Lisbon has swept into the 21st century and the European Union with great style. Memories of past glory and the Earthquake and Tsunami of 1755 have faded.
The beginnings of Lisboa, the Portuguese name for Lisbon, are storybook material.The city is built on seven hills and is dominated by a fort, the Castel de Sao Jorge. It is believed that this castle is on the site of the old Roman fortifications of the town, then called Olisipo.It may have been the same site where earlier inhabitants had a citadel in the days when they traded with Phoenician and Carthaginian navigators.
The importance of Lisbon dates back to 1147, after its reconquest from the Moors by King Alfonso I, with the help of the Crusaders. In 1255, the city became Portugal’s capital.
The Great Earthquake and Tsunami
In the 15th century, Lisbon was the world centre for trade in spices, jewels from he East and gold from Brazil. The magnificent Tagus River was Lisbon’s river outlet to the world. But it was also the route for a huge tsunami which travelled inland from the sea. That was back in 1755 when the Great Earthquake struck.
The earthquake, which in about six minutes destroyed almost all of the city, was of a magnitude thought by today’s seismologists to have been between 8.6 and 9 on the Richter scale. A devastating tsunami, huge enough to hit the shores of Spain, southern England, Ireland, Finland and North Africa, as well as the eastern seaboard of the United States, rushed in from the sea, reaching a height of 55 feet, according to The Random House Encyclopedia, 1977 edition..
The Alfama Escaped Damage
The Alfama, the old section of the city around the cathedral has many picturesque relics.Some say it is 1000 years old. Because it is built on solid rock, most of the Alfama survived the catastrophic earthquake almost intact. With its web of cobbled streets, winding alleys, chapels and churches with potted geraniums at practically every doorstep,it seems like a Fellini film set. Some years ago,when I was walking through the Alfama, I was surprised to see an outdoor pool, used as a clothes washing area. It was curtained off from prying eyes and used by Alfama residents without running water.
“Jailhouse” Style Buildings
My curiosity led me to choose the Casa de S. Mamede which was built in 1758, three years after the earthquake. Notes from the hotel’s brochure say it was once the house of a magistrate. It retains many of the beautiful 18th century glazed wall tiles of that era as well as many fine furnishings. It was built in “jailhouse” style – a style of architecture designed to withstand earthquakes.
Where and What to Eat
Lisbon’s blue waterfront, very much a part of the city, is the Tagus estuary, where local people fish and snack, chat and listen to fade. The Praca dos Restauredoros, the beautiful three-sided baroque square sprawled out near this waterfront is the doorway to the formal classic streets that were built after the earthquake.
“Bacalhau,” a national salted codfish dish is a house specialty at Cafe Nicola, a nearby restaurant in the Rossio. Cafe Nicola is one of the old-time literary cafes.The menu also lists what is considered one of the classic dishes of Portugal – Portuguese Pork and Clams or “Carne de Porco con Ameijoas.” I had started with garlic soup, marvellously restorative for those with jet leg and vinho verde, the typical white wine of Portugal. “Pudim flan,” a rich custard pudding is the usual dessert but look for pumpkin pudding and Belem tarts, those rich, custard tarts made famous in nearby Belem. Absolute heaven!