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An Unappreciated Gem For Reasons Unknown, U.S. Tourists Pass By Lisbon, The Next Expo Host

Sun., March 29, 1998

They’re about to throw a party here, and they’re calling it Expo ‘98. Good one? Well, it has all the signs — including, of course, all the signs.

If there were ever an excuse needed to see Lisbon and the rest of undervisited, underappreciated Portugal, this summer’s elaborate paean to the world’s oceans might be it — even if right now the capital is kind of a mess. A November visit found sidewalks torn up, airport access a maze of confusion and main plazas (and their monuments) behind plywood barriers. Cranes were everywhere. So was scaffolding. So were apologies.

“Beautiful city,” I said to Pedro, who runs the front desk at Lisbon’s Hotel Britannia.

“Not now,” he said, with a gentle smile.

“Even now,” I assured him.

Because despite all the work in progress, Lisbon remains Lisbon, a town whose historic core bears a vague resemblance to Barcelona in one direction and Fez in the other. Differences from both emerge quickly, however, in language, cuisine, architecture and pace — the last a little slower and somehow sweeter than that of either of its cousins.

For visitors, Lisbon is the Castelo de Sao Jorge, on the hilltop where the city was settled by the Phoenicians long before Rome took over; the Alfama, the old quarter that softly projects the city’s Moorish period; the fabulous monastery and fortress-tower at Belem; and, perhaps closest to its heart, fado, whose songs possess a melancholy heightened by customers who know just when to join in the singing. To visit Lisbon or nearby Coimbra and not experience a fado club past midnight is like seeing Italy and skipping pasta.

But Americans don’t visit much. In 1996, nearly 9 million U.S. citizens came to Europe, a record; only 223,589 of them landed in Portugal, down slightly from 1995, which was down slightly from 1994. In 1995, according to the most recent International Trade Administration figures, among Western European countries only Norway and Finland attracted fewer Americans; neighboring Spain lured 610,000, nearly triple Portugal’s number.

“We’re trying to get more tourists to come to Portugal,” said Gorete Correia of the Portuguese National Tourist Office in New York. “Once people come to Portugal, they spread the word. It’s really a discovery for them.”

Those who do come quickly make this pleasant discovery: Portugal at this writing is one of a handful of European countries whose prices are kind to American travelers.

Three days in Lisbon followed by a seven-day meander about the countryside found good hotel rooms in the capital and hinterlands available for $100 or less, sometimes much less; entire suites in government-run pousadas, several of them former castles converted to luxury hotels, could be had for $175 (double, including breakfast) - half what comparable lodging would cost in, say, Scotland.

Complete dinners for two, with house wine, averaged about $25; even in the spiffier joints, it was almost impossible to spend more than $50 without serious upgrades on beverages.

In a Coimbra fado bar, the total bill for two hours of entertainment plus five well-spaced glasses of port: $11.

Bargains aside, what’s in Portugal?

Portuguese, obviously. We found them to be a proud people, polite, tolerant and, in general, gracious hosts. In Lisbon and in places likely to attract tourists (hotels, restaurants, shops), English was widely spoken and understood; where it wasn’t, a mix of phrase-book Portuguese and patience got the job done painlessly.

A cuisine remarkably varied for a country roughly the size of Oregon. Mostly, seafood rules, with preparations ranging from simple grilling over coals (fresh sardines, big ones, are a wonder) to complex stews with hints of North Africa. Baby clams in an olive oil and garlic-infused broth, or sauteed with chunks of pork, are addictive; octopus preparations challenge the squeamish but excite the adventurous; and little cakes fashioned from dried codfish prepare the palate for other fish with strange shapes and strange names that, somehow, are always delicious. Porto, internationally famous for the wine that carries its name, is renowned here for its gastronomic treatment of tripe. Inland, particularly in towns near the Spanish border, there’s lamb and kid (commonly in stews), wild boar, rabbit and roast suckling pig.

Always, there are enticing soups, satisfying wines and hearty breads. If you never liked olives outside a martini, you will after you eat a couple of hundred of these. And expect to see and sample something called acorda, a white glop made of bread, raw egg, cilantro and, classically, dried cod that’s invariably and inexplicably found at family feasts.

Tiles and ceramics. Lots of them. Tiles on interior and exterior walls, ceramics in shops and markets. They are irresistible.

Castles, some left by the Moors, some (as in Obidos) with lovely whitewashed villages within their ancient walls. Palaces built by kings and slept in by explorers. Roman ruins. Great cathedrals and monasteries that reflect the wealth of Portugal’s imperial heyday. Just enough museums for rainy days. Orchards of olive trees. Ancient forests. Rugged hills and dusty rangeland. Beaches and resort towns that cater to those of us who love them, fishing villages little changed throughout the centuries and stretches of coastline preserved for solitary contemplation.

And, with some secondary exceptions, good roads to speed you or ease you (your option) to all of it.

For the majority of travelers from overseas, those roads begin in Lisbon, though most of the country’s special things - from cuisine to castles to cathedrals - are available in some form either right in the capital or within a day-trip by train or bus.

In other words, Lisbon and Portugal shouldn’t have needed Expo ‘98 to give folks an incentive to come. But they’re building it anyway, calling it “The Last World’s Fair of the 20th Century.”

Set for May 22 through Sept. 30, the fair’s subtitle is “The Oceans, a Heritage for the Future.” It belongs here; until the time of Columbus and Portugal’s own Vasco da Gama, the Western edge of the world for Europeans (at least the non-Viking ones) was at Sagres, a Portuguese village on a thumb that poked into the Atlantic. Beyond was darkness and tales of sea monsters.

Sea monsters, therefore, will be a daily feature of Expo ‘98. So will other exhibits, laser shows and all levels of entertainment. But the architectural centerpiece will be the Ocean Pavilion designed by the same folks (Cambridge Seven Associates, near Boston) who created the National Aquarium on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It will be Europe’s largest aquarium (only Osaka’s in Japan - same designer - is bigger); its central tank, representing the open sea, will hold live specimens ranging from sardines to sharks.

The Portuguese expect 8 million people to tour the fair during its 4-1/2 months, half those from outside the country. So speaking nautically, the fair’s the hook. But the payoff for anyone who bites will be surprising Lisbon and marvelous Portugal.

“You eat here tonight,” promised a waiter in the doorway at Bota Alta, a little eatery in the capital’s Bairro Alta district, “and I promise you’ll come back again.”

We ate there that night. We came back again.

So it will be with Portugal.


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