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Lisbon's Renaissance

Andrea Fazzari A view from Baixa of Praça Dom Pedro IV

Photo: Andrea Fazzari

So far, that hasn't seemed to be a problem. In fact, after a generation of fascist malaise, lisboetas are embracing the city's old customs, even those that are still a bit redolent of Salazar. A case in point is fado. The mournful national song of love and loss (fado literally means "fate") was actively promoted by the dictator. The lisboetas I know still turn their noses up at fado clubs, which they consider touristy. But invite a local to join you at a place like Sr. Vinho, a low-ceilinged boîte in the quiet Lapa neighborhood, and you'll see your friend silently mouthing the words as the shawl-draped fadista wails along to the acoustic guitar. Almost everyone has a favorite singer—usually it's Mariza, the striking, half Mozambican superstar with the marcelled platinum-blond bob and global critical acclaim.

Another instance of locals' appreciation for the ambiguous beauty of a checkered past is the enduring social centrality of Lisbon's Four Seasons Hotel the Ritz, a jaw-dropping example of high Modernist glamour that Salazar commissioned through a consortium of local moneymen in 1953. Lisbon had been a big travel hub during World War II (Portugal was officially neutral), but its old-world hotels—the regal Pestana Palace and rococo Avenida Palace, to name two—lacked the cosmopolitan flair that Salazar wanted to project to the outside world. He realized his dream in the Ritz, a capacious, gilt-edged sanctuary with museum-quality sculptures and tapestries on every wall. Now managed by the Four Seasons, the Ritz's hyper-tasteful restaurant Varanda continually attracts a boldfaced mishmash of captains of industry and society doyennes. The light nouvelle-Portuguese menu is predictably strong on seafood, and during lunch, the action hovers around the decadent buffet. In 2003, an appropriately luxurious, 16,000-square-foot spa and a pool were added to the storied hotel. With its tall panels of polished dark wood, high ceilings, and Zen-like relaxation rooms, the facility has become such a destination for locals that the hotel now sells spa memberships.

Lisbon's ever warmer embrace of the past reaches further back than the mid 20th century. Portuguese architect Miguel Cancio Martins, the designer of Paris's Buddha Bar and New York's Man Ray, is finishing his makeover of a late 18th-century mansion on the grand, tree-lined Avenida da Liberdade for Lisbon's Hoteis Heritage group. But, he tells me, it's been his fantasy to build in the oldest part of the city. He's not alone in his ardor for the Alfama, a windy, steep-hilled maze of a neighborhood that dates back to the eighth century—it's already the site of two smart boutique hotels created from old castles: the Heritage group's three-year-old yellow-washed Solar do Castelo, a former 18th-century maisonette inside the walls of a Moorish castle; and the elite, eccentric Palácio Belmonte, an 11-room, antiques-filled oasis fashioned from a 15th-century house. If you walk through Belmonte's brightly painted, eclectically decorated rooms, you'll never see a chambermaid. There's no concierge, not even an on-site kitchen, but make a call to the manager and within 15 minutes whatever you want will be arranged.

Not that shiny new venues are getting short shrift. Droves of locals make weekend-afternoon pilgrimages to the Parque das Nações, which was commissioned for Expo on what used to be a dingy industrial wasteland northeast of central Lisbon. Now it's a large garden adjoined by striking examples of contemporary architecture, especially Alvaro Siza's spaceship-style sports arena and exhibition hall, Pavilhão de Portugal, and Peter Chermayeff's Oceanário, the second-largest aquarium in the world.

Another recent addition to the city is Eleven, a sleek restaurant with an ambitious contemporary Mediterranean menu by chef Joachim Koerper that became an instant hot spot when it opened in the Amaliá Rodrigues garden of Parque Eduardo VII last year. Its steep prices have caused a bit of controversy, but on the night I visit, the clientele is solidly Portuguese. "Lisbon, which has become such a cosmopolitan city in the past five years, is ready for a really important European chef," says Miguel Júdice, the 33-year-old hotelier and restaurateur who led Eleven's eponymous team of 11 investors (including Koerper). Not that Júdice thinks Lisbon's food is lacking—it's just been underpublicized. "The Michelin guides have ignored Portugal," he tells me. Eleven's one Michelin star, awarded last November, is the city's first and only—and the eighth to be awarded in the entire country. It's a well-deserved recognition for Júdice and Koerper. The dinner I share with Júdice—starting with an amuse-bouche of whitefish rillettes with caviar and lettuce and ending with strawberries, rhubarb compote, and champagne ice cream—is light, fresh, and subtle, a long way from traditional Portuguese cuisine. (And I'm not complaining about traditional Portuguese cuisine. A simple char-grilled fish at the humblest tavern is often better than anything I ever had on Cape Cod, even if the ubiquitous açorda, or bread stew, can sit in your stomach like a coriander-scented brick.)

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