Wind your watch back 30 years and get set for Lisbon
A long weekend in Portugal’s hilly, coastal capital city
Unlike most European capitals, Lisbon is not all about the city centre – the suburbs are just as important.The City
Lisbon is an ancient port city named after Odysseus using his Latin name, Ulysses Town (“Uliss-bon”), that he founded on his travels. On arrival you wind back your watch 30 years, and that is part of its magic. The best thing about it is that tourists have barely noticed it – the Portuguese send them firmly to the southern province of the Algarve which was once beautiful but now is ruined by overdevelopment. Fortunately the west (Atlantic) coast is free of development which means you can find beaches that easily rival the South African west coast, especially in the Alentejo south of Lisbon.The Portuguese may be Latin but they are not Mediterranean. There are no fiery, passionate tempers here. Instead they have a rather dry, self-deprecating humour based largely on making fun of themselves – unthinkable in Italy, Spain and France.Portugal is all about the sea – its focus is on beaches, fresh fish and seafood, and after a few Imperias (cold beers) the Portuguese tend to look at the ocean and dream about what lies beyond it.
The Portuguese are dreamers and hopeless romantics – all this enjoyment of sadness is called saudade. There is no word for it in English, Spanish or French because it is just not part of our way of being. They even have a musical version called Fado (Fate), but it is an acquired taste.Being dreamers, the Portuguese were able to finance and undertake some great sea voyages of discovery – Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco de Gama sailed round Africa, and Ferdinand Magellan sailed around South America.
By about 1500 the Portuguese, with a population less than a million, were well on their way to establishing a global empire: Cape Verde, Angola and Mozambique in Africa, Goa in India, East Timor in Indonesia, Macau in China, and the right-hand side of South America that Pope Alexander VI divided between Spain and Portugal, now known as Brazil (Spain got the left-hand side).
The Portuguese empire lasted until the 1970s when, fed up with the huge bills, a homegrown revolution saw all the Portuguese withdraw almost overnight from Africa, leaving their territories in complete chaos.So if I was in Lisbon for the first time from a Friday to Tuesday evening, staying at the Ritz, what would I do?
Lisbon airport is downtown; a cab to the hotel will cost €10 – and the city cabs are mostly Mercedes, so don’t let them rip you off with a hotel limo at an exorbitant price. All young to middle-aged Portuguese speak good English.The Ritz has huge rooms with a terrace overlooking Eduardo VII park. The spa has great treatments and breakfast is lovely to enjoy on the balcony overlooking the park.
I wandered along the Avenida da Liberdade and stopped for lunch at Cervejaria Pinoquio opposite the Avenida Palace Hotel and the Art Deco Eden Hotel, near the entrance of the Metro.Grab a table outside under the green and white umbrellas. This is a place for fish and seafood. Start with the signature Ameijoas a Bulhao Pato – clams cooked in garlic and coriander. This is a national speciality – make sure you dunk the bread into the sauce. For the main course have either grilled fish or a seafood rice (Arroz de Marisco) and wash it down with a cold Imperial or a bottle of white wine.If you can't get a table there, try Champaneria, two blocks away, for its superb tapas and a jug of champagne sangria.After lunch, wander toward Rossio Square down the Rua Augusta, ending up in Comercio Square. There you’ll see the vast Tagus river in front and the old bridge on your right.Then turn back and head away from the bridge and up the hill toward the Alfama district (look out for signs to Sé Lisboa cathedral). Keep up the hill until you see signs to Castelo Sao Jorge which you should aim to get to about an hour before sunset.There are plenty of stunning little streets in the Alfama to explore and Miradores (lookout spots) with bars and cafes overlooking the river to have an Imperial beer en route.Castelo Sao Jorge is just ruins but worth a look around. It affords spectacular views over the city, the river and the bridge.There is a wine kiosk by the fortress walls where you can refill your glass as you watch the sunset. Then wander down the hill back towards Avenida Liberdade below to walk back to your hotel. Bairro Alto and adjacent Chiado district are great places to visit once darkness has fallen. Eat at Olivier, 100 Maneiras or Pap’Açôrda.Have at least one cocktail in the Pavilhao Chines (take a cab there and then work your way to bar in the Billiards Room at the back. It’s then just a short walk on to dinner).
