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Why Lisbon is the city of 1,000 colours

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Why Lisbon is the city of 1,000 colours
The rainbow-painted walls that gave the town's old name are back—and this year's Cultural Capital of Europe has a kaleidoscope of events to match. From the August 1994 edition in the Reader's Digest magazine archives  

Lisbon: A cultural cityscape

From the studio high at the top of Lapa hill, central Lisbon resembles a toy shop. Streets are lined with russet-roofed buildings, and miniature cranes unload matchbox ships at river-front docks.
"See there?" says Maluda, my hostess. "The light is constantly changing. This morning the river was silver. By sunset it will be teal blue. That's what makes Lisbon a perfect painter's city. It's magical!"
A panorama of the Lisbon cityscape, with St George's Castle on the left, and the Tagus River visible
The panorama from Maluda's window was indeed breathtaking. To the left, the ochre walls of St George's Castle glistened like old gold in the rising sun. Boats, like busy water insects, criss-crossed the wide Tagus—"a river masquerading as a sea", someone once said—leaving silvery trails in their wake. The Tagus River Bridge, Europe's second-longest suspension span, soared into infinity—its destination still shrouded in the morning mist.
Maluda (Maria de Lourdes Ribeiro), one of Portugal's most prominent artists, is known for her geometric cityscapes of Lisbon. This March she displayed 31 of her canvases at Centro Cultural de Belém, to join the 2,000-year-old city in its ten-month reign as Cultural Capital of Europe. In a multi-faceted celebration known as Lisbon 94, citizens at last have a chance to show off their city.
"We are presenting Lisbon as a city where people can enjoy theatre, music, dance and the visual arts"
The recognition is long overdue. "Until now," frets Vítor Constâncio, who was charged with organising Lisbon 94, "visitors have looked on us as merely a place to go for a holiday in the sun. We are presenting Lisbon as a city where people can enjoy theatre, music, dance and the visual arts. We must show the rest of Europe that we have a vibrant cultural life."

Spotlighting Lisbon's history in the present day

This year is also the six-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Infante Dom Henrique, better known as Henry the Navigator, the man behind Portugal's great seaborne explorations; and the five-hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Tordesillas, in which the still-undiscovered world was divided between the two great powers of the time, Portugal and Castile. The three events are being celebrated simultaneously in Lisbon's £31 million festival, which also serves as an early dress rehearsal for “Expo 98”, the Lisbon world's fair.
A cobbled Lisbon street at sunset: a tram travels up the hilly street and people walk either side of it
Ever since I was a boy, Lisbon has had a mystical attraction for me—partly, no doubt, inspired by the cinema. In my imagination, the city's mysterious, fog-wrapped warren of cobbled streets harboured a romantic community of secret agents, diamond smugglers and lovely countesses. I remember a film scene from my youth: a trench coat-clad woman spy standing on the bank of the Tagus, nervously awaiting her contact in the pale light of an ornate streetlamp.
"Ever since I was a boy, Lisbon has had a mystical attraction for me—no doubt inspired by cinema"
The cobblestones and streetlights are still there, although much else has changed—and is changing still, as Lisbon's 660,000 inhabitants feverishly primp for the festival. Landmark buildings are being refurbished; statues and monuments have had a much-needed clean. Workmen are labouring round the clock to repair the cobbles, pavements and buildings of the historic Chiado district, badly damaged in a fire six years ago.

Bringing the colours back to Lisbon

Aerial shot of Lisbon, with its russet roofs and pastel-coloured walls. The sky is a clear blue.
Within the Sétima Colina (Seventh Hill) project, an entire two-mile route got a face-lift. More than a hundred eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings, gardens and statues were repaired and repainted as a cooperative venture between their owners, the city council and Lisbon 94.
Most were painted a uniform grey during the 1950s, "when Portugal itself was a dull grey dictatorship", explained Gonçalo Couceiro, an engineer and doctor of fine arts who worked on the renovation project. "When we chipped away the grey, we found the original pastels underneath—the same bright hues that earned Lisbon its old nickname: 'The City of a Thousand Colours'." For Lisbon 94 the refurbished route will sparkle with those happy shades once again.
"More than a hundred eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings were repaired and repainted"
The Coliseu, the largest concert hall in Lisbon, and several museums and theatres were renovated as sites for Lisbon 94's myriad attractions. The non-stop programme of cultural events comprises 140 performances, with orchestras, soloists and opera companies visiting from all over Europe.

Star turns

Black and white photo of Amália Rodrigues singing on stage, supported by a four-man guitar band
Dancers from Spain, Georgia and the United States share the spotlight with Portuguese bailarinos, performing works inspired by the native rhythms of the Cabo Verde Islands or the haunting strains of fado, Portugal's "native song". Amaramália, a modern ballet stitched together from the songs of Portugal's most famous living fadista, Amália Rodrigues, has already kicked off an eight-month series of dance recitals.
"When we chipped away the grey, we found the original pastels underneath"
There is something for everyone at Lisbon 94—writers' meetings, seminars on ethics, literature, political science and economics, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to see private collections of pottery, glassware, paintings and photography. There is cinema too, including "A Hundred Days, a Hundred Films", a cycle of European work certain to exhaust all but the most committed devotee of the silver screen.

