Brave Old World

Brave Old World

Martin Morrell
Martin Morrell
In today's Lisbon, sleek design shops, bold museums, and brash nightclubs transform the city as a new generation makes its mark

Novelist José Saramago once described Lisbon's Bairro Alto as "exalted in name and location, but low in its way of life." Over the past decade, the low-life has been sliding down toward the Tagus River, and this collection of steep streets now lives up to its name—"high neighborhood." Like much of the city, the Bairro Alto has metamorphosed into a tidily painted version of its former crumbling self. Tucked among corner grocers and turn-of-the-century wood-paneled pharmacies, spare boutiques sell chairs straight out of Barbarella, sleek tailored jackets by Portuguese designers, and all manner of objets for the home. At night the chic, the young, and the artistic clog the cobblestoned alleyways, moving from bars to restaurants to after-hours clubs.

But on weekday afternoons, a village calm reigns. Soft pastels and curving iron balconies form the backdrop for flirting teenage couples and elderly women trying to keep pace with their dogs. Yet as I descend from the café-lined Praça das Flores, at the edge of the Bairro Alto, the stillness is broken by the low rumble of a crowd. A demonstration is headed in my direction. Instinctively, I keep moving. A man of about 50 approaches.

"What's going on?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say, and smile. (Smiling seems like a good idea just now.)

"You know," he says, "people like us—we still remember."

"Yes we do," I say, nodding as I pass.

And I do remember. As I should. After all, I was there—25 years ago, when a similar disturbance would have meant something far more consequential than this minor protest. On April 25, 1974, following a protracted and losing battle to retain power in Portuguese Africa, a demoralized military, linked by then to the Communist party, toppled Portugal's 42-year-old fascist regime. We—my mother, my sister, and I—arrived a month later; the coup was over, but the rallies were just beginning.

Unable to resist the temptation of witnessing her country's revolutionary fervor firsthand, my mother had rented out our house in Michigan and taken an apartment in Cascais, a coastal town just a half-hour's drive from Lisbon. From there, my sister and I rode the train to a British school out of an Enid Blyton novel. The occasional bomb scares provided a delightful respite from pedagogical routine but, as far as I know, not a single actual bomb.

The Lisbon I came to know then was a city struggling to remake itself. Squatters took over villas whose owners had decamped to Brazil. The army, and those who fancied themselves officers, patrolled the streets, holding up long lines of cars while they demanded papers and searched under seats and in trunks. For what, I was never sure. Seemingly overnight, buildings disappeared beneath the graffiti of competing political parties; palace façades displayed murals celebrating the newly empowered worker; trash littered the streets. This in a city where those who failed to paint their houses annually were once subjected to a steep fine. It was a long time before cleanliness no longer equaled fascism.

Until I went to college, we spent every summer in Portugal, much of it in Lisbon. I was attuned to change as I wouldn't have been in a place where the dailiness of routine would obscure it. Foreigners stopped coming—at least the ones who once sought the privacy of the beaches along Lisbon's coast and played at gambling in Estoril's casino. But eventually, as Portugal recovered from its own version of the sixties, Levi's and open-collared shirts gave way to twinsets and bobs. As banks and businesses returned to private hands, shopping centers sprang up here and there, and rows of apartment blocks stretched the city limits. Yet even as late as the early nineties, urban renewal was more a dream than a reality.

I rather liked it that way. Despite the stabs at Continental style, Lisbon seemed nothing so much as old, its elegance softened by neglect. Gritty along the river, Moorish and decaying in the hilly neighborhoods that rose from the water's edge, Lisbon's allure unfolded slowly: in the surprise of a modern avenue lined with grand villas, in a blue-and-yellow-tiled wall glimpsed beneath a line of laundry, or in the panoramic view from a bougainvillea-covered belvedere. To borrow a phrase from Candide, it was the best of all possible worlds.

WHEN I RETURNED RECENTLY AFTER A FIVE-YEAR ABSENCE, it became clear to me that I'd been away a long time. Restored façades and new highways, Metro stations, and bridges rendered the city practically unrecognizable. I saw almost no graffiti except a scripted message that read PORTUGAL IS A COUNTRY CURSED BY GOD. Perhaps so, but lately God—or maybe just the EEC—has been smiling on at least part of it. In the past 10 years, Lisbon has undergone another revolution, a slower and more aesthetic one than the 1974 coup but no less dramatic in effect. Millions of dollars in aid from the European Union have spurred an unprecedented building boom. Those looking for the decaying Lisbon of Alain Tanner's White City or the brooding metropolis of Wim Wenders's Lisbon Story will have to look a little harder. Here, at last, the future and the past have collided, made friends, and become stylish neighbors.

Everywhere Modernism, Neoclassicism, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau bump up against one another in surprising ways. Some of the rooms at the newly renovated Ritz, housed in a generic fifties building, are done in Indian colonial; the lobby bar is all deep-red sofas and Art Deco panthers. The Hotel da Lapa, a former mansion in a neighborhood of mansions, has a suite that could have been copied piece for piece from a Thin Man movie. French architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte's redesign of the art museum in the Chiado, hollowed out from what was long ago a convent, testifies to the possible harmony of white cube and Roman archways.

Not all juxtapositions of old and new are equally pleasing. Near the castle, amid small, terra-cotta-roofed houses in need of repair, a new supermarket, Sapadores, mimics the low-roofed blankness of the American strip mall. It looks, much like its distant cousins, sad and ugly. Even when successful, Lisbon's newfound architectural pastiche is disconcerting—as if a giant bricoleur had reached down from the sky and arranged things to his liking.

Lisbon is awash in stylistic eclecticism, indebted as much to the vogue for Moderne as to the apparently universal Western obsession with things Eastern. One sunny afternoon I sit with Ruby Hart in her pleasantly cluttered Bairro Alto shop, discussing business. Pashmina scarves hang next to shelves filled with organza curtains and Indian cutwork pillowcases, in a space carved out of walls several feet thick. Ruby, red-haired and somewhere in her thirties, is half-Scottish and half-Portuguese. I ask about the Indian patterns, fabrics, and colors. She tells me she spent almost a decade in southern Asia, returning to Lisbon two years ago to sell textiles of her own design handwoven in India. The fabrics are fine, often sheer. I begin to fantasize about hanging them in my apartment. Finally I settle for a wool-and-silk pillowcase whose raised blue flowers could have been stolen from my grandmother's embroidered linens. Ruby then sends me off to see a friend of hers, Marta, who traffics in Moroccan crafts and owns a shop called Spera on the Rua Atalaia.

As I follow Marta through several brightly colored rooms covered in kilims, she explains that the African statuettes scattered about the place are the work of the Bura tribe, who, it was recently discovered, lived sometime between the 3rd and 10th centuries A.D.

It's puzzling that no one seems very interested in Portuguese crafts. I ask Marta whether she has anything from Mozambique or Angola, two of Portugal's former colonies (the very ones whose struggle for independence led to revolution back home). "No," she says, "there isn't much there worth importing." Really, nothing?No statues, no baskets, no weavings equal to those of the Berbers or the Bura?I can't help wondering if her remark isn't rather self-deprecatory, symptomatic of the kind of national insecurity immortalized in such folk lyrics as "Lisboa não sejas Francesa—tu és Portuguesa" ("Lisbon don't be French—you're Portuguese"). After all, this is a country whose citizens were moved to teary-eyed expressions of thanks when Saramago won the Nobel Prize last fall—as if not just he, but Portugal itself, had finally been deemed worthy of international recognition. Then I think, well, maybe not, maybe this embrace of all things Asian and tribal and not Portuguese isn't a reflection of a national self-esteem crisis, but simply of the West's most recent "orientalist" turn.

I make my way a few blocks down from Marta's, to another store, the Loja da Atalaia. Here, sixties and seventies furniture—Bertoia-style chairs, early Philippe Starck, and Eero Aarnio designs, collected from flea markets in France and Germany—mixes with Eames-inspired pieces by Portuguese designers. Neo-Moderne is definitely the look of the moment, even if, as designer Pedro Seiça Ramos later tells me, it's hard to sell to a public that never quite lost its taste for the baroque.

Ramos shares a studio with his sister Ana in the once low-rent neighborhood of Campo d'Ourique. Displayed to perfection in room after spacious room are furnishings of steel, wood, and glass; metal doorknobs and curtain rods; cement sinks and countertops. Pedro, who's fashionably interested in feng shui, describes his collection of lamps and glass pieces as "Zen but not Zen." I'm more interested in his next project—designing the hallways, bathrooms, and kitchens of a new apartment complex. The building will occupy a lot near the Belém Cultural Center, a showcase for contemporary art built in 1993. It's hard to imagine yet another postmodern structure competing with the pastel-colored houses that once formed the only frame for the neighborhood's centerpiece: the ornate 16th-century Jerónimos Monastery. Clearly the nineties have witnessed a radical shift in the fabric of everyday life in this city—and not just for those with equal amounts of taste and money.

