Comparing Lisbon

Lisbon's ancient castle Lately I have been in contact with several young people staying in Lisbon for an extended period of time, either studying or in a long work-related visit. They come from different countries, from Poland, to France, to Spain, to Italy. We’ve exchanged thoughts and opinions on Lisbon, which got me thinking about the Portuguese capital in comparison with other great cities.
The first comments from these visitors are always comparisons with their home cities or with other capitals they’re familiar with. All of them, though, seem to do a Lisbon vs. Madrid comparison. It is understandable how the first capital they compare Lisbon to, would be its Iberian neighbor, but in my opinion that is like comparing apples with oranges in the sense that these two cities have very different histories and topographies.

Architecturally for example, Madrid is not an Iberian city (Seville for example, is classic Spanish or Iberian). Madrid is a city influenced by the Austrian Habsburg dynasty that ruled Spain for centuries, with practically no buildings pre-dating the 17th and 18th centuries. The Habsburg imprint is clearly seen in the Gran Via (which wouldn’t be out of place in Vienna), or in the Almudena Cathedral and Plaza Mayor, for example.

Madrid is also not an ancient city like Lisbon. It was born in the 16th century to become the nation’s capital in the middle of the Spanish territory. It was built specifically as an imposing capital very much like Vienna. Lisbon on the other hand, is a city that was formed over the centuries, with several incarnations, first as a Phoenician trading port, then as a thriving Moorish city, then the capital of the first great modern empire, to a city isolated by dictatorship for much of the 20th century. It is a city that has been destroyed by battles, by one of the greatest earthquakes ever recorded in human history, by tragic fires. In short, Lisbon was not “made” but rather a city that has adapted for better or for worse, to its turbulent and remarkable history. Lisbon has grown and evolved from its conversions of cultures through the centuries and that, together with buildings dating from almost every century (a mosque-turned-cathedral, typically Mediterranean pastel-colored houses, one of the world’s most impressive modern bridges, etc.) and its slightly disorganized urban landscape is what makes it such a unique place. It is a city that is not meant to be imposing, but a place that is truly seductive.

Typical old Lisbon street There is a touch of Paris in the Chiado and Baixa districts, perhaps a little of Rome in the churches of hilly Alfama or even of Morocco’s Fez in this ancient medina, a little of Seville in the exotic architecture of the famous monuments of Belem, and a side of any great modern metropolis in the Parque das Nações district. Others recall San Francisco when looking at 25 de Abril Bridge and the colorful trams, but Lisbon is not comparable to any other city. Perhaps the most comparable to Lisbon would be Naples in Italy or even Istanbul in Turkey, in that it is rather exotic in the European context; a city to be appreciated for its details, in its alluring characteristics and hidden delights, and not to marvel at its made-to-impress buildings. It does have its impressive monuments (the Jeronimos Monastery and Belem Tower, recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, never fail to impress), but Lisbon’s lasting mark in visitors’ minds are its sensuous mix of colors, architectural styles, steep staircases, pathways, and alleyways framing unexpected views of the river, and sea of rooftops, church towers, and domes. It is in the unique colorful tiles decorating old façades, in the drying laundry hanging from wrought-iron balconies, in dilapidated buildings that hide sleek bars and cosmopolitan restaurants, in its contrasting sides, from the village-within-a-city that is Alfama to futuristic Parque das Nações.

I understand how visitors used to the pompous organization of Paris or to the more cleaned-up-for-the-tourist-to-see cities of Spain, would be rather surprised to find Lisbon so “decadent” at first sight. But after talking with these recent “temporary Lisbonites,” I became certain that Lisbon never fails to seduce – those who don’t understand it at first, come to appreciate it as a great authentic city, with its flaws and greatness; filled with charm and surprises. Everyone who experiences it, ends up falling for Lisbon and wishing to stay longer or to return.

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