A stroll through Lisbon’s commercial past

news: A stroll through Lisbon’s commercial past

IT’S EASY to walk around Lisbon’s downtown Baixa Chiado shopping area with your eyes figuratively shut and never notice the façades of the shops you enter. Yet, the route from Largo de Camões as far as Praça do Rossio is steeped in history, as The Resident’s Chris Graeme found out.

• The first commercial cinema in the country
• The first commercial cinema in the country

Joining a guided tour of 30 people as part of the annual Festa no Chiado, which runs until October 22, you actually begin to open your eyes to a slice of Lisbon’s commercial past. The first thing guides Anísio Franco and Rui Santos explain is that this part of Lisbon has been commercially important since the 16th century. It was always in the interests of the city’s commercial guilds to make this place an important cultural centre and sponsor cultural events, since that was a way of drawing in shoppers and, in that, nothing has changed along the centuries.

It was in the mid to late 19th century that the shopping zone took on the general appearance that it has today. Before then, shops were generally divided between open air markets or discreet boutiques for the rich and wealthy. They didn’t over-advertise themselves, have large windows or showy displays that could attract thieves and robbers. If you had the money, you were in the know and knew where to go.

One of the first contemporary shops in the way we recognise them today is still situated at the top of Largo do Chiado near the famous Brasileira coffee shop. I’m talking about the jewellery shop Leitão & Irmãos, which opened its doors in 1827 and served the necessities of the Portuguese royal family and court until the demise of the monarchy in 1910. Patronised by Queen Dona Maria Pia among others, the shop was a scandal at the time because it was the first shop in Portugal to have large showcase windows – its example, influenced from shops in Paris, changed the look of shops forever. In fact, because it used black marble in its façade, many people criticised it for looking like a funeral agency or a grave!

On the opposite side of the street is the building now occupied by Benetton, containing a fabulous white and gold gilt mirrored neo-Rococo elevator, dating from the 1920s. Most of the façades of the shops in this area were created towards the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century and, not surprisingly, have a pseudo Rococo and art nouveau style, which was in vogue at the time. Of course, one of the most spectacular examples of this is Brasileira, which one English expatriate remembered strolling into at the age of 21 in the 1950s and, being blond, got stared at by the men – in those days, women in Portugal didn’t go into cafés alone, unless they were prostitutes.

One of the first modern shops in Lisbon is now occupied by Hermès and the party went in to take a look at the original Lalique lighting fixtures.

Most people know Livraria Bertrand, but how many know that it hasn’t been changed since the 1930s? Then, directly opposite, there is the fabulous, white Rennie Mackintosh looking, Edwardian façade of what had been Pastelaria Marques.

Other gems worth looking out for include Vitrine (formerly Salon Trianon) dating from 1924, Au Bonheur des Dames, which was once a perfume shop, and Edifício Grandella, which had been one of Portugal’s first Harrod’s style department stores. These can be found on your way down towards Rossio.

Don’t miss the original glass ceiling panel in Ana Salazar’s shop, which dates from the time it was a milliners in the 20s and 30s, while the bookshop across the road has some interesting 30s art deco reliefs, which if you look carefully, you will see depict book spines.

The tour finishes in Rossio square, where you will notice a bleak example of 1930s national socialist modernism in the shape of the Diário de Notícias bookshop with its yellow tiles. One last curiosity is the sex shop and peep show through the archway, alongside which in the early 1900s was a prototype cinema known as arcade peepshows or animated photographers – the first commercial cinema in the country.

Various cultural and historical events, shows, exhibitions and tours will continue until October 22. For more information, visit www.cnc.pt/Noticias