Olivier is the place for after-dinner drinks. Or you could try John Malkovich’s Bica do Sapato and Lux nightclub down by the river.Another classic post-dinner club is Main. There is a dress code and you should get the concierge to put your name on the list.For a more relaxed Sunday or Monday dinner try Aqui Ha Peixe in Bairro Alto. Owners Miguel and Mafalda Reino will tell you to try the big red camerao (jumbo shrimp).The next day, head for the Belem district and look at the Monastery of St Jeronimus and the Tower of Belem.Another nice walk is to the Elevador de Sta Justa which takes you up to the Bairro Alto and there you should head to the Igreja do Carmo. The church has been in ruins since the great earthquake of All Saints Day in 1755 that destroyed most of the city. A quarter of the population perished in that instant, and it sent shockwaves through Western thought and philosophy. It was a major cause behind the beginning of the European Age of the Enlightenment.There are great cafes in the square outside the church and lots of small streets to wander around on.
The suburbs of Lisbon
Car hire is cheap and the road network outside Lisbon is world-class. Speed limits are enforced off the freeways but on them it is very fast, so get a car to match. The Ritz will arrange for one to be delivered to the hotel.
There are fabulous beaches on the south side of the city, but most of the history and all the interesting stuff is on the west.Drive down the Avenida da Liberdade until you hit the river. Take a right and follow the Marginal to Cascais – and take the A8 freeway back. Choose a sunny day and have lunch at Monte Mar, just beyond Cascais on the seafront. Start with the Sapateira (prepared crab) and have a delicious grilled fish as a main. There are no tourists, just upper-class Portuguese.
The other must for lunch is Fortaleza de Guincho that has a mix of locals and tourists as patrons.In Cascais centre have a coffee (in Portugal coffee is drunk short and sharp and always a bica. For the unreformed a coffee with milk Portuguese style is a galao).
Carry on driving west along the coastal road curving northwards and follow signs for Cabo da Roca, the western-most point of mainland Europe, and gaze out to where all the great discoverers saw their futures across the seas.Sintra is the jewel in the crown of Lisbon’s suburbs. The drive from Cabo da Rocas is full of sights. You need at least a full day to do it justice. There is a train from Lisbon to Sintra and a tourist bus from town up the mountain which stops at all the great houses and palaces which you hop on and off to see.
I recommend National Palace in Sintra town; Pena Palace, a magical crazy fairytale castle; the Quinta da Regaleira; and the Montserrate Palace. Take lunch at the Hotel Palacio de Seteais and then walk the walls of the Moorish castle.For an alternative lunch destination, travel an hour from Lisbon on the A2 South motorway to Comporta where you’ll find the Museo de Arroz . Start with the Ameijoas ao Bulhao Pato, or the big red Camarao – and choose one of the seafood rices (it’s not called the Rice Museum for nothing).Food and wine
Stick to the seafood dishes – usually the fresh fish is spectacular. Soups are delicious, desserts are generally best avoided (except the chocolate mousse in Papa Acorda).
If you want meat you’re in the wrong country. Chicken grilled on the Churrasco is a cheap and omnipresent fast food so while you will see lots of it around you will never see it on the menu of a chic or fine dining restaurant.
The Portuguese elite drink French Champagne with everything. They make excellent Champagne Sangrias everywhere which I highly recommend to go with your fish or seafood rice. There are great Portuguese wines – either the white or red from Adega de Cartuxa from Alentejo.If you find yourself in central Lisbon for sundowners, head to the Sky Bar at the Tivoli hotel on Avenida Liberdade, or the BA Terrace at the Bairro Alto Hotel: Lisbon is all about views and sunsets.