Bathed in pure Atlantic light, crowned by the storybook St. George’s Castle and straddling seven hills, Lisbon is one of Europe’s most visually striking capitals. Looks aside, the city will surely win you over with its genuine friendliness and blissfully laid-back pace. At once nostalgic and progressive, Lisbon’s charm shines through in everyday life — listening to the mournful fado songs in the Moorish Alfama’s alleys, indulging in custard tarts in gilded Art Nouveau patisseries and living it up in the streets of Bairro Alto.
Many Lisboans claim unabashedly that Ulysses founded their city. Others, with perhaps a more scholarly bent, maintain that the Phoenicians or the Carthaginians were the original settlers.
The Romans settled in Lisbon in about 205 B.C., later building a fortification on the site of what is now St. George’s Castle. The Visigoths captured the city in the 5th century A.D.; in 714, centuries of Moorish domination began. The first king of Portugal, Afonso Henríques, captured Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. But it wasn’t until 1256 that Afonso III moved the capital here, deserting Coimbra, now the country’s major university city.
The Great Earthquake occurred at 9:40am on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1755. “From Scotland to Asia Minor, people ran out of doors and looked at the sky, and fearfully waited. It was, of course, an earthquake,” chronicled Holiday magazine. Tidal waves 15m (49 ft.) high swept over Algeciras, Spain. The capitals of Europe shook. Some 22 aftershocks followed. Roofs caved in; hospitals (with more than 1,000 patients), prisons, public buildings, royal palaces, aristocratic town houses, fishers’ cottages, churches, and houses of prostitution all were toppled.
Overturned candles helped ignite a fire that consumed the once-proud capital in just 6 days, leaving it in gutted, charred shambles. Voltaire described the destruction in Candide: “The sea boiled up in the harbor and smashed the vessels lying at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares, houses collapsed, roofs were thrown onto foundations and the foundations crumbled.” All told, 30,000 inhabitants were crushed beneath the tumbling debris. When the survivors of the initial shocks ran from their burning homes toward the mighty Tagus, they were met with walls of water 12m (39 ft.) high. Estimates vary, but approximately 60,000 drowned or died in the 6-day inferno.
After the ashes had settled, Marquês de Pombal, the prime minister, ordered that the dead be buried and the city rebuilt at once. To accomplish that ambitious plan, the king gave him virtually dictatorial powers. What Pombal ordered to construct was a city of wide, symmetrical boulevards leading into handsome squares dominated by fountains and statuary. Bordering these wide avenues would be black-and-white mosaic sidewalks, the most celebrated in Europe.
Today, the mixture of old and “post-earthquake” here is so harmonious that travelers consider Lisbon one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Fountains abound. The boulevards flank new high-rise apartment houses, while in other quarters, laundry hanging from 18th-century houses flaps in the wind.
The Tagus, the river flowing through Lisbon, has been called the city’s eternal lover – and in many ways it is the most vital part of the city. From the Bairro Alto (Upper City), cable cars run down to the waterfront, where boats from Africa unload their freight. This is also a city that gives nicknames to everything, from its districts to its kings. Fernando, who built one of the most characteristic walls around Lisbon, was honored with the appellation “the Beautiful.” Streets bear colorful names or designations, such as Rua do Açúcar (Street of Sugar). Praça do Comércio, or Terreiro do Paço, is the center of the Lisbon waterfront.
Many who have never been to Lisbon may know it well from watching World War II spy movies on TV. In the classic film Casablanca, Lisbon embodied the passage point to the Americas for refugees stranded in northern Africa. During the war, Lisbon, officially neutral, was a hotbed of intrigue and espionage. It was also a haven for thousands of refugees, including deposed royalty.