Alive again

But in the end, the real star of Lisbon 94 is Lisbon itself—a city that sprang, phoenix-like, from the ashes of two great tragedies: the 1755 earthquake that killed more than 30,000 of its inhabitants and reduced much of its centre to rubble, and the 1988 fire that ravaged its historic heart.
In the square outside the mayor's office, seagulls battled pigeons over crusts of bread. Fresh from his daily constitutional, Jorge Sampaio was relaxed and cordial as he talked about his city's problems and needs. "Lisbon's historical areas are the reason people come here," he told me, “But they need to be modernised so people can live in them comfortably. We've done a lot of rebuilding—the city is involved in 2,500 separate projects in historic districts—but we need to do a lot more."
Lisbon also has to find a way to limit the nuisance of traffic. Every working day, 300,000 cars carrying 600,000 commuters converge on the city. Migration from the surrounding countryside has swollen the capital almost to bursting point and placed a heavy strain on services.
A view of the russet roofs and white walls of Lisbon's buildings
Yet, more than most European capitals, Lisbon is still a city of small "villages", self-contained districts with individual personalities. Mention Lapa, where Maluda lives, and a Lisbon-dweller will brush the bottom of their nose with a forefinger and hiss, "Snobs live there." Every citizen has their favourite café, bar and restaurant, each known—they firmly believe—only to themselves and a few friends.
Like many other people, Carlos Correia, a professor of Media Communications at New University, enjoys the beautiful rococo Church of São Roque, in Largo Trindade Coelho. Its crowning glory is the eighteenth-century Chapel of St John the Baptist, constructed in Rome by order of King João V, of the finest marble, mosaic and metalwork that money could buy.
When the chapel was finished, it was blessed by Pope Benedict XIV, broken down, crated and shipped to Lisbon, where it was painstakingly reassembled. The final bill was 225,000 pounds of gold.

Lost and found

Book editor Hermínio Monteiro spends his weekends wandering Lisbon's hilltop alleyways, looking for unusual architectural details. "Lisbon is a city hiding inside another city," he explained. "You can live here all your life and still find something new.” His latest finds include the meticulously tended Jardim do Torel (Torel Garden) near the Lavra Elevator.
In Lisbon the past is never far away. "You can't dig anywhere in the city centre area without turning up traces of an earlier civilisation," said archaeologist Ana Margarida Arruda. Even so, most natives are unaware that Romans used to salt fish in the Praça do Comércio, the square at the beginning of Rua Augusta— or that a manhole cover between the tram tracks on Rua de Prata in the Baixa district hides the entrance to a Roman bath. During Lisbon 94 the bath is open to weekly inspection as part of Ana's fascinating "Subterranean Lisbon" exhibition.
" Lisbon is a city hiding inside another city. You can live here all your life and still find something new"
~Hermínio Monteiro
Above ground there is the Mãe D’Água or "Mother of Waters", a vast indoor reservoir, built from massive stone blocks in the eighteenth century. It is the final destination for water carried to Lisbon by the Aguas Livres aqueduct. This phenomenal project, begun in 1731, took 20 years to build and cost the equivalent of £100 million today.
By the time it was used, it was already obsolete, the demand for water having far outstripped the capacity. For Lisbon 94, however, this monument to eighteenth century extravagance is open to visitors, and its flat roof, with sweeping vistas of the city at night, doubles as a venue for midsummer jazz concerts.
Bronze statue of Fernando Pessoa: he is sat on a chair wearing a suit and fedora, and appears to be in conversation
On my last night in Lisbon, I went to pay my respects to Fernando Pessoa, one of Portugal's greatest poets, at the table he occupies outside the A Brasileira café in the Chiado. The table is bronze, of course, and so is Pessoa; he died, penniless and largely unpublished, in 1935. But his statue is amazingly lifelike: fedora tilted back on his head, legs crossed jauntily, arm outflung to emphasise a point, he appears deeply engrossed in conversation.
A waiter came to the table, and I ordered a bica, a small cup of espresso coffee. As he turned to go, I said, "And one for my friend." I could have sworn that Pessoa smiled. But then, Lisbon is that kind of city. As those who come to visit this year's Cultural Capital of Europe will soon find, it's a little bit magical.
This article is part of our archival collection and was originally published in August 1994. While we strive to present historical content accurately, please note that circumstances and information may have changed since the article's original publication. Some individuals mentioned in the article may no longer be alive, and events or details may have evolved. We encourage readers to consider the context of the original publication and to verify any current information independently.
Banner photo: Why Lisbon is the city of 1,000 colours (credit: Deensel (Wikimedia Commons))
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