Sun, 24 Nov 2002

Lisbon offers more than just nightlife

Ida Indawati Khouw, Contributor, Lisbon

Welcome to Lisbon! It's already 11 p.m. but the city is very much alive. People are gathering at Chiado square, a popular small plaza encircled by shopping areas.

A guitar player and a singer are warming the summer nights while others rendezvous under pavement cafes.

A few steps away, a church still opens its doors inviting people pray or take respite, but the rhythm of life can still be felt outside at Bairro Alto, famous for its cafes and shops.

Nightlife in Lisbon is very colorful. The many restaurants and cafes along the sidewalks of Bairro Alto and Baixa welcome passersby. Those who prefer the cozy tascas (taverns) can go to Alfama.

Here's how to dine the Portuguese way. Start with the traditional caldo verde mashed potato soup mixed with green cabbage. But never miss their popular salty fish bacalhau or other choices of meat in the main course and close the meal the Portuguese way, by drinking a small cup of bica, the strong black coffee.

Indeed, Lisbon is a city where visitors will find a week is too short. It has many things to offer: Castles, museums, palaces, churches, restaurants and cafes and also its picturesque hilly landscape.

An old city, built on seven hills, Lisbon is concentrated in three main areas: The heart of the city center in Baixa and Bairro Alto, the old settlement of Alfama and the historical area of Belim.

Downtown Baixa (and Bairro Alto) is a "newly built" area, reconstructed after the great 1755 earthquake that ruined a great part of Lisbon. Built according to the grid system of streets, shopping is the main attraction in Baixa.

The life of the city -- the population of which is 558,100 -- centers around the Praga do Comircio, a big plaza surrounded by pastel-colored neo-classical buildings that slope gently toward the banks of the beautiful Tagus river.

An entrance through an impressive Arco Rua Augusta arch leads to a grid of streets heading toward other shopping areas of Rossio and Avenida da Liberdade, dubbed as the Champs Elysies of Portugal. Visitors will need lots of energy to walk through the elegant Rua Augusta arcade as it goes steadily upward.

Many people suggested that I spend a moment at a Baixa cafe in the evening to enjoy the wonderful view of Castelo Sau Jorge built atop one of the city's hills. And it's true; a view of the castle bathed in yellow light is breathtaking. Sau Jorge is where the city of Lisbon had its beginnings when the first Portuguese King Afonso Henriques reigned after driving out the Moors in 1147. The Moors ruled for 400 years.

The best way to reach the castle is by an old wooden cabriolet. It's somewhat cumbersome for the carriage to climb up to the castle that has 10 towers. However, it's a great experience to pass an exotic panorama of steep narrow streets and alleys of Alfama.

Along the way up to the hill, we can observe the typical Iberian way of life; as locals pass their time lazily standing on iron balconies and chatting with their neighbors.

Going westward along the bank of the great Tagus estuary you'll find the Belim area. The area is known for the Mosteiro dos Jersnimos Catholic monastery and Torre de Belim, a fully- decorated tower at the mouth of the Tagus. Both buildings hark back to the 15th century and 16th century's Golden Age when the Portuguese played a leading role, expanding horizons of both Europe and the world.

The huge monastery and the tower have been declared as UNESCO world heritage sites.

History-philes and admirers of old buildings will find Belim marvelous. They can find the supreme architectural examples of the Age of Discovery that Portuguese are proud of.

Built in 1502, the monastery was dedicated to Vasco da Gama (1469-1524), the leading figure in the Discovery era. We can see his sarcophagus right after entering the monastery's church. On the other side is the sarcophagus of great Portuguese poet Louis de Camues (1524-1580) whose poems were inspired by the era.

Beyond the sarcophagus lies a spacious and impressive hall richly decorated with Manueline-style ornamentation that was inspired by the sea. Manueline is a typical Portuguese architectural style dating back to the late-Gothic period.

Exploring this historical area will be complete after visiting Torre de Belim, about 300 meters from the monastery on the banks of the Tagus, which was built between 1514 and 1520.

It consists of a quadrangular tower and a polygonal bastion. It is a fine example of the period of advanced defensive technology. The predominant decoration used in the tower is Manueline, as seen in the stone rope that encircles it.