Unspoilt and understated Lisbon is adorned with tiles on the buildings and cobbles on the streets. She isn’t so much neglected as preserved and worthy of many a setting for films, especially those in black and white. The sea breeze wipes away what little pollution there is from any ‘escape’, as a car exhaust is interestingly called.
I spent my first evening at Sr Vinho on Rua do Meio à Lapa. This wonderfully authentic venue is almost a museum to the art form of fado with walls lined with guitars and grape tapestries, goblets, clocks and antique artefacts. The raw sincerity of fado, the music and the singing and the words were all for me deep, personal and invigorating.
I went the next morning to the neighborhood of Belém to see Lisbon’s main attraction, the Jerónimos Monastery. Said to have been ‘built by pepper,’ it’s an architectural masterpiece, created from the first flush of cash from the Indian spice trade. The monastery is right next to the pink Presidential Palace whose guards strut from their sentries with impressive pomp. And it’s right next to the Pastéis de Belém, a large, airy bakery-cum-café and a huge hit with the tourists. It makes those lovely egg tart pastries dusted with cinnamon (pastel de nata) the city is famous for.
From here I had arranged in advance to board a nearby sailing boat (www.lisbonbyboat.com). It made me imagine coming up the Tagus in the city’s famous years now immortalised by the concrete Monument to the Discoveries and the Belém tower whose ‘fire wall’ was complemented with guns from across the estuary. I marvelled at the main bridge as I went beneath it. It spans the estuary and resembles San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and was designed by the same company. It was very life-affirming looking up at the traffic high above that sounded like a long buzzing swarm of bees and across at the enormous statue of Christ protecting the city within his embracing arms but with his back turned seemingly to neglect those living in the south.
I stayed at the Lapa Palace. The spacious bedrooms have balconies that overlook the outdoor swimming pool, the cascading tiled fountains and the lovely gardens comprising of exotic shrubs and tropical banyan, palm and banana trees. An abundance of green, it’s a healthy oasis with the estuary sparking beyond. Inside a sense of the old time is rounded off by the evening pianist while the breakfast is served in a beautiful basement room with exotic fruits on offer such as mango, papaya and passion fruit.
I enjoyed on my last day the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in the north of the city. It houses a collection of fine art and has an impressive array of both Corot and Guardi while the eponymous Turkish founder has bequeathed many amazing Ottoman treasures including Iznik tiles offering an interesting cultural comparison with the local variety.
Getting a Lisbon Tourist Card (www.lisboacard.org) to cover many of the museums, shops and modes of transport is a great idea. With mine I jumped on the trams, surely the best way to experience the city and used as much by locals as tourists, and decked with leather seats, wooden panels with the driver presiding over old-fashion controls.
For a different way to explore the city I also took an electric ‘tuk-tuk’ with Hills on Wheels (www.hills-on-wheels.com) with its high-pitched shrill from its three wheels as it ferried me back to my hotel.
Fifteen years ago Portugal wasn’t known for her food. Yes, there was seafood, and ‘casas do frangos’ (houses of chicken) serving grilled chicken with rice, fries and salad. But that was probably about it. Now it’s all changed. I went one evening locally to Tasco da Esquina (www.tascadaesquina.com) on Rue Domingos Sequeira. It’s part of a new successful chain of three restaurants and it’s highly popular with the locals. Here I chose an assortment of dishes and my sautéed vegetables, mixed salad and fried mushroom blended perfectly.
There’s even a progressive vegan movement with new outlets popping up all over the place. I loved Ohlinda (www.ohlinda.pt) on Calçada da Estrela, with its gluten-free traditional ‘crepe’ tapiocas and exotic fruit juices, all to be savoured from the option of sitting on an indoor swing. And downtown there’s Organi in Chiado (www.organi.pt) with its logo of ‘vital food, vital energy’ up the steep staircase that is Calçada Nova de São Francisco. The restaurant, with its sugar free menu respecting the environment and chiming with the seasons, prides itself on being a ‘place of harmony not so much restrictive as embracing’. Like the whole of Lisbon in my experience.
Classic Collection Holidays (0800 047 1064; classic-collection.co.uk) offers 3 nights at Lapa Palace, Lisbon from £959 per person. Price based on 2 adults sharing on a bed & breakfast basis and includes return flights from London Heathrow to Lisbon and private transfers.