A CITY WITH SECRETS... Once the Stage for World War II Espionage, Lisbon Still Has Plenty to Intrigue, Says JAMES MILTON

Daily Mail (London), March 24, 2010 | Go to article overview

A CITY WITH SECRETS... Once the Stage for World War II Espionage, Lisbon Still Has Plenty to Intrigue, Says JAMES MILTON


Byline: JAMES MILTON

BECOMING lost in Lisbon is only too easy. The winding streets of Alfama, the city's oldest district, with its narrow staircases and twisting alleyways, are known to bamboozle even longterm residents.

In this maze of fishmongers and doorway bars, only the initiated can navigate successfully.

I give up on anything as prosaic as directions or map reading and set off on some gloriously aimless wandering. It is the right decision -- if there's one city in Europe tailor-made for guideless whiling, it is Lisbon.

Set on a series of hills and valleys overlooking a bend in the River Tagus, a few miles from the Atlantic, Lisbon has more than its fair share of muscle-stretching inclines. But the pace of life is so calm, the people so polite and the views so stunning, that ambling amid its sumptuous architecture and graceful ways is pure bliss.

And a little leg work reaps rewards. I make a pit-stop for one of Lisbon's renowned custard tarts, climb a few steps and reach a spectacular view over the claytiled rooftops down to the sparkling river.

I succumb to a yellow tram for the ride downhill. Here they're not a tourist attraction, but a popular means of transport used by residents.

Crammed full of elderly women chatting away, shopping in tow, these clanking carriages navigate the steep inclines and sharp drops like sedate rollercoasters.

The daring youngsters who can often be seen clinging onto the sides, hitching a free ride, add to the thrill. Refreshingly, health and safety hasn't curbed their fun.

The legendary No. 28 tram I catch is the city's most wide-ranging, taking in most of Lisbon's major historical sights and careening up and down roads so narrow, at times it feels as though you could reach out and touch the walls.

As we hurtle past the city's towering Romanesque cathedral (built on the site of a mosque after the city had been conquered from the Muslim Moors in the 12th century), we move into the wide boulevards of the Baixa.

Unlike the delightful and higgledy-piggledy nature of the rest of Lisbon, the streets here are straight and symmetrical, due largely to the destruction wrought upon them 250 years ago.

On November 1, 1755, Lisbon was struck by a powerful sixminute earthquake, which devastated most of the city and killed 15,000 people. Many were crushed by collapsing churches, where they had been celebrating All Saints' Day. The Baixa area was particularly badly hit, not only by the earthquake, but by the subsequent tsunami.

Rebuilt along a grid pattern, the area's streets evolved into a busy hive of traders. The character is maintained today both here and in the neighbouring Chiado district, where haberdashers, goldsmiths and shoemakers sit beside chains such as Zara and Mango.

These stores are invited guests among a plethora of old-fashioned craft shops and family owned retailers. Lisbon's lease laws allow small shopkeepers to pay minimal rent, ensuring chains don't dominate, and perhaps there's a lesson for the bland and uniform high streets of Britain.

ON the Rua do Carmo I wander into what must be one of the world's tiniest shops, a glove emporium where, at a squeeze, two people can fit in front of the counter. Luvaria Ulisses has been making and selling handmade gloves here since 1925, and the walls are covered with a selection of the beautiful results.

Owner Carlos Carvalho has been working here for 35 years. To see him in action is to observe a master craftsman at work.

Taking a hand, he instantly sizes up shape and measurements and suggests the sort of glove that will suit. 'Everybody's hands are different,' he smiles, 'and it's important to make sure you take these into account. After all, you want these to fit like a glove.'

For a little over [pounds sterling]45, you come away with a gorgeous pair of handmade kidskin gloves with cashmere lining. …

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