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Nights (and Days) in Lisbon

The opening of the Lisbon Sheraton in 1972 was a major event in the life of this gracious old capital. Two more years would pass before the Carnation Revolution would at last bring democracy to Portugal. But somehow the presence of the first modern international hotel in the heart of the city seemed to herald new beginnings, an opening up into the larger world from which the nation had secluded itself for so long.

Magdalena Salinas, a young airline hostess back then, still remembers the  hotel’s inauguration party the night of September 15. “It was an enormous celebration,” she told us. “For weeks before everybody all over Lisbon was talking about it.  All the newspapers had stories about it. A small, chic hotel with a beautiful garden had been demolished to make way for the Sheraton. But no one seemed to mind. It was out of fashion and in need of repair. And in its place this magnificent brand new hotel now stood. It was the tallest building in the city.”

Sixteen year old Americo Garcia was working for a small hotel in his native city Cascais about twenty kilometers west of Lisbon when a friend told him there were jobs to be had at the Sheraton. He went down, was hired as a busboy, and reported for work the day of the inauguration party. Like Magdalena, Americo has not forgotten the excitement of that time.

 The night of September 15, 1972, Magdalena and Americo were strangers across a crowded room. Today they are in daily contact with one another. After a career that included being an airline hostess and fashion model, Magdalena assumed directorship of the Sheraton’s public relations operations in 1997. Americo never went back to the small hotel in Casicas but stayed on at the Sheraton moving up over the years from busboy to maitre d’ of its restaurant. He still makes the half hour train commute from Casais each day, however, and he still has the brochure from that opening year, “to remember the old times.”

The tall rectangular building in the style of 1970’s modernism has gone through successive renovations and refurbishments since the old times Americo so fondly recalls. At the time of our arrival, the lobby had just been redone into an expanse of hardwood floors and marble walls with sleek contemporary furnishings that gleamed beneath futuristic glass bocks recessed into the high ceiling.  There were health club facilities for guests’ use, a Towers floor with butler service, private lounges and check-in services, and state of the art communications facilities – all unimaginable thirty years ago. But the Sheraton is still Lisbon’s tallest building, and from its upper floors, the entire city spreads out in spectacular panorama.

 In 1972, a female general manager at the Lisbon Sheraton would have been as inconceivable as its high tech meeting room. Yet for the past three years, Jennifer Buhr has held that position, overseeing the hotel’s latest transformations as well as its day-to-day functions. German-born and married to an Englishman, Jennifer loves the Lisbon life. “I admire the culture, the nightlife – it’s perfectly safe to go around at night. There are lovely people, great restaurants, excellent wines – as you shall see,” she told us as we settled into a table at Alfama Gourmet Corner, the Sheraton’s specialty restaurant a few steps up from the Caravela Restaurant its more all-purpose, open-all-day dining room. Magdalena was there, ready to join us for dinner, and as Americo presented the menus, we had the feeling we were joining a family get-together.

Ladies in magenta: Magdalina Salinas (left) and Jennifer Buhr at the Amalfa Gourmet Corner of the Lisbon Sheraton
Ladies in magenta: Magdalina Salinas (left) and Jennifer Buhr at the Amalfa Gourmet Corner of the Lisbon Sheraton
Dining at the Alfama, named for one of Lisbon’s oldest and most distinctive neighborhoods, it is easy to forget you are in a hotel that is part of an international chain. Executive chef Dany Dagher, who grew up in Toronto and came to Lisbon by way of Moscow where he was executive chef at the city’s first western style hotel, is expert in the preparation of typical Portuguese dishes -- he even gives weekly classes in the cuisine to women in Lisbon’s American Club. 

He also is a vociferous advocate of Portuguese wines. “I wish you would advertise the news about Portuguese wines,” he told us as he uncorked a dry and crisp white Bucelas. “People in North America don’t know much about them. I was always a devotee of French and Italian wines. But now I drink Portuguese wines exclusively: the Duoros from the north, the Alentejos from the south, the wonderful dessert wines like the Pouriga Nacional from the Douro River region.”

