By Barry Hatton | 2013-1-19 | NEWSPAPER EDITION
FOR anyone considering a trip to a European city, Lisbon probably doesn't spring to mind. The Portuguese capital's singular charms, however, are drawing an increasing number of visitors.
The port city in southwestern Europe doesn't have the scale or variety of, say, Paris or London. What it offers is a small scale suited to walkers, a sedate pace of life, little crime and lots of history. The famously hospitable Portuguese are another asset, and restaurants can lay on exceptional fish and seafood from the Atlantic.
During the Age of Exploration 500 years ago, Portugal led Europe out of the Mediterranean and established an empire from Latin America across Africa to Asia. Lisbon was one of the world's wealthiest cities. The 1755 earthquake - so catastrophic that it helped change the course of western thought - destroyed many of the city's great monuments.
Though the city swiftly modernized after Portugal joined the European Union a quarter century ago, it has retained an old-time attractiveness as well as a beguiling blend of people from former colonies in Africa, India and Brazil.
The Belem neighborhood, on the north bank of the Tagus River, was the launch pad for the great Portuguese ships and dauntless mariners who set off to discover the world beyond the horizon in the 15th and 16th centuries. Belem translates as Bethlehem and the voyages had a strong religious component. The neighborhood has the Jeronimos monastery and church from 1601, broad gardens, and a large marble map on the riverbank showing where the Portuguese landed and when, as they radiated across the globe. People like to think of it as ground-zero of globalization. It features statues of national heroes such as Vasco da Gama. Pastry shops sell the famous and irresistible Portuguese custard tarts. Across the river, next to the April 25 Bridge that looks like the Golden Gate Bridge, a giant statue of Christ overlooks the city, its arms open.
Paula Rego Museum
Paula Rego is one of Portugal's most famous modern artists. She fled Antonio Salazar's dictatorship, which ruled Portugal for four decades in the last century, and settled in London in the 1950s. But her work still draws powerfully on Portuguese culture and her childhood memories around Cascais, a seaside town just outside Lisbon where some of her work is housed. The 30-minute train ride from the capital traces the coast's contours, with magnificent views over the Atlantic. Cascais also offers beaches and a long promenade.
The downtown district, called the Baixa, was rebuilt after the 1755 quake in what for Portugal is a rare gridiron pattern. Many old-fashioned stores, as well as modern international chains, line the streets. Look down and admire the sidewalks decorated in the black-and-white patterns of traditional Portuguese paving, which is also found in Salvador de Bahia in Brazil and Macau in China. Rua Augusta, a pedestrian street, links two main squares - Rossio and the riverside Praca do Comercio, where government offices have moved out to make way for al fresco cafes and restaurants.
The Alfama quarter is distinguished by its narrow, cobbled streets on the hillside below Lisbon castle, where archeologists have found traces of occupation from the seventh century BC. Once home to medieval Jewish and Moorish settlements, the quarter has an endearing shabbiness and lived-in feel. Walking through the quiet streets often involves ducking under washing hung out to dry and slaloming between smoky barbecues where fish is being grilled.