Either Love It Or Hate It
Exploring Lisbon’s “Baixa” (downtown in Portuguese) can provoke these mixed feelings, both for tourists and for locals. It doesn’t mean you will ban this area from your visits permanently, it’s just one of those relationships you have to build and nurture through time.
It will be crowded with tourists from June to September. It will be crowded with locals on Saturdays, Sundays and Holidays (even in the Winters — all it takes is a bit of sunshine). It will be overpriced. It will test your patience most of the time. But, the good news is, you can live and see past all this and enjoy Baixa and Chiado.
To me this area will always symbolize rebirth and resilience: Most of Chiado burned down in the big 1988 fire, that destroyed iconic buildings and established stores; it was reconstructed under the guidance of renown Portuguese architect Siza Vieira and now stands to reclaim its right as THE commercial hub of Lisbon. Baixa was built after the Great Earthquake of 1755 as an earthquake-resistant construction: it is built on green pine wood stakes and, so far, is standing the test of time.
Chiado – Beyond Shopping
Before the time of malls, Chiado was the place to go for shopping. The big warehouse-like shops were busy with Saturday morning customers, and the clerks behind the big wooden counters would climb up and down the ladders bringing items for people to look at and choose from. It was long before the era of self-service. These were the times when shop owners understood the benefits of excellent customer service and the customers expected a high-level experience. Some of them still linger, not knowing how (or not wanting to) work any other way.
Try to look around you and immerse in the culture, without feeling compelled to rush around like everyone else. It may take a few minutes and some self-control. But in the end, you will have the opportunity to grasp this environment, beyond the busy and rapid mobs of workers and tourists. We believe in taking things slow. Maybe that has to do with our background: the laid-back islander and the laid-back Indian.
Chiado will be colorful and vibrant and unless you pay close attention to what is around you, you might have a hard time remembering you are in Portugal. At times, you will hear many different languages being spoken around you.
Baixa Pombalina – A Gridline Of Streets
The Baixa area (called “Pombalina” because it was built under the ruling of then Prime Minister Marques de Pombal) with its perfectly organized streets and its similar facades contrasts immensely with the neighboring areas of Alfama and Cais do Sodre. It’s almost like a lego piece that didn’t fit but got pushed in and somehow looks like it should have been there all along.
It’s a mix of unoccupied buildings with bricked up doors and windows; with shops and cafes; with boutique hotels and hostels; with large squares that show off majestic statues of past Kings; with street performers and beggars; with street vendors selling roasted chestnuts in the Fall and the Winter, flowers in the Spring and ice cream and cold water in the Summers. Some may say it’s too designed and too assembled, almost no soul and almost bare.
People will be sitting outside the cafes drinking and eating (mostly the tourists), people will be rushing up and down (mostly locals on their way from or to work), people will be window shopping (mostly those who have been hit the hardest by the ongoing recession).
What Will Hit And What Will Not
Some of the things you will be looking around to find: they are right there pinpointed on your travel guide or travel app as must-see (even if you have no particular interest in them), like the Fernando Pessoa bronze statue sitting outside Cafe Brasileira, or the Carmo Convent ruins, or the Santa Justa Elevator.
Some of the things will find YOU. They will tease you into taking pictures and into finding out more about them. They will still be shy and will make you look twice to make sure you didn’t miss them.
Yes. Lisbon IS a woman. And will lure you in her secrets like one.
I have been living here for over sixteen years (and counting) and I still get trapped all the time. I mean entrapment in a good way — in a falling in love kind of way.
Have you been to Baixa or Chiado in Lisbon? What were your impressions?