The dinner Dany prepared for our little group included an amuse bouche of grilled shrimp with corn bread and a delicious white cheese whose consistency was somewhere between the American farmer and cream cheese.  He served a minestrone soup filled with cabbage, peas, carrots and small pasta in a chicken broth that had been enhanced by a freshly made and garlicy tomato sauce which gave it a uniquely piquant flavor. Our entrée was a shish kabob of monk fish with peppers and onions and grilled Portuguese lobster. And for dessert, we had the Pasteis Denata, a puff pastry filled with a mixture of syrup, eggs, milk, and cinnamon, sinfully rich but worth every calorie. Executive Chef Dany Dagher actively promotes Portuguese wine and cuisine Maitre d’ Americo Garcia (at right) began his career as a sixteen year old busboy
Executive Chef Dany Dagher actively promotes Portuguese wine and cuisine Maitre d’ Americo Garcia (at right) began his career as a sixteen year old busboy

If since its opening nearly thirty years ago the Sheraton has addressed itself to  Lisbon’s twentieth and now twenty-first century future, a short straight walk from the front door brings you to the Marques do Pombal Square which swiftly plunges you into its eighteenth century past. Named for the despotic prime minister responsible for the re-building of Lisbon after the catastrophic earthquake of 1755, this monumental plaza stands at the top of the broad and leafy Avenida da Liberdade that descends to the Rossio, a large square with cafes, restaurants, and small shops lining its perimeter. This is where the neighborhood known as Baixa begins, a grid-like area of formally laid out avenues which Pombal designed to be built over the earthquake’s ruins.

The Rua Augusta, a lively pedestrian byway of boutiques, open air cafes, and ubiquitous street performers starts at the far end of the Rossio and concludes at a grand baroque arch that ushers you into the vast and stately Paca de Comercio whose bright yellow neo-classical buildings with graceful arcades face the Tagus River. For four hundred years until leveled by the earthquake, the royal palace stood here. Looking up at the city from the perspective of the river as gateway, it is easy to see why the royals selected this site.

Lisbon is an easy city to negotiate. Taxis are inexpensive and seem to always be there whenever needed. Charming trolleys wend their way through hilly cobblestone streets. We spent one morning at the re-constructed twelfth century St. George Castle, strolling the ramparts, enjoying the panoramic views, and admiring preening peacocks intent on spreading their gaudy plumage. That afternoon we wandered around Belem, the region at the mouth of the Tagus from which caravels once set sail. The Jeronimos Monastery, thought to be the finest expression of Manueline architecture, the highly ornamental gothic style which combines elements of Christianity with ropes, shells and other aquatic symbols is here. From the car park across the way, it looked like a gigantic wedding cake. Nearby the Tower of Belem in the same high Gothic style stands as a reminder of the time it was a beacon for returning navigators. Portugal’s maritime glory still lingers in Belem transporting visitors back in time to the Age of Discovery.

Looking up at St. George’s Castle
Looking up at St. George’s Castle
A Show Off At St. George's Castle
A Show Off At St. George's Castle

The “show-off” in a more subdued mood

As does the display of Portuguese and Chinese ceramics and porcelain at Lisbon’s Museum of Ancient Arts. In 1834, as a consequence of the democratic influences brought about by the French Revolution, Portugal’s monasteries and convents were closed and their art transferred to museums. Although it did not open until fifty years later, the Museum of Ancient Art has more works of art from these religious institutions than any other museum in Portugal. Its collection of Chinese and Portuguese porcelain, however, was most interesting to us as it revealed the influence of Ming porcelain brought back home by traders on  subsequent Portuguese designs. The results of the attempts by Portuguese craftsmen to unlock the secrets of creating Chinese porcelain over hundreds of years centuries provides a fascinating glimpse into this intriguing aspect of Portuguese history.

