Fado, pastéis, and gateway to the exotic

If you’re chasing the sun this spring bank holiday, why not reach for the westernmost European capital and the westernmost point of the continent? What can be more relaxing than watching the sun set around the Tagus estuary while chomping on some bacalhau à brás and sipping Moscatel de Setúbal? And after that, going pra noitada at the Bairro Alto?

Bairro Alto & Chiado

Bairro Alto

As the name suggests, the Bairro Alto district sits on higher ground from the river – of which you can sneak glistening views framed by the cascade of quaint houses and the cobblestoned lanes, striped with tramway tracks. It can be accessed from the modern city by the typical yellow funicular, ascensor in Portuguese, which earned the city the nickname of ‘the San Francisco of the Atlantic’.

The grid of streets for this ‘new’ quarter was laid out in the late 15th century, as perpendicularly as the uneven terrain allowed, and the 1531 earthquake urged the construction of further residential homes made of brick rather than wood. The result was a conglomeration of three- or four-storey buildings that underwent several facelifts in the next centuries; a colourful array of pastel-painted or tile-clad façades, patterned with wrought iron balconies and geranium pots in true bohemian spirit, with the addition of 19th-century street lampposts. It is now home to students, artists and creatures of the night, as it is ‘the’ place for clubbing.

Lisbon was one of the first European capitals to openly welcome the LGBT community, with dedicated rendezvous spots, a film festival, and theatrical shows, including some of the best drag acts in the world – nowadays a staple for all visitors.

Although the best time to visit Bairro Alto is the wee hours, when it comes to life with its true colours, a morning stroll through its lanes will allow for appreciating every manicured detail and perhaps some breakfast – brunch, actually, since around here you are not hip if you rise before noon. Savour (amongst other dishes) the typical Portuguese mixed fish and shrimp risotto with coriander, and for dessert the sweet candied rhubarb morsels tickling your sweet tooth in anticipation of the exotic laranja mourisca – a scented bliss of orange segments in blossom water, coconut milk, almonds and mint.

Chiado is the adjacent shopping district, destination for a more bourgeois night life, with mainstream theatres and bars and open all day for coffee or wine and nibbles. Several historical shops line its artery Rua Garrett, and notably the oldest bookstore in the world, Livraria Bertrand.

Neo-gothic lift Elevador de Santa Justa

Convento da Ordem do Carmo is a former Carmelite convent partly destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, whose scars are still visible today. The wing that still stands houses part of the Archeological Museum, collecting several exhibits from Portuguese history, such as evidence of prehistoric fortified settlements. The Convent is perched on a hill, just next to the famous neo-gothic lift Elevador de Santa Justa, and its burly apse is best viewed from Rossio Square, popular name of the majestic Praça de Don Pedro IV.

Millenary history

If Chiado was inhabited since Roman Empire times, Lisbon is arguably one of the oldest cities in Europe, for its sheltered position on the estuary (inhabited since the Neolithic by pre-Celtic tribes) blended in with the Indo-European invaders and later with the Phoenicians, who called the settlement something like ‘Allis Ubbo’, that meant something like ‘safe harbour’.

Factor in the assonance of this name with the one Romans gave to Homeric wanderlust hero Odysseus and, hey presto!, Ulysses was credited for founding the city the Greeks had named Olissipo or Olissipona (later Ulishbona, during the Visigoth kingdom of Toledo) at the estuary of the river they knew as Lisso.

Whatever its etymology, the name Lisbon has tickled the Americans’ fancy, and they have named no less than 16 US towns after it, as well as popular TV character Teresa Lisbon, second banana to the title star Mentalist, at her turn named after one of the tragic sisters of Jeffrey Eugenides’s debut horror novel ‘The Virgin Suicides’.

Fado

In 711 (sound familiar?) the city was taken by Berbers and Arabs, who added varied ethnicities to the existing population and reshaped the city walls, building the Cerca Moura and re-populating the fishermen’s district Alfama, thus named after the public baths. It still bears Arabic toponyms, and is considered the birthplace of fado (i.e. ‘fate’), the melancholic music genre popularised some two hundred years ago but believed to have sprung from the gypsy and middle-eastern roots common to Andalusian flamenco. If nowadays the Romantic fado is performed mostly for the discerning tourist benefit, several subgenres have developed, thanks to the contributions of cultures from former Portuguese colonies, so we can enjoy the morna from Cabo Verde, the Brazilian modinha and the Indonesian kroncong.

