There are places near Spain that I am to this day ashamed that I haven’t yet visited. Italy, Austria, the South of France, to name but a few. Another place was Portugal. This country in particular left me with no excuse. It is stuck on the side of Spain and its cities are no further away than many in Spain itself. So, one bank holiday, and with a Scottish friend in tow, I offed to the capital of Lisbon.
At the risk of presenting a twee ‘oooh, this is what I did on my holiday’ look at Lisbon, I will instead present the city to the reader via its varied barrios as I saw them.
Essentially the ‘centre’, Baixa is the area where you find the principal squares, the tourists and their symbiotic touts, the cleanest streets, the drug-dealers, the tat-sellers, and the city’s grandest buildings. The best place to start is the large open space of the Praça do Comercio: a square, centred with a statue of King Jose I on a horse and hugged by the striking mustard-yellow apartments. It looks out onto the water and across the Tejo’s estuary to the banks on the other side. Despite the few tourists and odd guitarist hoping for some cents it is a truly peaceful place. The vast waters have not yet become sea so they lap at your feet quite gently.
North from this place handsome parallel streets – all feeling like Bath had been made Mediterranean – shoot up like bamboo shoots and hit a variety of squares. The first, smallest, and oddest, was Praça Figueira, housing another statue – this time King John I on a horse – and, oddly for a warm March, an ice-rink. Seagulls cooed and squawked and the Castelo São Jorge – St. George Castle – glowed amber in the failing light up on its hill. The second, and finest, square was the Praça Rossio, lined by pretty cafés, headed by the national theatre and this time housing a column and a fountain. The third, and least spectacular, was the Praça dos Restauradores. Wider and more open, this square was only notably for its London Ritzy style, pastel-coloured hotels and modernist style cinema.
Baixa was a funny old district. It combined very Portuguese Portugal with utter tourist trappy tourism. On the positive hand you had the opportunity to eat some of the finest fish – in particular bacalhau (cod) and my favourite bacalhau com natas (creamy cod) – and sample local liquors like Ginjinja (a fortified sour cherry wine) from tiny little bars that only serve that particular drink. On the other hand if you’re not careful at restaurants waiters may leave little ‘tapas’ on the table at the start of your meal so that the visitors munch away thinking they’re free, only to be slammed with a fortified bill at the end. Similarly we were often badgered by tat-sellers and quite the politest drug-dealers.
‘You guys want hash or coco?’
‘OK guys, no worries, have a good night.’
This is the magical postcard area of Lisbon that causes the visitor to ooh and ahh at the views. It’s a jumble of streets and hills and trams and architecture styles and churches and accordion views – one minute claustrophobic, the next minute utterly wide-reaching to sea and sky. This is the old zone and is built up around a hill on which sits the castle. Lisbon’s city planners cleverly created various miradouros, viewpoints, that open the city and allow you to contemplate how it sits. The lay of the land. Like some white tortoise with a terracotta shell, the Alfama is full with flats, churches and monasteries and photographers.
As with all these places there exists the large, gleaming, double-edged sword. On the one hand tourists naturally veer towards somewhere worth snapping, worth seeing, somewhere that the book says you should see. On the other hand however, they also tend to veer towards whatever star of the show may be present. In the Alfama this was the castle. It’s a tasty entry fee of €7.50 so we desisted. The advantage of having a star of the show means that the tourists are sucked away from the other, less ‘things-to-see’ streets. The atmosphere in the Alfama is warm and cosy; little bars spilling out into cobbled streets, sun dripping into the lanes and birds in cages tweeting merrily as old ladies lean out of their stable-style front doors.
This area, alto because it straddles the hill opposite the one topped with the castle is a mess of slightly scruffier streets bulging with more bohemian shops and little restaurants and bars. It was likened to Madrid’s La Latina tapas district, bursting with life. We hit the area at around nine o’clock and it was, for a city with a population that varies between 540,000 and 3 million depending on how you count it, dead. It was quiet and not how it was publicized. Perhaps we went too late.
During the day Barrio Alto is similar in texture to the Alfama, but a little better kept. All throughout streets dip over the edge and offer views to the city. Always views. Little parks and little cafes. Not much traffic. Lisbon is very quiet.
Chiado is the way an old quarter like Barrio Alto evolves into a smarter more modern one like Baixa. It’s seamless and attractive. One interesting part of Chiado is the Elevador de Santa Justa, a towering neo-Gothic lift in the middle of an unassuming street that stands 45m high and has stood for one hundred and ten years. The views – again with the views – are glorious. This was one of many lifts that were part of a plan by the Lisbon council to improve turn of the century Lisbonians’ movement around the city. Then the trams came. Trams are snazzier. It was a no-brainer.
The final area, ‘the second day area’, is the old village of Belem – long since absorbed into the city limits but still retaining a disconnected feel. We walked there, crisping and bubbling in the beautiful heat, but a tram can be taken too. The path follows the water west towards where it swims with salt and becomes sea. There are essentially four things to see. The first is the quite breathtaking bridge – the Ponte 25 de Abril – that is essentially the twin of the Golden Gate Bridge. Indeed, the same company built it. At 2.2km in length – the 21st largest suspension bridge in the world – it launches over the water to the southern banks where a statue of Christ the Redeemer stands, arms outstretched. Under it nestles an area of lovely restaurants by a glittering marina. Good place to stop for a while.
The second, third and fourth items are collected together on the far tip of the land. The Padrao dos Descobrimentos is a hefty 52m high, blockish statue at who’s base can be found 33 larger-than-life sized characters from the annuls of the great period of Portuguese imperial Age of Discovery including everyone’s favourite, Vasco de Gama.
The third is one of the more spectacular religious behemoths that I’ve ever seen: the Monasterio dos Jeronimos. An absurd building, long and floridly built in the hard to find Manueline style, the UNESCO monument is quite lovely. Its cousin is the Torre de Belem – the fourth item on the menu – that is plonked at the furthest point a tourist would go. Another 16th century Manueline style building, it was useful for two reasons. 1. To see off the ships on their expeditions to discover things for the Empire and 2. To protect Lisbon militarily at its entrance. It is frilly and grey and fortified and quite, apologies for the lame word, cool.
The sun set shimmering and shining over the Atlantic and Lisbon was put to bed. Visit it, you buggers, visit it.