A Bit of Background -- Many Lisboans claim unabashedly that Ulysses founded their city. Others, with perhaps a more scholarly bent, maintain that the Phoenicians or the Carthaginians were the original settlers.
The Romans settled in Lisbon in about 205 B.C., later building a fortification on the site of what is now St. George's Castle. The Visigoths captured the city in the 5th century A.D.; in 714, centuries of Moorish domination began. The first king of Portugal, Afonso Henríques, captured Lisbon from the Moors in 1147. But it wasn't until 1256 that Afonso III moved the capital here, deserting Coimbra, now the country's major university city.
The Great Earthquake occurred at 9:40am on All Saints' Day, November 1, 1755. "From Scotland to Asia Minor, people ran out of doors and looked at the sky, and fearfully waited. It was, of course, an earthquake," chronicled Holiday magazine. Tidal waves 15m (49 ft.) high swept over Algeciras, Spain. The capitals of Europe shook. Some 22 aftershocks followed. Roofs caved in; hospitals (with more than 1,000 patients), prisons, public buildings, royal palaces, aristocratic town houses, fishers' cottages, churches, and houses of prostitution all were toppled. Overturned candles helped ignite a fire that consumed the once-proud capital in just 6 days, leaving it in gutted, charred shambles. Voltaire described the destruction in Candide: "The sea boiled up in the harbor and smashed the vessels lying at anchor. Whirlwinds of flame and ashes covered the streets and squares, houses collapsed, roofs were thrown onto foundations and the foundations crumbled." All told, 30,000 inhabitants were crushed beneath the tumbling debris.
When the survivors of the initial shocks ran from their burning homes toward the mighty Tagus, they were met with walls of water 12m (39 ft.) high. Estimates vary, but approximately 60,000 drowned or died in the 6-day holocaust.
After the ashes had settled, the Marquês de Pombal, the prime minister, ordered that the dead be buried and the city rebuilt at once. To accomplish that ambitious plan, the king gave him virtually dictatorial powers.
What Pombal ordered constructed was a city of wide, symmetrical boulevards leading into handsome squares dominated by fountains and statuary. Bordering these wide avenues would be black-and-white mosaic sidewalks, the most celebrated in Europe. Today, the mixture of old and "new" (post-earthquake) here is so harmonious that travelers consider Lisbon one of the most beautiful cities on earth. Fountains abound; one, the Samaritan, dates from the 16th century. The boulevards flank new high-rise apartment houses, while in other quarters, laundry hanging from 18th-century houses flaps in the wind.
The Tagus, the river flowing through Lisbon, has been called the city's eternal lover -- and in many ways it is the most vital part of the city. From the Bairro Alto (Upper City), cable cars run down to the waterfront, where boats from Africa unload their freight. This is also a city that gives nicknames to everything, from its districts to its kings. Fernando, who built one of the most characteristic walls around Lisbon, was honored with the appellation "the Beautiful." Streets bear colorful names or designations, such as Rua do Açúcar (Street of Sugar). Praça do Comércio, the bull's-eye center of the Lisbon waterfront, is also known as Black Horse Square.
Many who have never been to Lisbon know it well from watching World War II spy movies on TV. In the classic film Casablanca, Lisbon embodied the passage point to the Americas for refugees stranded in northern Africa. During the war, Lisbon, officially neutral, was a hotbed of intrigue and espionage. It was also a haven for thousands of refugees, including deposed royalty.
Lisbon Today -- No longer the provincial town it was as late as the 1970s, post-millennium Lisbon has blossomed into a cosmopolitan city often beset with construction pains. Many of its old structures are simply falling apart and must be either restored or replaced. Some of the formerly clogged streets of the Baixa have been turned into cobblestone pedestrian malls.
Lisbon is growing and evolving, and the city is considerably more sophisticated than it once was, no doubt due in part to Portugal's joining the European Union (E.U.). The smallest capital of Europe is no longer a backwater at the far corner of Iberia. Some 1.8 million people now live in Lisbon, and many of its citizens, having drifted in from the far corners of the world, don't even speak Portuguese. Textiles, shoes, clothing, china, and earthenware are among its leading industries.
Sections along Avenida da Liberdade, the main street of Lisbon, at times evoke thoughts of Paris. As in Paris, sidewalk portrait painters will sketch your likeness, and artisans will offer you jewelry claiming that it's gold (when you both know it isn't). Handicrafts, from embroidery to leatherwork, are peddled right on the streets as they are in New York.
Consider an off-season visit, especially in the spring or fall, when the city enjoys glorious weather. The city isn't overrun with visitors then, and you can wander about and take in its attractions without being trampled or broiled during the hot, humid weather of July and August.
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