The Portuguese economy maybe in the ditch, but Lisbon is flourishing as a visitor destination, right?
Just like its big neighbour Spain, Portugal has been drowning in debt and high unemployment. But the tourism sector is one bright star, which is actually is leading Portugal out of the doldrums, with record-high visitor numbers. It is still one of Europe’s cheapest destinations, but as the economy bounces back, prices will rise, so bag a bargain and visit the country sooner, rather later.
And this is another destination that’s history was shaped by a catastrophic earthquake? Indeed. One of the world’s deadliest ever earthquakes struck Lisbon in 1755, killing one hundred thousand people. The 9mag quake was reportedly felt from Turkey to Scotland – much of Europe thought it was the end of the world. It was a monster quake, which along with the subsequent tsunami, destroyed most of the city. But at the time, Portugal was a maritime powerhouse, and a very prosperous kingdom, so it could afford to rebuild the city in style.
What about the architecture? Much Moorish influence?
The ruling king wanted Lisbon to rival Europe’s great capitals, so ordered the city to be rebuilt with long sweeping leafy boulevards, scores of frothy fountains and ornate Art Nouveau buildings and palaces. The Moors ruled the roost until they were kicked out by the Crusaders in the 11th century, and thankfully some of that North African heritage can still be found in the Alfama district. So architecturally, Lisbon is a visually ravishing city.
What about those iconic Portuguese tiles? Can you buy them?
You certainly can. A readymade souvenir, and they’re cheap as chips. Portuguese tiles, which are called azulejos ( arthoo-layhoo), decorate everything from churches to fountains, shops and railway stations. The beautiful glazed ceramic tiles, traditionally coloured blue and white, are lavishly used to create huge wall murals. They are Portugal’s answer to Italy’s frescoes. There’s nothing quite like those Lisbon cafes, which sell those scrummy custard tarts, whose walls are coated in tile murals of depicting great historical events.
You reckon the tram is the best way to get around?
Alongside the tile-work, Lisbon’s bright yellow trams are a distinctive symbol of the city. Avoid the taxis, Lisbon cabbies are lunatics. If you want a super-cheap tour of the city’s historic district, jump on Tram 28, which does an all-encompassing circuit of all the main landmarks.
Let’s have a quick flick through some essential experiences – St. George’s Castle?
One of the great survivors of the quake is the hilltop fortress of St. Georges Castle, which is from where the Romans, the Goths, the Moors, the Crusaders and the Portuguese monarchy have all called the shots. Spectacular city views.
What about that crazy Gothic outdoors elevator? ( Santa Justa)
Another great perch for a view is from the top of this outdoors mega-sized wrought-iron elevator, which was built in 1849, as a folly by a rather eccentric engineer. It is a most unusual contraption, but worth a ride.
Your favourite spot is the coastal hotspot of Belem?
Lisbon is connected to the Atlantic by the Tagus River, and at the confluence of these waters is the coastal hotspot of Belem, which is from where Portugals ledendary explorers all set sail. Magellan, Vasco de Gama and co. Fantastic beachside atmos and some awesome statues and towers in honour of Portugals’s Golden Age of Discovery.
What about a daytrip to Sintra?
Well, if grand designs and historic palaces float your boat, a magical daytrip is to take the train to Sintra, which is crowned by the
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Castle of the Moors, a spectacular structure which was captured by the Crusaders. Just 30k from Lisbon.
Mike’s travel notes from Newstalk ZB’s Jack Tame Show.