Castelo de São Jorge

No citadel stands the siege of time without a castle on the hilltop: Castelo de São Jorge dates back over two millennia, when the city became a Roman municipality, and has since been extended and rebuilt. Don’t miss this tourist site! It might get warm up there, so get sure you protect your eyes, skin, and head – and carry plenty of water. And if you are not up for the hike, never fear: the castle’s sturdy towers are visible from all corners of Lisbon as they stand proud like a crenellated crown over and above the modern buildings draping the hill.

la Sé

The stroll downhill towards la Sé – as is simply known the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St. Mary Major for being the archdiocese’s see – will remind you of Paris’s Montmartre.

Started in Romanesque style, the cathedral’s architecture is now a mix of styles due to restorations after each of the many earthquakes that marred Lisbon’s history. Its main features are the ambulatory with clerestory, Lopo Fernandes Pacheco’s tomb, featuring a sculpture of the suited, booted and armed nobleman on his deathbed, guarded by his dog, and the cloister lined by mullioned arches each topped by its oculum, each with a unique tracery pattern.

Torre de Belém

Belém

Torre de Belém is Lisbon’s unrivalled symbol in the riverside district where from explorers used to set sail towards their adventures: in 1497 Vasco da Gama departed for India from here and Pedro Álvares Cabral for Brazil in 1499. Declared UNESCO World Heritage Site for this very reason, the tower’s architecture is an example of Manueline style which you’ll find at its best at the magnificent Mosteiro dos Jerónimos located just opposite. The ex-monastery houses the maritime and the archeological museums next door to the church, whose interior and cloister deserve your undivided attention for a couple of hours of leisurely awe.

Convento de los Jerónimos

Both a triumph of white stone, the first boasts columns that resemble giant calla lilies making you feel like a pixie fluttering about the undergrowth of an enchanted forest. Promenading the two-storey cloister offers a chiaroscuro view on the central fountain and lawn through columns and arches richly decorated with lace-like trimmings of convoluted detail, dainty and airy like wintry rime on vines’ branches.

The Archeological Museum houses important collections of exhibits unearthed in Portugal, including Gallaecian sculpture, Roman epigraphy and jewellery, and an extensive collection of Egyptian mummies and terracotta statuettes acquired by the museum’s founder, to document everyday’s life along the banks of the Nile. The Navy Museum next door shows sea-themed paintings and models of historical ships, and it is worth a visit just for its entrance, flanked by two mast-like Gothic towers.

Padrão dos Descobrimentos

One of the most photographed monuments in the area is the prosopopoeial Padrão dos Descobrimentos, featuring statues of Portugal’s kings, navigators, chroniclers, cartographers, missionaries, astronomers, and mathematicians who dedicated their lives and studies to geographical discoveries. Landscaped gardens with fountains and a round plaza with mosaic pavement connect the monastery to the riverbank, where from you can embark for a day-cruise, or tuck in a meal of freshwater fish at the riverside restaurants.

Tour the National Coach Museum in the old horse-riding arena of the royal palace that is now the official residence of the President. This fifty-metre long arena is decorated with columns, paintings and tile work, and features an upper arcade with balconies where from the royal family and their guests would watch the races and equine games. Today it is home to carriages that had belonged to royalty and aristocracy from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century, some of rare facture, and some just glitzy kitsch to the average Millennial’s eye.

Pastéis de Belém

You cannot exit this district without having tasted pastéis de Belém, the hearty custard cupcakes introduced by the Hieronymite monks from France. Eager consumers of egg whites, monasteries were left with plenty of yolks to dispose of creatively, so they started baking pastry and cakes and sell them for charity. Two hundred years ago the monks sold the recipe to the sugar refinery next door, which still owns the rights to the name (the recipe spread across Portugal and colonies under the alternative name pasties de nata) and still bakes and sells them at their front shop, where you can enjoy them warm, sprinkled with icing sugar and cinnamon, and a glass of Porto (hey, it’s five o’clock somewhere in the former colonies!).

Parque das Nações

Parque das Nações

From classic to ultra-modern, the district of Parque das Nações on the riverbank close to the Vasco da Gama suspension bridge (Europe’s longest) caters for indoors and outdoors leisure and educational activities. Indulge in a drive across the bridge to the opposite bank: with nothing around but steel cables, wind, and the river below, it feels like hovering on water in a post-apocalyptic movie – the only clue you’re still in the motorist era lies in the rush-hour traffic jams!

