Last month I was in Lisbon for a night and took myself for a walk along the Avenida da Liberdade (Freedom Avenue), considered the 35th most expensive street in the world.
This is Lisbon’s exclusive boulevard where there are many embassies, top hotels and renown shops, some in beautifully restored houses, others in modern buildings. However, I was more interested in their architecture rather than the shops’ contents.
I remember the Avenida from the 70s as my father worked in Parque Mayer, just off the Avenida and this was where, in the evenings, everyone would go to enjoy themselves in the restaurants, amusement stalls, fado houses, carousels and to watch a traditional Portuguese ‘Revista’ show in one of the four theatres where my dad’s dance troupe were part of the compilation of humorous sketches and dances.
I confess I shed a tear for him and the lost era as I stood in the area now converted to a large carpark where once a thriving community lived. The only original theatre left is the Maria Vitória built in 1922 and still functioning. The Variedades (1926) has been demolished and replaced by a new modern building as has been the Capitólio (1931). Sadly, the ABC (1956) is gone forever.
Back on the busy Avenida whose design was based on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, I was enchanted by the huge trees that create an oasis of green in the urban landscape. Did you know that the Avenida was originally a park, built after the great earthquake of 1755, where Lisbon’s elite would take their daily walk amongst fountains and statues? It had high walls and gates until King D. João VI ordered them removed so that everyone could have access to the area.
The Avenida itself was built between 1879 and 1886. The traditional Portuguese cobblestone ‘calçada’ pavements with their black and white designs still allow for a lovely, albeit noisy, walk up the avenue, and you can stop at one of the many café booths for a drink or snack and just feel the atmosphere of a bustling city.
Throughout the avenue, there are many statues and busts commemorating important historical figures from literature, politics, the military and music as well as a large monument to commemorate the dead from WWI and two water features in honour of the Rivers Tejo and Douro.
The Avenida is 90 metres wide with 10 lanes and it is 1.5kms long, starting at the Restauradores square in Lisbon’s Baixa and going up to the Marquês de Pombal roundabout (dedicated to the diplomat who rebuilt the city after it was destroyed in the 1755 earthquake), and up to Parque Edwardo VII, the 26-acre park in the heart of Lisbon. It was originally named Parque da Liberdade (Liberty Park), but it was renamed in honour of Britain’s King Edward VII, when he visited in 1903 to reaffirm the historic Portugal-British alliance, the oldest allegiance in the world and which is dated from 1386.
The park was originally built in the first half of the 20th century to give Lisbon’s population their public walking area, which they used to have before the original walkway was destroyed and replaced with the opening of the Avenida da Liberdade in 1882.
Since 2015, any vehicles dated before 2000 are forbidden to circulate on the avenue on weekdays between 7am and 9pm, which is seen by some to be elitist, banning those who cannot afford new cars. Just last month, a further council motion was passed banning all cars on Sundays and bank holidays with a view to curbing the high pollution levels.
In June, the Avenida becomes the stage for the celebration of Saint Anthony and many street parties and parades known as the Popular Marches take place. The Marches returned this week, after a two-year absence, and the Avenue was once again full of people as Lisbon’s neighbourhoods competed for the best floats, costumes and dances. Visitors enjoy the shows whilst traditionally partaking in drinking beer and eating grilled sardines.
In 1982, my father was responsible for choreographing the dancing for the Marvila neighbourhood, something I did not know at the time, but I am now proud to share having found a brochure and newspaper clip about him!
As I walked, I looked up at the amazing architecture on the beautiful 19th century Portuguese buildings and I think it a shame that modern buildings have now also been built. So often people rush about to and from wherever they need to be, or pass by in cars or buses, and it is easy to forget to look up, especially in cities. Yet so much history is there, and I was pleased to have had the opportunity to just walk and appreciate my surroundings.
The beautiful Massimo Dutti shop used to be a neoclassic 19th century ‘palace’ and the original architectural elements have been preserved. I was fascinated by the wooden flooring and ornate ceilings. Next door, the stunning blue building is being restored to be converted into a hotel.
However, my favourite building had to be the Prada building, which is home to the shop but still has various private residencies and offices. I sneaked a peak inside the residential part and saw the ancient lift (I would be scared to go in it) and wooden stairs. I would have loved to have seen inside one of the apartments and just imagine living in such a prestigious place!
This ornate building received the Valmor prize in 1915, a cash prize divided between the architect and the property owner which was first attributed in 1902. The prize was created by the 2nd Viscount of Valmor and it is the most prestigious coveted architecture prize in Lisbon.
Other prize winners include the new Capitólio theatre, the Santa Apolónia cruise ship station, the head office of the EDP, the terraces of the Convent of Carmo and, most surprisingly, the Alcântara water treatment plant which has been turned into a green zone with its planted covering over the concrete structure.
My 24-hour visit to Lisbon was my first trip since the pandemic began, so it was ironic that I spent it walking up the Avenida da Liberdade … because, in a way, it was my own Freedom Day.
So now you know!
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.