An aspect of Portuguese history we were anxious to explore was its Jewish connection, but Lisbon offers little tangible reminders of the vital presence that was stamped out by exile, forced conversions, and the Inquisition. The Amalfa area, the old Moslem quarter, with its dark alleys and winding streets, still has remnants of a long gone Jewish community in the form of a Jewish street and an office building that has been identified as a former synagogue. Sea-faring instruments designed by Jewish scientists are on display in the Naval Musuem, and Portugal’s Board of Tourist Trade is making an effort to explore the nation’s Jewish connection. There are two synagogues in Lisbon. One, Ohel Jacov, is an Ashkenazi shul created by refugees from fascism in the 1930’s. Long abandoned, it has recently been taken over by a group of people who identify themselves as Jews. They have no rabbi but are led by a man from Belmonte, the Portuguese community whose members retained their secret Jewish identity for over 500 years. The other is the Sephardic Share Tikva whose entry is off a court since when it was built in 1902, a synagogue was not allowed to face the street. At first no sign identified it, although today its name and a Star of David are visible.


Old Jewish street in the Amalfa section
The “abimah” of Share Tikva, Lisbon’s Sephardic synagogue built in 1902
The “abimah” of Share Tikva, Lisbon’s 
Sephardic synagogue built in 1902

Our last day in Lisbon we met Lara Cesana, an artist who was born in Italy, raised in the United States, and now lives in Lisbon.  Some years ago, through a kind of dream-like experience, she came upon what has become her life’s mission: the discovery and artistic rendering of the Portuguese-Jewish experience. Traveling throughout the country, she uncovered hidden and transformed customs of a centuries’ old submerged Jewish presence. These findings have found their way into a collection of striking Expressionistic-style paintings revealing Lara’s internal as well as external journeys. Exhibited in museums throughout the world, they are collectively included along with the artist’s musings in her book Jewish Vestiges in Portugal.

Lara told us her family left Italy for America before outbreak of the Second World War, and hearing her story, seeing her creative works and learning about her mission somehow brought to mind Eric Maria Remarque's novel Night in Lisbon which described the Lisbon of that period when it was a safe haven for Jews fleeing Nazism, a port of escape to the Americas. This was the second time in history that Portugal was a sanctuary for persecuted Jews -- the first time in 1492, accommodation was all too transitory.

In the melancholy state of mind such reflection caused, we spent our last "night in Lisbon" at the Club da Fado, a small grotto-like restaurant in the Amalfa area, close by the cathedral – a site that was typical for medieval Jewish communities throughout Iberia.  Here we had a traditional dinner of salted codfish, drank a bottle of Bairrada, and listened to the haunting and distinctively Portuguese music fado.  Mario Pacheco, a soulful, sensitive man who owns the restaurant and composes fado, plays what looks like an oblong-shaped mandolin in a trio  that includes a bass fiddle and guitar. Four singers performed that night; two vibrant and beautiful young women, a middle aged woman with a husky contralto, and a jaded-looking older man who sang with a lit cigarette in his hand. We understood not a word. But the longing, regret, fervor, and passion they expressed in their songs required no translation. They call it saudade – a particular Portuguese emotional quality that embodies a sense of loss and yearning for the past.

Mario Pacheco and his trio with singer performing fado
Mario Pacheco and his trio with singer performing fado
The older man performing fado
The older man performing fado

The next morning when we boarded the TAP jet for the trip home, the smiling flight attendants suggested a mood far from saudade. But the voices and music we had heard the night before which seemed to encapsulate the entire Lisbon experience for us were resonating in our heads. We hear them still.

_______________________________

Sheraton Lisboa Hotel and Towers
Rua Latino Coelbo
1 1069-025 Lisbon

Phone: 351-21-312-0000

Club de Fado
Rua S. Joao da Praca, 94
1100 Lisboa

Phone: 21 888 2694

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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