A couple of weeks ago, we popped into the travel agency over lunch to book a trip to Barcelona, having determined that a weekend in the Spanish sun was just what was needed to boost our spirits during the February doldrums. Sadly, the girl behind the counter - her countenance becoming wistful as she half eavesdropped on the traveller next to us who was planning a voyage to Tonga, Tahiti and Easter Island - informed us that Spain was out of our meager budget and suggested a trip to Scandinavia, apparently a real mid-winter deal. No matter how great the bargain, we decided, we weren't in the market for a bleaker, darker weekend than we could spend in Shepherd's Bush. We were about to depart despondent when Tam's eye fell on the map on the desk. "What about Lisbon?" he asked.
This is how we ended up in the airport on Friday afternoon, gleefully leaving the uncharacteristic snow in London behind and browsing through guidebooks to find out what there was to do in Portugal, about which we knew almost nothing (beyond its role as the producer of the delicious port Tam got for Christmas and has been sharing, generously). When we landed, we took a bus into the city and spent nearly an hour looking for our hotel. Our maps of Lisbon totally failed to indicate that the city is built on lots of extremely steep hills, and by the time we found the hotel and dumped our bags in the rather monastic room, we were panting for some liquid refreshment.
We stopped by the Solar do Vinho do Porto, the Port Wine Institute of Lisbon, where you can learn about port in the best way possible: by choosing from among dozens of makers and types of wine and sipping it in armchairs in the quiet room. We tried a tawny and a late bottled vintage port, swirling, sniffing and nodding vigorously with the best of them.
Wandering into the deceptively sleepy Bairro Alto neighborhood, famous for its late-night party scene, we came across Pap'Acorda, one of the hippest restaurants in Lisbon and highly recommended by nearly all of the travel literature we had read on the plane. There, under the tutelage of the world's haughtiest waiter (seriously, career waiters in hundred-year-old Parisian brasseries have nothing on this guy), we sampled Portuguese-style tuna and ultra-intense grilled salt cod with cabbage and potatoes. Lisbon looks like a Mediterranean city, with its pastel buildings with ruched terracotta roofs, the curly flourishes of iron surrounding its balconies, its glorious sweeping harbor and warm open squares filled with coffee and wine drinkers at all hours of the day and night (oh, and it's balmy even in February); but the cuisine is firmly based in the Atlantic, emphasizing cod, potatoes, greens like kale and spinach and cabbage, sausages and sheep's milk cheese. Tam finally elicited a friendly response from the waiter when he ordered the chocolate mousse for dessert, which was spooned onto a plate tableside from a giant metal bowl containing enough mousse to satisfy an army of chocoholics.
With our bellies full of fish and our heads light from the slightly bubbly vinho verde, we emerged from the restaurant and into a full-blown block party! The cobbled streets that had been deserted only a few hours earlier were now, just after midnight, in full swing with groups of beautiful young Portuguese revellers weaving from bar to bar and spilling Sagres lager from their plastic cups. We had no choice but to succumb...
The next day, we started off with strong coffee in the Praça da Figueira, a lovely tiled square featuring a statue of Joao I. Much of Lisbon was destroyed in a tremendous earthquake in 1755; after the catastrophe, most of the city was rebuilt and laid out in broad boulevards and elegantly proportioned squares. We wandered through the shopping district down to the Praça do Comércio, the pre-earthquake location of the royal palace, now a wide-open pavilion surrounded on three sides by the faded yellow facades of eighteenth-century government buildings.
Lisbon is full of tiny, clanging wooden trams, winding their way slowly up the steep hills. We caught one up to the Castelo São Jorge , where there were spectacular miradouros (lookout points) over the city; then we proceded to get radically, completely lost in one of the few neighborhoods that survived the earthquake. Alfama is a conglomeration of narrow crooked paths winding up and down vertical inclines, houses leaning to the side, laundry fluttering from windows, neighbors yelling to each other. We felt like voyeurs (which we were, of course) peering curiously into the windows of a medieval village.
[The larger building on the left of the horizon above is the Igreja e Mosteiro de São Vicente de Fora (Church and Monastery of St Vincent Beyond the Walls). Vincent was martyred in Valencia in 336. When the Moors sacked that city in the 8th century, his remains were brought by sea to Portugal and are now kept at the monastery. Legend has it that two ravens escorted the relics, and so the image of a ship accompanied by two birds is prominent in Lisbon.]
Stops in some churches, including the cathedral, followed, along with a fantastic lunch of eggs and Portuguese sausages at a hip little restaurant (Lisbon is among the most design-conscious cities we've ever visited, with a profusion of weirdly shaped furniture and avant-garde lighting fixtures). When
we finally made it out of Alfama (we were thinking we might have to move
in, and were planning the color scheme of our publicly aired laundry), we went to dinner at the Casa do Alentejo, another delighful institution designed to educate through delicious consumption - in this case of the regional specialties of Alentejo, east of Lisbon. Tam had some pretty great monkfish stew, but was jealous of Laura's truly fabulous octopus. Here again the atmosphere was conceived with great care; in this case the architecture swung wildly from Moorish to art deco, and the walls were tiled with traditional Portugese azulejos. We ended the night with little plastic cups of ginjo, a homemade cherry brandy sold out of a streetside stand, across the road from a clarinetist playing an astonishingly perky version of "Strangers in the Night." We dropped a couple of coins in his hat and waltzed home.
Lisbon is one of those appealing cities - like New Orleans - that went through a long, slow decline, and now exists on the edge of the world it occupies, central to nothing and with a concomitant commitment to food, drink, poetry and fashion, accompanied by a rejection of economic endeavor and urban gloss. Black-clad elderly women lean out their crooked windows, shouting to their neighbors up the steep hills; ultra-trendy teenagers ride the trams in their skinny jeans and super-hip kicks; both are celebrating living in a city whose moment of power and glory was a full five centuries ago, its brief ascendancy remembered but apparently unmourned.
On our last day, we took a (much more modern) tram out to Belém, a neighborhood to the west of Lisbon hosting the remaining symbols of this long-ago power: the famous Mósteiro dos Jeronimos and the Torre de Belém, both outposts of the medieval city and shining examples of ornate Manueline architecture. The Tower's turrets are adorned with carvings of various beasts, including the first Western image of a rhinoceros (sculpted after a pet given to Dom Manuel I, which was eventually presented to Pope Leo X and served as the model for Dürer's famous drawing); from the top we could see little explorers practicing their mad maritime skills in the River Tagus. We were rewarded for our bracing riverside perabulations with shots of coffee and the local delicacy, pastéis de Belém, custard tarts topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar. We can confirm that the best are served at the Antigua Casa Pastéis de Belém, but then, you knew that already...
Before catching the bus back to the airport, we acted on a hot tip that Bonjardim, an unassuming fish restaurant among a sea of competitors on the Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, was the place for succulent spit-roasted chicken. Satiated, we had just enough time for a pre-flight spot of tea at a smoke-shrouded airport outpost of Harrods, where Portugese explorers can pick up a green-vested English teddy bear before they set out on their modern-day adventures. Hey, Vasco da Gama never went anywhere without his.
More pictures of our exciting adventure are available here: