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Lisbon's Renaissance

Andrea Fazzari A view from Baixa of Praça Dom Pedro IV

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

I knew it was going to be a good party when I saw the door vixen. Not only did she look like the love child of Grace Jones and Leigh Bowery—seven feet tall and dipped in cherry-red PVC—but she wouldn't let the glossy-magazine photographer through the door without a mask. It takes a confident host to force habitually nonconformist media people to obey a dress code. But with or without the help of the press, promoter Manuel Reis and his crew could afford to be upbeat about their Malicia in Wonderland Fetish Ball, held on that breezy night at Reis's megaclub Lux, on the Santa Apolónia docks in Lisbon. The parking lot alone was a madhouse. To the left of the door was the fresh-faced Portuguese publicist for Louis Vuitton, dressed as a Roman centurion; behind him stood a troop of Boy Scouts in short-shorts and pumps. Here an astronaut in lipstick, there Francisco Capelo, Lisbon's leading art collector, and his strapping date, both in hundred-year-old Indonesian dragon masks and floor-length feather skirts. All my group had to do next was clear the stiletto-heeled courtiers on the staircase, and then we'd be watching Marilyn Manson's luminous girlfriend (now wife), Dita Von Teese, strip down to a constellation of rhinestone pasties and writhe around on a spotlit bed, which had been hauled in for the night.

Since the 1980's, when Reis opened his first dance club, Fragil, in the neighborhood of Bairro Alto, Lisbon has been known as a town that can get down. Electronic music fans, and the house and techno DJ's who serve them, have long seen the city as a mecca. But there's a spirit of celebration in the air today that's not only for music lovers but also for foodies, design buffs, and aficionados of boutique hotels. "People who have not considered Lisbon as a destination before are considering it now," says hotelier Grace Leo-Andrieu, whose GLA International group manages the airy new 55-room Bairro Alto Hotel straddling the upscale shopping district of Chiado and the earthier Bairro Alto. Leo-Andrieu can choose almost anywhere in the world to open a new place—GLA's portfolio includes the Lancaster in Paris and Mustique's Cotton House. But with the number of American tourists to Lisbon up 5.8 percent, according to the most recent statistics, and European travelers running a close second, Leo-Andrieu is tapping into what she thinks is Lisbon's moment: "There's a feeling of discovery here," she says.

Discovery is an ironic idea to associate with this ancient port, the launch site of all those voyages to India, Africa, and Asia that we should have remembered from history class. It's an apt one, though, and not just for tourists. From the 16th century to the 1960's, the Portuguese were the leading émigrés of Europe. Gradually, however, especially since Portugal joined the European Community (now the European Union) in 1986, lisboetas have awakened to realize that their city is a nice place to come home to, and stopped wanting to take the first boat out of town. "Sure I'd love to live in New York or Paris one of these days, but only temporarily," says my friend Paulo Macedo, Vogue Portugal's fashion director, who has lived in Lisbon and the nearby beach suburb Carcavelos for nearly 20 years. "The quality of life here is too high to walk away from." We're having this conversation over dinner at Pap'Açorda, a casual minimalist mainstay in Bairro Alto that serves top-notch Portuguese soul food to the city's fashion and arts elite. As he finishes off a smooth Alentejo red and the densest, blackest chocolate mousse I've ever seen, Macedo looks around the marble-walled room, its vases exploding with pale pink peonies, its ceiling dripping with Murano glass. "You cannot get what we have anywhere else," he says—certainly you can't get that pudding, some of which he gallantly saves for me—"it's just that it took us a little while to realize it."

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