THE LAST WORLD'S FAIR OF THIS CENTURY was erected on Lisbon's eastern outskirts, in what was once an area of junkyards and abandoned warehouses. A funicular afforded last summer's crowds an overview of Expo '98's numerous pavilions; it still runs from one end of the site to the other, though there's hardly a soul on it the day my friend and I arrive. Along wide avenues hugging the river, pavilion after pavilion stands empty, though each is slated for some function or another—a ministry of such and such, a center for this or that. Only the Utopia Pavilion, a fair impression of a grounded UFO, seems to have found a new vocation: hosting rock concerts by everyone from eighties Goth band Bauhaus to fathers of trip-hop Massive Attack. Unfortunately, the doors here are locked when we arrive, as they are in the Álvaro Siza-designed Portuguese Pavilion, so we're stuck gazing at the outlines of this brave new world. There is something almost nostalgic about these structures, with their allusions to the utopianism of Modernist architecture. Perhaps that's because all around them, the future (utopian or otherwise) is still under construction: office towers and brightly colored apartment blocks have begun to colonize the surrounding area, but among them still stand a few tiny houses with equally tiny garden plots. Only at the new train and subway station, designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, has the future really arrived. Its glass-and-steel-roofed arcade bathes commuters and city buses in a space-age glow.

Since we're touring the site long after the Expo officially ended, I'm hopeful that we'll have the Oceanarium, with its tri-level central tank, largely to ourselves. It's easy to spot. Sticking out of the water like an oil derrick, it seems a more fitting setting for Terminator 2 than for the interminable line of chattering schoolchildren, clad in identical blue gingham smocks, snaking toward the entrance. While I attempt to determine if there's another, no-kids-allowed line, a bus disgorges its passengers onto the plaza: a group of little old ladies from the countryside, black kerchiefs tied under chins, faces creased by years in the sun, knobby fingers clutching vintage handbags. To them, this really must look like another world.

FOR ALL THE EXPO'S FRESH-FACED POTENTIAL, the building project closest to the city's heart is undoubtedly the reconstruction of the Chiado. It was here, at the top of these near-vertical hills lined with hundred-year-old shops and cafés, that my mother, as a student in the fifties, would wait for exactly the right taxi to ride home in—a Mercedes, of course. Here, too, was the Ferrari—not the car, but a mirrored tearoom where my sister and I had sipped fruit shakes under the watchful eyes of white-jacketed waiters. In 1988 a fire tore through much of this area, and when I visited Lisbon the following year scaffolding still covered the damaged façades. The Ferrari was gone, and along with it, it seemed, those gilded afternoons.

Now, 10 years later, my friend and I weave through the crowd on the Rua do Carmo. Few signs of the fire are visible—until we get to the corner. There, only partially covered by billboards, stands the burnt-out shell of the Armazen do Chiado, an ancient department store that I'd entered once or twice as a child, and never again, convinced that all the merchandise pre-dated World War II. But it is one of the few remaining scars. Just up the street, steps lead to inner courtyards around which Álvaro Siza has built angled apartment houses and office spaces, as yet unoccupied. Indebted more to the mutable forms of Adolf Loos and Alvar Aalto than to the austerities of the Bauhaus, these structures of pale stone, irregularly spaced windows, and shadowed hollows effectively marry the Neoclassicism of neighboring buildings with rationalist form. For all the fears that a Modernist sensibility would destroy the soul of the Chiado, Siza's careful integration of old and new seems oddly right.

At the top of the Chiado, the Livraria Bertrand displays endless copies of Saramago's collected essays and novels—and an anniversary edition of As Três Marias, a feminist ode to sexual liberation published pseudonymously 25 years before. Across the street, inside the Brasileira café, the dark wood and Belle Époque murals speak of another age. We take a seat near an impeccably dressed octogenarian, his hand resting on a polished cane. Moments after we sit down, his equally well dressed friend joins him. It's clear they meet here often, perhaps have done so for years. When I next look up, they're exchanging effusive greetings with a French doctor, and the octogenarian is introduced as one of the founders of Portugal's socialist party, "responsible for putting Mario Soares in power." I wonder who he might be—perhaps a member of the government when Soares was elected president in 1983. Mostly I wonder how it must feel to be his age, looking out at a city that has changed more radically in his lifetime than it has since the mid 18th century, when the Marquês de Pombal gave grandeur to this labyrinthine metropolis by cutting several wide boulevards through its center.

