Once the center of a mighty empire, the Portuguese capital was nearly wiped out in the 18th century, only to rise again and establish itself as one of Europe's most beguiling cities, rich in beauty, grace and melancholy
Author CHRIS WRIGHT
PHOTOGRAPHS BY PEDRO GUIMARAES
ON THE CLEAR, BRIGHT morning of November 1, 1755—All Saints’ Day—Lisbon was hit by a massive earthquake. At the time, the Portuguese capital was among the world’s most vibrant cities, packed with extravagant architecture, its coffers swollen with the wealth generated by its colonial adventures. The quake, along with subsequent tsunamis and fires, leveled about 85 percent of the city.
But something wonderful grew out of this. A citywide rebuilding effort produced what would become some of the finest examples of 18th-century architecture in Europe, and the tragedy imbued Lisboans with a fierce determination to hold on to what remained. To a degree rarely seen elsewhere, the city avoided the ravages of urban renewal. From the ancient alleys that survived the quake to the grand avenues that emerged from the rubble, Lisbon sometimes feels as though it has been preserved in amber.
There’s a word here, saudade, that has no English translation but describes the heightened passion aroused by absence. You get the sense that the emotion extends beyond the personal: Lisbon seems to be a city gripped by collective longing. This is not to say that Lisboans are ensnared in the past, or are unable to enjoy themselves. There’s remarkable energy, terrific food, music and—yes—wine.
Still, you can’t help feeling that even this bonhomie has its roots in melancholy. As the local poet Fernando Pessoa put it: “Since we do nothing in this confused world / That lasts … / Let us prefer the pleasure of the moment.”
DAY ONE | The story of Lisbon is written in its skyline. You see this from the balcony of your room at the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz (1): the blocky architecture of the Estado Novo dictatorship that ruled here for part of the 20th century; the exuberant avenues of the post-earthquake Baixa district; the old russet-roofed neighborhoods that tumble over the city’s seven hills; and, in the distance, the Tagus River, source of Portugal’s former status as a global power.
It’s fitting, then, that you should begin your stay here with a trip to Belém, a riverside district full of architecture erected to trumpet the power and prestige of the Portuguese navy, circa 1500. Ten minutes after hopping into a cab, you find yourself admiring this sprawling celebration of God and country, but also eyeing the façade of Pastéis de Belém (2). The bakery’s signature confection, pastel de nata, is madly delicious—you could say it’s a custard tart, but that would be like saying Beluga caviar is fish eggs. You eat five.
The highlight of Belém is Jerónimos Monastery (3), a looming 16th-century hermitage built in the Manueline style, a local twist on Gothic grandiosity that employs nautical motifs: ropes and martyrs, seaweed and stained glass. You step inside its chapel—the vaulted interior pitted with age, the air thick with the scent of damp mortar—before exploring the warren of cloisters, refectories and confessionals. The monastery leaves you feeling peaceful, even joyful—which, you imagine, is what its architects were aiming for.
Next, you cab it to a very different riverfront destination: Bica do Sapato (4), near the Santa Apolónia cruise terminal downtown. This restaurant, part-owned by John Malkovich, comes off like a pop art installation— a geometric assemblage of mod furniture and baubly lights. The food, too, pushes the boundaries of ingenuity (spider crab cream?). You try the roasted black sausage to start and a rustic rabbit pie for the main, washed down with a glass of Portuguese red. It’s like you’ve been fed by a farmer’s wife, albeit one deserving of a Michelin star or two. Smashing.
A short hike through the squiggle of the Alfama district leads to the fortresslike Lisbon Cathedral (5). In the cloister of this medieval monolith—beyond the vaulted ceilings and the enormous rose window—there’s an archaeological site, a hole in the ground revealing Roman steps and Moorish walls. The main body of the church echoes with the hushed appreciation of a hundred tourists, but back here you are alone, bathed in a yellowish light, a solitary pigeon fluttering among the ruins. You stand for a while, staring at these fragments of forgotten lives, before getting spooked and retreating.
You dine tonight at the Four Seasons’ Varanda (6), ordering lobster with seafood emulsion, shrimp on basmati rice and beef tenderloin. The shrimp are shipped in from Mozambique, where they are said to be particularly pure, and this fact sums up what’s special about the restaurant: an apparent effortlessness that masks extreme effort. Afterward, in bed, in that narcotic stretch between wakefulness and sleep, you move through gloomy passages, watched by ghosts and centaurs, which is more pleasant than it sounds.