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Love affair with Lisbon

Dora Kitinas-Gogos falls head over heels for Lisbon where impressive architecture, food and wine collide in this city founded by Ulysses

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The writer making atile at a workshop.

17 November 2011

Every time I write that the Greeks discovered something, I feel like the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This particular Greek discovery surprised me.

On my recent trip to Lisbon, I discovered that the Greeks were the founders of Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Lisbon is also called Olissipo that became Olissipona, and then Lisavona. The mythical king Odysseus is said to be the founder, better known in that part of Europe as Ulysses, where Olissipo gets its name. Portugal is a Southern European country, but not strictly a Mediterranean country as nowhere does any of its coast touch the Mediterranean Sea. It has a long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean and a long history of seafarers and explores, that went to far away places like Asia, America and Africa.

They founded colonies and created countries, traded in spices, many other commodities and slavery. As they were conquered and enslaved, so did they conquer and enslave. All of this history is very visible in Portugal today: what was given to them and what they brought back with them.

Travelling through Lisbon and the southern part of Portugal was like travelling through time. I spent five wonderful days in this beautiful country with its historical sites and the very mild tempered people. Outside the city, the seaside resorts are clean and pristine, the towns and villages spotless, the seafood plentiful, and the monuments countless. Palaces, cathedrals, old wineries, architecture from many eras and the many settlers and conquerors, all have left their mark and the Portuguese have managed to preserve it all, even some old Roman columns in the Corinthian style in the town of Evora which is a UNESCO World Heritage landmark. I fell in love with the architecture, a blend of many styles that still looked very harmonious together.

Romantic, Gothic, Baroque to name a few and my favourite, the Moors. Buildings in the French style covered in tiles, in the typical Moorish style. Palaces in European styles covered with decorative tiles in and out. Hand painted tiles that look identical, but if you look closer they are not, they are not allowed to be perfect as only Allah is perfect. Fountains in courtyards in 16th and 17th century buildings because water was important to the Moors.

Castles and fortresses that go back to the 10th and 11th centuries. I peeped through doorways of private homes to get glimpses of the tiled walls inside and the front entrances reminded me of homes in some remote village on a Greek island.

I was taken to a tile-making workshop and was shown the process and allowed to participate. I saw an order from America being made in the traditional way all by hand from an old Moorish design. The family had an ancient tile in their possession and wanted it replicated in hundreds of tiles. I was hoping that the tiles would be used wisely and not in some kitsch placement in a kitsch house.

I was mesmerised by the beauty, but most of all I was mesmerised by the villages, towns and old Lisbon up high on the hill. The cable cars, the many steps climbing the old town, which I made an attempt to count on one continuous row but lost count somewhere near the two hundred mark. Watching the elderly with their walking sticks meandering the narrow cobble-stoned streets and climbing the steps, seeing old homes with the coat of arms of the old aristocratic families even though the buildings are unoccupied and desperately needed renovating.

That they are not allowed to be demolished is a testament to Portugal's aim for preservation. I live in two wine producing countries, Greece and Australia and had never been to a winery. But I went to one in Portugal. One of the oldest wineries in the country that has been in the same family since the 1700s. I wanted to see the traditional ways of wine making and was shown all the wooden barrels of many sizes, was told how, when and what wine.

I was fascinated to say the least. I was also told that this same winery has bought all the modern facility equipment from Australia and that many of the original varieties can be traced back to Greek varieties from ancient times. I went to this beautiful country while it and Greece are simultaneously struggling financially. In conversations with my guide, we discussed the current situation our countries of birth are in, the shared history of neighbours, Portugal with Spain and Greece with the Ottomans. The 20th century dictatorships, the failure of production and more, the similarities were endless.

I have one terrible disappointment and that is my failure to go and hear Fado (Portuguese urban blues) in a small boite, its original home. I have only heard it on my CDs and had the overwhelming experience of seeing Amalia Rodriguez at the Irodio Atticus theatre in Athens years ago. It will have to wait for my next trip to Portugal.

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