In love with Lisbon

LISBON is cobblestones, red-tile roofs, and songs of unrequited love. Screeching trolleys snake over seven seaside hills that rise above the confluence of the broad Tagus River and the North Atlantic. The outstretched arms of ``Christ the King'' - the 762-foot signature statue of Lisbon - embrace the horizon from high on the opposite bank. The sounds of ducks and dogs in the street mingle with the cry of ``morangos'' (strawberries) along Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon's Champs Elys'ee. And Lisboetas are huddled beneath striped umbrellas nursing cafe com leite, while the traditional Portuguese songs of melancholy, known as Fado, waft from taverns into busy boulevards and salt air.

Lisbon's charm is that it feels like the Europe of 50 years ago, but doesn't have the self-consciousness to either hype or bemoan that fact. Separateness and belatedness are part of what the city is all about. It is the very sting of separation from the continent - blocked by both Spain and the Pyr'en'ees - that is the most telling fact of history for both Portugal and its capital. Facing only the sea, this is the same city that launched explorers in the 15th and 16th century - Prince Henry the Navigator and Vasco De Gama among them - when the country was one of the mightiest on earth.

But Lisbon is now the capital of the poorest country in Europe. And it is just this melding of past glory and modern exclusion that make for a visit beyond the prosaic to the poetic. Rebuilt from ruins

Part of Lisbon's demise was in 600 years' accumulation of wealth from the Age of Discovery which was swallowed by an earthquake in 1755. The quake leveled 9,000 buildings, 42 palaces, and untold numbers of monasteries and churches. The result for the modern visitor is a city most of which is less than 200 years old. The downtown area, known as the Baixa, is now straight and gridlike, following the plan of Marques de Pombal, who studied London's reconstruction after the great fire there in 1666.

The visitor is encouraged to gain the large view by hired car, then begin on foot for a host of spontaneous surprises. Streetside cafes and pasterlarias (pastry shops) abound next to flower-lined boulevards dominated by squeaking and sputtering cabs that give the cheapest rides - about $2 to anywhere in town - in Europe. Lisbon is one of the best bargains in Europe as well, with a dollar going further in the purchase of food, accommodations, crystal, silver, and gold than any other European capital.

Fountains, parks, and patterned mosaic sidewalks of white limestone and black basalt are the other telltale Lisbon features. While most of the downtown is 18th and 19th century, there are still some of the older monuments standing to be discovered.

The area of town that all the guidebooks point you toward is the Alfama, once described by local author Alexandre Herculano: ``A labyrinth, confused, heaped up multicolored, and re-twisted - an ant hill of souls.'' Balconies, archways, terraces, and courtyards dominate this section, originally a Visigothic settlement, then a fashionable Saracen enclave, now a noisy and popular ghetto. Says one guide: ``It would be absurd to suggest an itinerary for the Alfama, since you'll get lost no matter what you do.''

Hidden treasures

We came into Lisbon by car across the majestic April 25 Bridge, which gives probably the best view of the area, save the Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. Georges Castle). Visit the latter for the best view from high of Alfama. There was an elaborate palace built by the Moors on this site, but now only ramparts linking 10 crenelated towers among pine, cypress, oleander, and orange trees.

After winding down and through Alfama, visitors are urged to see Se, Lisbon's cathedral, so named after the Latin word sedes, for seat. From there to the National Museum of Ancient Art, called alternately a ``sleeper'' and a ``must'' by guidebooks. That ``must see'' is the polyptych, St. Vincent, by Nuno Goncalves - an epic of 16th-century Portuguese life, 60 portraits in all, from saint to fisherman.

The other sleeper in Lisbon, virtually unknown to most Americans, is the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Museum. Periodic theater, dance, and symphony are performed in the foundation's outdoor amphitheater amid rustic surroundings of gurgling brooks, bridge-covered ponds, and roaming peacocks. Inside the museum is the collection of one of the richest men who ever lived. Highlights are carpets from ancient Persia, tomb figures from Egypt, art nouveau jewelry by Lalique, and 16th-century wall tapestries.

Our stay took in all these sights more than three days, though most guidebooks say a one or two-day stay is plenty. Other points to include in town are the Jeronimos Monastery (considered one of the finest examples of intricately carved cloisters in the Manueline style); the 16th-century fortress Belem Tower (both Gothic and Renaissance in style at water's edge); and Black Horse Square, which is spread before the harbor, busy with passing tankers. And it is the streets in the central city, around Rossio Square and the Chiado where most of the best shopping is. We found extraordinary values in crystal and silver tea sets. Nineteen-carat gold jewelry is also one of the unique items to be found in Lisbon. And the city is known for Madeira embroideries, organdies and tapestries, ceramics, and porcelains.

After an afternoon drive and dinner in the resort town of Sintra, we arrived back in Lisbon just in time to sample Fado, the Portuguese equivalent of flamenco without the dancing. There are fado clubs all over the city, and word has it that past midnight is the best time to sample. Our hotel concierge suggested the famous Sr. Vinho, which is primarily an eating and drinking establishment with Fado performed every 30 minutes or so. We arrived after midnight on a weeknight to find a packed house and no sign of letup.

Asking around this hilltop neighborhood, we easily found another fado establishment nearby called Timpanas, that was smaller and more intimate and had one table in the corner. Intimate is the right word to describe the experience of Fado. The singers take their role more seriously than that of entertainer - perhaps more a guardian of the national soul.

The origins of the songs are in dispute. Some say they originated with prostitutes, others say they began with fishermen or were brought from Arabia. Whichever, they are lively, haunting, heartfelt. It is perhaps the feeling of lamentation - both in song and city - that is the legacy of a visit to Lisbon. If you go

Details on sightseeing and day trips in and around Lisbon can be obtained at your hotel or at the Lisbon Tourist office on the Avenida da Liberdada. Or you can contact the Portuguese National Tourist Office, 548 Fifth Ave., N.Y., N.Y. 10036. Telephone 212-354-4403.

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