you set a measured pace, you can also take in the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, which sports outstanding examples of decorative tile art, or the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, home to the national collection of Portuguese paintings.

Four miles to the west of Lisbon is the ancient suburb of Belém, where you’ll find a more serene atmosphere, engaging attractions and a number of elegant, outdoor dining experiences that feature panoramas of the action on the mammoth Tejo River. The mind-bending size of the 16th century Jerónimos Monastery and its Manueline-style adornments — employing twists, turns, spirals and nautical themes for decoration — are so commanding and engrossing that you may temporarily forget about your appetite. It gets even better inside, where, in a grand departure from most of the rest of Europe’s historic religious sites, flash photography is permitted. A short walk west of the monastery is Torre de Belém (Belém Tower), Portugal’s No. 1 postcard model.

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