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The Welcoming Heritage of Portugal

June 12, 1988|F. LISA BEEBE | Beebe is a New York City free-lance writer

LISBON — Portugal's monuments, museums, cobblestones and tiles are echoes of the 16th Century, with a warren of tangled cobblestone streets signaling the Alfama, the city's oldest and most picturesque quarter.

Life percolates through the narrow staircase streets and oblique alleys built just wide enough for two donkeys to pass and just tortuous enough to deter surprise invasions. Multicolored trams negotiate the maze with mere centimeters to spare, but I recommend exploring on foot.

Stop for a wine or beer at some of the cavelike tavernas and, at lunchtime, watch the streets fill with the smoke and aroma of barbecued sardines. Once the enclave of Lisbon's fishermen, the Alfama today is shared by poets and painters inspired by its abundant vestiges of the past.

Zigzag your way unerringly up and you'll eventually reach the ruins of the Castle of San Jorge, whose foundations date from the 6th Century but whose current aspect is the result of sporadic expansion and renovation that began in the 12th Century. It culminated in a restoration in the medieval style 50 years ago. From the 13th Century to the early 16th Century, San Jorge was the residence of Portugal's kings.

On the ramparts you can see Lisbon unfurled to the west. The Baixa (lower town) is the compact grid of narrow streets and short blocks between Black Horse Square at the river's edge and Lisbon's central Rossio Square to the north. This is an area of stores and businesses.

Echoes of Paris

Near the intersection of Rua de Santa Justa and Rua Aurea, Eiffel's Elevador de Santa Justa (a prelude to his Paris tower) links the Baixa with the Bairro Alto (upper town), most noted for its nightlife.

From the upper platform of the Elevador you can enjoy a full-circle view of the city and cross via footbridge to the Bairro Alto's Largo do Carmo a few blocks north, which blossoms with sidewalk cafes and pastry shops of the Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon's Champs Elysees.

Returning to Black Horse Square, hop a tram west to Belem's Jeronimos Monastery, a 16th-Century expression of thanks for Vasco da Gama's successful East Indian expedition.

The early 16th Century was the height of Portugal's sea power, a time when trade in gold, ivory, gems and spices along the Tagus River banks seemingly knew no limits.

Themes From the Sea

The Jeronimos Monastery is a tour de force of the Manueline decorative style that derived its ornamental themes from Portugal's nautical prowess and imperial riches. It also houses the tomb of Vasco da Gama.

Looking toward the river, you'll see a Manueline parapet. Along with its lost twin, this 16th-Century Tower of Belem once stood in the Tagus, marking the spot from which Da Gama set sail for India. The course of the river has shifted; and before becoming a tourist sight, this tower served as a fortress and lighthouse.

Nearby, jutting into the river like the prow of a ship, is the Monument to the Discoveries.

Standing at its figurative helm is Prince Henry the Navigator (who allegedly sailed only once and got terribly seasick) leading a throng of sailors, captains, priests, poets and weeping widows into the jaws of hard-won glory.

Once you've seen the sights of Lisbon, the beaches of the Estoril Coast and the mountains of Sintra await 15 miles away.

About every half-hour, trains to Estoril and Cascais, a few miles farther down the coast, leave Lisbon's Cais do Sodre Station for "the Coast of Kings." For several centuries this stretch of shore was the favored summer retreat of the aristocracy, and it continues to draw some of Europe's nobility.

During World War II, many exiled bluebloods came here to ride out the storm. Some, like King Umberto of Italy and the Count of Barcelona, pretender to the Spanish throne, stayed in Cascais.

Unfortunately, Estoril, like so many other resort areas around the world, is threatened by the modern scourge of pollution, so a new resort area is being developed along the Costa de Caparica across the Tagus.

Luxurious Lure

But the Casino Estoril at the northern end of Parque do Estoril remains a luxurious lure. In addition to gaming tables, bars and a glittering floor show, it boasts miles of marble, extravagant carpeting and dazzling chandeliers.

The Sintra train departs from Lisbon's Rossio Station for the lush green mountains, landscaped parks and fanciful castles.

Although today's horse-drawn carriages tote squadrons of tourists, Sintra has not surrendered an ounce of its charm to tourism.

Like a Renaissance Dutch painting whose realistic foreground fades into background fantasy, Sintra sets the tiled and balconied structures of its central square against castle-crowned mountains.

A small town of 15,000, Sintra swells with excursionists on weekends and during the tourist season (March to October).

Botanist's Delight

About 90 species of plants from all over the former empire make it a botanist's delight and a romantic's dream.

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