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Brave Old World

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.

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