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Expo ’98 to make Lisbon a tourist hub

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On the twisting and precipitous streets of the Alfama, the mazelike old Moorish district of Lisbon, you never know what's just around the corner.

A small square, perhaps, shaded by boughs of violet jacarandas. A neighborhood church tucked into a trapezoidal space between cobbled streets. Facades decorated with cobalt blue Azulejo tiles.Though it's splotched with curio shops and other jarring manifestations of burgeoning tourism, the Alfama, which hugs the sides of one of Lisbon's seven majestic hills, is still a place where people live and work.

"Many families have had homes there four or five generations. They pay only $10 to $30 a month" for their government-owned homes, said Maria Silva, a local freelance guide.

Times are changing in the Alfama, though. "It's becoming more fashionable," said Silva. "Young people are moving in and fixing up old houses." Their presence is also bringing in boutiques and other upscale shops never before found in the district.

In many parts of Alfama, though, old ways remain very much in evidence. You still see clothes hung to dry from windows above streets so narrow you could touch each side with outstretched arms. Longtime residents still gather to chat in the district's tiny grocery stores and cafes. At night, you can hear the mournful sounds of fado, melancholy tunes about sorrow in life and in love, wafting out of clubs in the district, though in many parts of the Alfama, the streets are quiet.

This summer, of course, with this city hosting Expo '98, little is quiet in Lisbon. Hotels are busy, though not so full that you can't get a room. "You just might not get your first choice," said Evelyn Heyward, a spokesperson for the Portuguese Tourist Office.

Fairgoers will make popular restaurants and clubs harder to get into and tourist attractions more crowded - and perhaps a bit more expensive, though Lisbon is not nearly as costly to visit as London, Paris or Rome.

My three-star hotel room here cost about $110 a day. A comparable one in London would run close to $200. The dining gap is as wide. Dinner for two with drinks and wine in a nice Lisbon restaurant cost me about $55. In Paris, it would have been closer to $100.

Menu choices?

If you like fish, you'll love Lisbon. As you might expect in this maritime country, seafood is superb, and the Portuguese have many ways to prepare it. A big Portuguese favorite is bacalhau a Gomes Sa - little pieces of cod fish mixed with potatoes, scrambled eggs and olives. A popular meat choice is porco e ameijoas - pork and clams. Flan is a favored dessert here, as it is in many Latin countries.

Subways are quite cheap - 40 cents a trip compared with more than $1 in London and Paris - and so are taxis: My taxi trip from the airport to downtown Lisbon cost just 2,300 escudos, less than $12. You'll spend less for short rides around town, though you probably won't use taxis often. Lisbon is best explored by foot.

That's especially true when touring the Alfama, with its narrow, twisting roads.

Eventually, those roads will take you above the Alfama's urban jumble to the hilltop Castello da Sao Jorge, Lisbon's most prominent monument. Dating to the fifth century, the castle has successively been occupied by the Visigoths, Moors and Christians, and used not only as a royal residence but also as a prison.

Today, what's left of it - primarily its walls and grounds - is Lisbon's most popular tourist destination. Its terraces offer the city's best panoramas, breathtaking views of red roofs cascading down to the sea. Its shaded walks provide welcome respite from the sun in summer, and on those paths you may encounter buskers and artisans like Yvette Schuh and Harald Geissler, who sell mandalas, mystical three-dimensional wire circles that can be refigured into symbolic phases of the universe.

From the castle's old battlements, you can look down on the city's business and commercial heart - the site of Rossio Square, the Times Square of Lisbon; the Baixa district, where the most elegant shops are found.

As public places go, the Rossio is rather modest; certainly it hasn't the breadth of Beijing's Tiananmen Square nor the energy of Madrid's Puerta del Sol. But it is unmistakably the heart of Lisbon. Of standout architectural interest there are the art nouveau-style Cinematografo and the neoclassical Teatro Nacional.

Rising on a hill opposite the castle is the Barrio Alto (upper town) district, home to many of the city's most popular clubs and bars, particularly fado houses.

Barrio Alto can be reached by streetcar, but it's more fun to ride one of Lisbon's four elevators, especially the Elevador de Santa Justa, a neo-Gothic metal tower that many people mistakenly believe was built by Gustav Eiffel. The 145-foot-high structure was actually designed by Raul Mesnier du Ponsard, a Portuguese engineer, and opened in 1902. Atop the lift is a large platform that provides gorgeous views of the city. The other three elevators are funiculars.

Further west along the river lies the suburb of Belem, from which Portugal's great mariners departed on their epic voyages. Brightly painted homes of early sea captains are found here, as well as some of Lisbon's most important museums and monuments.

Built to guard the mouth of the Tagus River in the early 16th century, the hexagonal Tower of Belem once was in the middle of the river. Today, because of changes in the river's course, the much-photographed fortress is on the shore.

Portugal's most visited museum is in Belem. It's the National Museum of Coaches, devoted entirely to royal and aristocratic coaches of the past.

Belem also offers a fine place to regroup: the serene cloisters of the Jeronimo Monastery, a true oasis in the tourist bustle of Belem.