During World War II, the narrow alleys that pass for streets in some Lisbon neighborhoods provided a backdrop for international intrigue. Lisbon, Portugal, was the setting for many post-war "B" movies in which Allied and Nazi agents participated in daring missions. Today, Lisbon is still an intriguing capital with the look of San Francisco and the ambiance of Rome, with tiny restaurants serving seafood cooked in olive oil with lots of garlic. And like Rome, it sprawls over seven hills.
From its beginnings, Lisbon, with its strategic port at the mouth of the Tagus River, has been a worthy prize to conquering Romans, Moors and English. Portugal was neutral during World War II, serving as an escape route from Europe to New York, a straight shot across the Atlantic. It was also a mecca for spies.
Lisbon isn't especially dramatic architecturally, for one morning in 1755 an earthquake, followed by a tidal wave, leveled much of what was then one of Europe's richest cities. In 10 minutes, 300 palaces and 110 churches collapsed.
Today, only the Alfama Quarter, from an Arab word, meaning "hot springs," remains of medieval Lisbon. As you explore its winding cobblestone stairs and alleys with their tipsy pink and yellow buildings, you'll notice how the earthquake pressed the houses together. Laundry snaps overhead. Bird cages dance above doorways. Tethered chickens peck for crumbs between the cobblestones. Cats and dogs sun themselves. Smiling 'youngsters perch on the centuries-old walls licking popsicles. Black-clad women chat from one wrought iron balcony to another and admire each other's pots of daffodils and daisies.
Here, you'll find tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants called tascas, serving caldo verde, potato and cabbage soup and grilled sardines, followed by flan and wine. Women cook beef and chicken on outdoor grills for customers in sidewalk restaurants.
On the Rue de Sao Pedro, barefooted fishwives hawk plump oranges and seagreen kale. Here and there on one of the leaning old buildings, a painting of the Virgin, fashioned in tiles called casulejos, gleams in the sun.
Lisbon is a sightseer's delight. At the top of the Alfama stands the Castelo Sao Jorge, St. George's Castle, built by the Visigoths in the 5th century, embellished by the Moors in the 9th when they ruled Lisbon and turned the structure into a governor's palace, and further embellished in the 12th century after the Portuguse drove the Moors out. Today, fragrant gardens surround the remaining castle ramparts. Swans and doves and white peacocks preen on the green grass while tourists admire the view below.
The city has many interesting museums, most accessible by bus or subway from your Lisbon hotels. The Monastery of San Jeronimos is an enormous palace and church built by Portuguese kings in thanksgiving for the discoveries of Vasco da Gama, who's buried here, and other Portuguese navigators of the world. The giant Gothic-Renaissance Church of Santa Maria, which forms part of the monastery, is famed for the stone lace-work of its adjoining cloisters. The square fortress Tower of Belem or Bethlehem rises above the water. Both were inspired in the late 15th and early 16th centuries by the far-flung travels of Portugal's explorers, and named for King Manuel I who ruled at the time. The ropes and anchors, globes and spheres, important to the early sailors embellish ivory-white monuments.
Contemporary Lisbon's attractions include the Gulbenkian Museum of Art and the Coach Museum. The former displays the largest privately owned collection of paintings, furniture, ceramics, sculptures, tapestries and coins in the world, covering over 5,000 years of cultural history. The latter, originally a riding school for the royal family, houses a remarkable collection of 60 coaches from all over the world, dating from 1581 to 1824.
After a day of seeing the sights, plan on eating a late seafood dinner and listening to the soulful strains of the Fado as it drifts from cabarets in the Barrio Alto.
While Lisbon isn't the biggest capital in Europe, nor the prettiest, it offers small pockets of beauty and a Portuguese charm that's warm and inviting.