Two days in Lisbon is not enough.
It is not enough to write with any authority about this great city. It is just enough to observe the following:
Firstly, Lisbon is beautiful. Not beautiful in a twee picture perfect way or heavy stony historic way but in a playful, colourful, dusty way.
It is just the sort of beauty I like most – slightly dilapidated and rough around the edges. A-life-well-lived sort of beauty. Lisbon has clearly partied hard over the years and looks all the better for it.
It has all the trappings of a famous European city and more – a castle, a cathedral, incredible monastic buildings, churches and abbeys, imposing government buildings, museums, galleries, stunning squares, markets and shops varied enough to keep even the most enthusiastic retail therapist occupied for a few days.
Secondly, it is a stylish city. Not in a tidy controlled Voguette way but in a shaggy, fun, free flowing way. Lisbon has a style all of its own which can be best described as bohemian baroque. Its crumbling grandeur is one of eclectic technicolour and patterned eccentricity. Painted houses give way to ornate tiled walls. Imperial Portuguese architecture mixes with the Moorish influences of its former inhabitants who were kicked out by the European Christians in 1147. Flamboyant street art lights up the most non-descript of modern underpasses. Cobbled winding streets and steep steps lead open out onto wide congested roads.
Like all living, breathing cities, it has a healthy amount of urban ugliness sitting squatly among its historic loveliness – the obligatory 1950s and 60s brutalist blocks in hues of tar darkened grey and beige, modern high rises built on the cheap and the docks with their giant insect-like cranes picking at the enormous ships alongside them. But all this only adds to Lisbon’s charm. It is not a museum piece to be gawped at by tourists, it is a working city.
Thirdly, Lisbon is cool. Or should I say, the Portuguese are cool, effortlessly so, because they just don’t care too much. They are charming without being cloying, helpful without being obsequious, hospitable and welcoming, but on their own terms. There’s little arrogance or bravado about the Portuguese, just a friendly confidence.
They foster a live and let live attitude, a lack of judgement or even, really, interest in what others are up to that is refreshing. Perhaps this liberal ethos is most evident in the capital with its heady mix of old and new. The young can party hard in the libertine bars of the Barrio Alto while their parents enjoy a more peaceful glass of wine or coffee in a top restaurants or café on the next street.
Finally, Lisbon can fill a hungry sailor’s belly. You cannot walk down a street or alley in Lisbon’s central old town without being greeted by the sumptuous smells of cooking. There is traditional Portuguese fare, fine dining, experimental contemporary restaurants, lunchtime cafes, tapas bars and markets all offering different strands of deliciousness, washed down with great wines from Douro, Dao, Alentejo and other more obscure Portuguese wine growing regions.
Pete and I happily meandered the streets of Lisbon for two days. It is a 20-minute ferry from Seixal right into central Lisbon. From there, we loped along the wide riverfront promenade to the Praça do Comércio square then wound our way up the steep uneven romantic streets of the Alfama district, past the cathedral, to the 11th century Moorish Castelo de St Jorge (St George Castle) which sits atop the hill overlooking much of the city. Upon seeing the enormous queue, we decided against going into the castle, opting instead for a tapas lunch and a revitalising vinho verde in a small sunlit square. We headed back down the hill through shabby commercial Baixa which has hallmarks of a Portuguese Tottenham Court Road and up again into the chicer streets of the Barrio Alto and Chiado. We later jumped on a tram to Belém, west of the giant 25th April suspension bridge where the incredible Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and medieval Torre Belém, built between 1514 and 1520 to defend the entrance to the River Tagus, stand.
Belém is also home to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a giant monument completed in 1960 during the authoriarian rule of António de Oliveira Salazar, to commemorate and celebrate the 15th and 16th century ‘Age of Discovery’, when Portuguese and other European seafarers opened up many new areas of world to their countrymen. Whether the native peoples of those ‘new worlds’ would have felt this was something to celebrate is questionable. But ignoring the ethics of what happened in the decades and centuries that followed, there is no doubt the maritime explorers who set sail on these epic voyages of discovery were incredibly brave and resourceful seamen who endured incredible hardship. We felt it only right and proper, before we headed to sea again, to pay homage to the great sailors of the past.
The following day we went at a more gentle pace, returning to the sleepier streets of Alfama where two huge cruise ships had just moored up, dwarfing the historic district. Successfully dodging the 10,000 pensioners that had just been emptied onto Alfama’s unsuspecting streets, we sat down an al fresco brunch of cod ‘a la Portuguesa’ – salt cod scrambled with a strange but wonderful mix of shredded potato, onion, egg, cheese and chickpeas – and grilled octopus tentacles with herby roasted potatoes and garlic mayonnaise. Yum. We caught a tram to Alcântara, right below the suspension bridge, where an array of old factories and warehouses have been converted into a series of arty shops, restaurants and cafes, called the LX Factory. It was nicely done and good for a wander although a bit contrived. It could as easily have been in Shoreditch as in Lisbon.
We decided to walk the three miles back, past the huge industrial docks, piled high with containers, past the marinas which had turned us away, smugly confirming our spot in Seixal was far nicer, past countless old warehouses and wharfs which come alive at the weekend with bars and club, past brownfield scrub and car parks inhabited by travellers, wandering hippies and surfers in their varied assortment of vans and finally back to the Mercado da Ribeira. This Time Out sponsored indoor market showcases a wide range of talented young chefs and exciting local dishes. We went for a plate of deliciously salty padrón peppers, then a crispy suckling pig and pickled veg bun with a cabbage and chorizo soup and a pea and Iberico ham soup. All washed down with a couple of glasses of red wine from the Douro valley.
Saúde Lisboa! We agreed, that was a great taster – we’ll be back for the main course before too long.