And of grandeur, or at least glamour, Lisbon again has plenty. Along the city's southwestern docks, restaurants and clubs have largely replaced the tin-roofed warehouses and giant cranes of a working port. Businessmen, blue-suited yuppies, and teenage clubbers crowd the biggest and most popular development, Doca de Santo Amaro, in Belém. A short ways east, on the Doca de Alcântara, is a huge gay club—formerly known as Kings & Queens, and now, perhaps more appropriately, as just Queens—flanked on one side by a blues-and-jazz club and on the other by Indochine, a Vegas-like tribute to 1930's Shanghai.

The voguish set, it turns out, actually congregates on the other side of the highway adjacent to the docks, at places like Alcântara Café, a former printing plant transformed into a restaurant. Its horseshoe-shaped bar is crowned by a full-size bronze replica of Winged Victory. On a Friday night, the tables are packed—women in little black dresses, men in tailored suits ordering champagne, oysters, and nouvelle portugaise cuisine. I have a clear view of two Cape Verdean women in matching, cleavage-baring snakeskin outfits shooting pool. (Yes, there are billiard tables in the restaurant.) As if this approach to creating atmosphere weren't strange enough, my friend informs me that the men's-room urinal is a floor-to-ceiling mirror terminating in an ice-filled trough. When we leave just after midnight, teenagers—the girls in platform sneakers, the boys straddling motorbikes—are milling around fried-food caravans, fueling up for a night at the club next door.

We're headed closer to the center of town, to Lux Frágil, a warehouse turned bar and nightclub. It's frequented—so we're told—by "intellectuals, artists, and even Sting (when he's in town, of course)." In the bar's immense, loftlike space we watch Lisbon's literati chatting over cocktails and sitting on candy-colored chairs from the sixties and seventies that look a lot like the ones so carefully displayed at the Loja da Atalaia. (That's probably because Manuel Reis, who owns the shop, also owns Lux.) Picture windows provide a view of the lights across the river, and freestanding walls create quasi-rooms and dark nooks bathed in a neon glow. I feel as if I've come home to New York—all that's missing is the lounge music.

NOT ALL OF LISBON HAS REMADE ITSELF, or benefited from the influx of EU monies. And for me there is a strange comfort in that. I can't help but feel there is something somehow more genuine about peeling plaster and soot-covered tiles. Hookers, even more of them than before, loiter in the Largo do Intendente; sailors still frequent the strip-joint-lined streets leading from the Cais do Sodré train station to the edge of the Bairro Alto. So it seems a pity that, in the Martim Moniz square, an illuminated fountain has taken the place of the gypsy-run stalls selling tchotchkes.

Yet even I must admit that the Rossio, an ancient downtown plaza, looks better now that it is no longer choked with buses, their exhaust blackening the elaborate Art Nouveau tiles of surrounding buildings. From there, farther toward the river, down the Rua dos Fanqueiros, the Praça do Comércio holds a particularly pleasurable surprise. In late afternoon, the newly bright ocher walls of the arcaded Stock Exchange cast a Venetian glow on the broad square, now emptied of the hundreds of cars that obscured its beauty for so many years. We sit at the Martinho d'Arcada café to contemplate the view. Here, it's said, Portugal's Modernist poet Fernando Pessoa would come after a day spent doing bookkeeping for a small firm. Vintage photographs decorate the walls—Pessoa walking, Pessoa in profile, Pessoa descending the Chiado. Is this what Lisbon looked like to him—clean, bright, orderly?Doubtless it sometimes did. Yet in his only prose work, The Book of Disquiet, the city that obsessed him was one of shopkeepers and gamblers, of neighborhood busybodies and false heroes. Seventy years later that city is still there: you can see it in the twisting streets of the Alfama, where women exchange gossip as they hang laundry; on the Avenida da Liberdade, where middle-aged couples dance to the tunes of their youth in shabby outdoor cafés; and in the face of the man who approaches our table selling lotto tickets. As I get ready to leave the café, I feel, to quote Pessoa, "my invisible being rise above Detroit, Michigan, and the whole of central Lisbon."

Navigating Lisbon isn't always easy. If the streets aren't narrow, they're clogged with traffic, and many of them change names every few blocks. But if you get lost, you may not mind much: one of the pleasures of this city is feeling like you've stumbled upon a shop or café no one knows about — even if it's the place you were looking for all along.

Four Seasons Hotel The Ritz 88 Rua Rodrigo da Fonseca; 800/332-3442 or 351-1/383-2020, fax 351-1/383-1783; doubles from $275. One of Lisbon's oldest luxury hotels, recently refurbished by the Four Seasons. Excellent in-house restaurant.
Hotel da Lapa 4 Rua do Pau de Bandeira; 800/223-6800 or 351-1/395-0005, fax 351-1/395-0665; doubles from $327. A converted 19th-century palace with a spectacular garden and pool.
BEST VALUE: Hotel Metropole 30 Praça Dom Pedro IV; 351-1/346-9164, fax 351-1/346-9166; doubles from $127. Rooms at this Art Deco gem are decorated with forties- and fifties-style furniture and fabrics.

À Brasileira 120-122 Rua Garrett, Chiado; 351-1/346-9541. Open from early morning until 2 a.m.
Alcântara Café 15 Rua Maria Luísa Holstein, Alcântara; 351-1/362-1226; dinner for two $100.
Café-Café 57 Rua de Cascais, Alcântara; 351-1/361-0310; dinner for two $50. Impeccably designed and renowned for its Portuguese nouvelle cuisine.
Lux Frágil Avda. Infante Dom Henrique, Armazen A, Cais da Pedra a Santa Apolónia; 351-1/882-0890.
Martinho da Arcada Arcadas do Terreiro do Paço, Praça do Comércio; 351-1/886-6213; lunch for two $25.
Meson El Gordo 16 Rua de São Boaventura, Bairro Alto; 351-1/342-4266; dinner for two $100. Asian-influenced Portuguese fare served under a blue-domed ceiling.
Pap' Açorda 57 Rua da Atalaia, Bairro Alto; 351-1/346-4811; dinner for two $100. Famous for its variations on typical Portuguese food.

Rubyanco 76-78 Rua Eduardo Coelho, Bairro Alto; 351-1/347-1903. Asian-inspired and Portuguese-inflected designs.
Spera 64A Rua da Atalaia, Bairro Alto; 351-1/342-7142. Kilims, lamps, and weavings.
Loja da Atalaia 7 Rua da Atalaia; 351-1/346-2093. Museum-quality vintage furniture.
Santos da Casa 49A Avda. Dom Carlos I; 351-1/395-2536. Everything from proto-Bauhaus coffee cups to handmade carpets.
Lavandaria 11-13 Rua Augusto Rosa; 351-1/887-5691. Stylish renditions of traditional Portuguese linens and embroideries.
Galeria Ratton Cerâmicas 2C Rua Academia das Ciências; 351-1/346-0948. Portuguese tiles designed by contemporary artists and architects.

Museu do Chiado 4 Rua Serpa Pinto; 351-1/343-2148. Temporary exhibitions and a permanent collection of 19th- and 20th-century Portuguese art.
Centro Cultural de Belém Praça do Império, Belém; 351-1/361-2400. Contemporary art exhibitions and a wonderful terrace restaurant.
Mosteiro Jerónimos Praça do Império, Belém; 351-1/362-0034. Elaborately carved cloisters inside, a sculptured garden in front. A few doors down is the Museu Nacional dos Coches, with 45 royal carriages from the early 17th century to the 20th.
Museu-Escola de Artes Decorativas (Fundação Espirito Santo) 2 Largo das Portas do Sol; 351-1/886-2183. Go here before you buy any pottery or tiles. Seventeenth- and 18th-century tapestries, furniture, ceramics.
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian 45 Avda. de Berna; 351-1/793-5131. An outstanding collection of Islamic and Oriental art as well as significant paintings by Dutch and French masters.
Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga 9 Rua das Janelas Verdes; 351-1/396-4151. The museum's international collection includes Bosch's The Temptation of Saint Anthony.

At the gilded basilica of the Convento Madre de Deus and the adjoining museum of azulejos (painted tiles), a mural-size panel depicts Lisbon before the earthquake of 1755.

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