The Lure Of Lisbon

24th April 2009

Portugal, in most people’s minds, equals the Algarve. Tourist beaches, vivid green golf courses, holiday apartments and lots of visitors. All a bit unsubtle. The capital, by contrast, has long gone unnoticed. Cheaper flights over the past decade have begun to open up cities all over Europe, but weekend travellers to the Iberian peninsula have still tended to favour Madrid or Seville over Lisbon, which makes it all the more delightful. Welcoming to tourists, Lisbon nevertheless continues to go about its own business in its own time and manner.
Grace Fuller reports.

The centre of Lisbon is largely rebuilt now, after the fire of 1988, and its main district, the Baixa, has a modern sophisticated feel, with its 18th century streets and monuments interlaced with 21st century shops. Stretching back up the hillside is Bairro Alto, one of the most picturesque districts: a rabbit warren of narrow, cobbled streets, little grocery shops and restaurants. By day Bairro Alto is quiet, a close-knit residential community; by night it's fashionable and popular, with locals and tourists alike coming to drink in its bars and listened to fado music – melancholy, heart-stirring songs, performed in dark, smoky rooms dripping with atmosphere. Chiado, winding from Bairro Alto to the Baixa, is more elegant but just as inviting and delightful to browse around on a sunny morning.

Lisbon has, it must be said, a fantastic and very inexpensive public transport system; hardly the sort of thing that one usually raves about, but it makes such a difference, especially on a flying visit. There's a fast and efficient bus service and a Metro, together with several elevadores (funicular railways of varying degrees of usefulness) and the most superb tram system. Some of the trams were imported from Sheffield back in the 1950s: a touch rickety and a trifle incongruous, they rattle around the winding hills in the old town at an alarming speed. Take the 28 up through Alfama, for example – an experience you won’t forget. On other routes modern, streamlined trams speed the way through the traffic easily and comfortably, inevitably provoking discussions as to quite why the UK has largely abandoned such an efficient mode of transport.

Central Lisbon is compact and easily walkable, although hilly (built, like Rome, on seven hills). Buy a Lisboacard – ‘Your Passport to the City’ – which confers free travel (along with free admission to museums and historic buildings etc) and you need never feel guilty about hopping on a train or a tram for just a stop or two. A word of warning, however, you will need to take your passport with you to purchase the pass, a salient fact not often mentioned in the tourist literature – which led to one of us hotfooting it back to the hotel, while the other relaxed with a coffee and a spot of people-watching. You can pick the Lisboacard up at the airport when you arrive; probably best.

If you forget, then try the kiosk at the foot of the Santa Justa elevador, the only vertical lift in the city – and then you can use your newly acquired freedom of the city to take a trip to the top 45 metres above you. Decorated in an elaborate neo-gothic style, with a different pattern on each storey, Santa Justa is the only vertical lift in the city. You can exit at the top to Carmo Square, via a bridge, or simply admire the view… the castle, the Rossio Square and the Baixa, all spread out before you. We spent a very pleasant hour there, with a glass of port, one Monday morning in early November relaxing in the warm sunshine. Yes, that’s right: I did say November and warm and sunshine…

View of the Tagus River from Sao Jorge castle

Almost anywhere in Lisbon gives fantastic views, especially over the River Tagus. Try the castle – ideal for idle strolling – or one of the terraces in Alfama: the Largo das Porto del Sol is very pleasant. Here, too, is the excellent Museu de Artes Decorativas, which I can’t recommend too highly: an excellent, very engaging collectiion of 16th to 18th century Portuguese textiles, furniture, paintings and porcelain.

I recommend, too, a day at Belém, just a few kilometres west of the city centre (and easily reached with your Lisboacard). Belém has a magnificent monument to the explorers who set out from Lisbon to discover and conquer distant parts of the globe; whatever your belief about the rightness or wrongness of this, it’s hard not to admire their intrepid personal courage, embarking in such tiny boats to set sail for places they barely knew existed.

The Monument to the Discoveries

Nearby the Maritime Museum (Museu de Marinha) sets it all in context, and brings Portugal's seafaring history right up to the present day. Only a few hundred yards away, the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos – commissioned in 1501 to commemorate the return of Vasco da Gama from his voyage to India, and financed from the profits made from the spice trade – offers beautiful monastic architecture, historic tombs and exceptionally pretty cloisters. Just along the street is the Pasteis de Belém, where you can take tea or coffee and one of the famous custard tarts of the same name. The delightful Torre de Belém is also a must, especially for its enchanting Renaissance loggia, and the panoramic view. Although it’s only a short tram ride from the centre of Lisbon, Belém has the easy feel of a stylish seaside town, with its wide open spaces and waterfront access. Definitely worth a visit.

Lisbon’s lifestyle is very much that of a street culture, as warm climates so often are, with plenty of bars and cafes where one can sit and watch the world go by.

I wouldn’t want to give the impression that we did nothing but laze around, although Lisbon does have that sort of effect. The days seem long and leisurely, so that it’s perfectly possible to pack plenty in – and yet still feel as though you’ve simply drifted from one drink or coffee to the next…

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