The city is known as the “city of seven hills” and is “Europe’s San Francisco” as a result of its undulating landscape. Lisbon also shares other features with the Californian city with old-style trams also running down its slopes and boasts a suspension bridge remarkably similar in design to San Fran’s famous Golden Gate Bridge. The Portuguese bridge is named after the date, April 25, of the Carnation Revolution in 1974, when the military staged a coup to oust dictator Marcelo Caetano. This brought an end to fascism in Portugal and led to creation of a new republic.
The end of fascism also ended the isolation Portugal had endured for much of the preceding decades under Caetano and his long-reigning predecessor and despot Salazar, leading to Portugal becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. Fascism did have one benefit for the country: it was spared the ravages endured by much of Europe during World War 2.
To celebrate this fact, Salazar ordered the construction of a giant statue of Jesus inspired by Rio’s Christ the Redeemer. Lisbon’s statue Christ the King stands at an imposing 104 metres and is located along the banks of the river Tajo, gazing toward the city.
Brazil is a former colony, of course, and the Portuguese are extremely proud of their country’s contribution to the Age of Discovery. Lisbon is dotted with monuments paying tribute to the most famous explorers. The most impressive of these is the Monument to the Discoveries, which depicts the early explorers including Henry the Navigator and Vasco de Gama aboard a ship. De Gama was the first European to reach India by sea and following his death there from malaria his body was returned to be interred in the city’s Jerónimos Monastery. Both the monastery, monument and nearby Tower of Belém are among the main tourist attractions in Lisbon and are a must visit for any history buffs, with UNESCO having declared both the monastery and tower world heritage sites.
The widespread improvement of Portuguese society following the end of fascism has not been without its challenges. Portugal’s economy plummeted to depths even our own didn’t reach during its most recent nadir. It suffered the indignity of being branded one of Europe’s “PIGS” along with ourselves, Greece and Spain. The cost of living in Portugal is substantially lower than Ireland and Portuguese tourism is continuing to prosper as a result. Despite the austere times Portuguese people are extremely welcoming and Lisbon gives the impression of being a safer city than Dublin.
The successful integration of minorities is also in stark contrast to its Iberian neighbour Spain and our own country. Lisbon has a significant population of migrants from former Portuguese colonies including Brazil and the Cape Verde. This adds a great deal of vibrancy to the city, which is a real melting pot of European, African and South American influences.
Barrio Alto is the beating cultural heart of Lisbon, with the picturesque narrow streets being lined with an array of bars, restaurants and shops. The streets are brightly painted and adorned with graffiti in many cases. The bars I frequented were serving beer for under two euro and eating out is also refreshingly affordable for an Irish visitor. Particular mention to the Decadente which serves a three course lunch for under a tenner each day. Find me somewhere in Dublin where you can get restaurant-quality gazpacho, chicken breast with carrot mash rounded off by a desert of cheesecake for €10.
Lisbon is also home to football club Benfica who have won the Portuguese championship on a record 33 occasions, in addition to the successive European Cup victories in 1961 and 1962, largely due to the influence of the great Eusébio. Unfortunately the club were not playing during my stay in the city due to the Portuguese national team’s European Championship qualifier against Albania. Deciding that €125 was extortion to watch a Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal play (they lost 0-1), I instead ventured to the Estádio da Luz stadium the following day.
As well as being home to Portugal’s national team and its most famous club, the state of the art stadium is best known for having held the Euro 2004 final in which Portugal lost to Greece and last season’s Champions League final where Real Madrid captured their tenth European Cup. €10 gets you a guided tour of the stadium as well as the club’s museum, including an up-close view of the club’s bald eagle mascots Vitoría and Gloría, both of whom live in the stadium. The birds circle the ground prior to a game before landing on the centre circle as Benfica take to the field. The highlight of my visit to the ground was definitely the sight of Eusébio’s statue adorned with scarfs and mementos from across the world following his death earlier this year.
Whether you are interested in sport, culture or just want to have a good time, Lisbon has something for everyone.