The inauguration of the 17-kilometre long Vasco da Gama Bridge twenty years ago stole away the record of Europe’s longest suspension bridge from the parallel 25 de Abril one, named after the Carnation Revolution but built in 1966 under Salazar rule and originally named after him.

Don’t miss the Oceanarium, on a small peninsula where from you can catch the horizontal cable-car: cosy egg-shaped cabins travel a few metres above water level with the sole purpose of giving you a bird’s-eye view of the waves and the promenade below, lined with stone pines, contemporary sculptures that double up as activities for children, and terraced cafés, and restaurants with international and local cuisine on the menu. These are top-market sophisticated and hence pricey, so if you are budgeting for a quick luncheon, you’d better check in at the food court of the nearby Vasco Da Gama shopping mall next to the Gare do Oriente, the futuristic coach and railway station whose architecture is loosely reminiscent of the Manueline columns seen at the Hieronymite monastery.

The Oceanarium is a futuristic building on a pier juttying on an artificial lagoon, similar to a space rocket launch pad piled on an aircraft carrier, with beams rocketing skywards. Inside you’ll meet most marine creatures you can think of – penguins, otters, sharks, seahorses… You will be wowed by a three-level tank recreating the ocean habitat, that you can view from the many windows and, as you descend from the surface, you’ll meet pelagic and bottom-dwelling fish and mollusks.

The Parque das Nações was purpose-built for the World Expo in 1998, and it includes designer skyscrapers, a casino, theatres and the UFO-shaped concrete concoction 20,000-seater Altice arena busy with rock concerts and sports events.

Baixa Pombalina

All districts converge on the Pombaline Lower Town, built in a cardo-and-decumanus grid on the low land wedged between Chiado and Alfama,  after the 1755 earthquake by the then Prime Minister Marquis of Pombal, who was an enthusiastic supporter of Enlightenment philosophy applied to lifestyle.

Praça do Comércio

Praça do Comércio is an immense square lined with arcaded edifices opening on the riverbank, where you can enjoy the glistening water and just about spot the opposite side. One word of advice: skip this landmark if you suffer from agoraphobia and flee for comfort beyond the arch into the pedestrianised Rua Augusta, the main street of all main streets, encumbered with elegant cafés and boutiques at the front of neoclassic palaces, and paved with a mosaic of white and grey cobblestones in geometric shapes.

Rossio Square, popular name of the majestic Praça de Don Pedro IV.

Gently uphill, you’ll find Rossio Square, alive with street artists. You’ll continue towards Avenida da Libertade, the large and trafficked boulevard flanked by eclectic buildings that leads to the Parque Eduardo VII, an extensive Italian garden with squared-out hedges, lawns and meadows, pavilions, monuments and sculptures, ponds and botanical gardens hosted in three greenhouses, Estufa Fria (cold), Estufa Quente (hot) and Estufa Doce (sweet).

Parque Eduardo VII

Whether here for a weekend, a week, or just on a pit-stop to catch your flight to Macaronesia or Azores, make the most of your time and don’t spare yourself  those tramway rides to sightsee far and wide, bottom to top. Should you have time to spare, expand to the surrounding hamlets, now conglobated in the suburbs where you can catch a glimpse of West African and Cabo Verdean folklore in the flamboyant apparel and spicy dishes.

The urban expansion remains deferential to the natural parks around: Sintra-Cascais, delimited only by the Atlantic open coast, and the south-facing sheltered Arrábida, near Setúbal. The mouths of the Tagus River and the Sado River further south, protected by a sandy barrier, are both declared natural reserves and are a sanctuary for resident and migratory wildlife.

The word that best describes Lisbon is ‘grandeur’, fit for the metropolis that once was the centre of a worldwide empire. The long scenic drive from Gibraltar, for lack of direct flights, ought not to be obstacle to plan your next escape there, especially because hotels offer great value for money. Alternatively, you can pitch your tent or rent a decked bungalow in the large gated and serviced camping located in acres of almost unspoilt stone-pine tree forest on a hill populated by squirrels and parrots.

Don’t be fooled by the meme claiming that Portuguese language is easy to master because it sounds like Spanish spoken with a hot potato in your mouth: it may be as well  comfortable to understand in print, but speech is fast and curious, with its frequent nasals, shadowed vowels and slurred sibilants. Never fear: virtually everybody as fluent in English as they are reticent in Spanish.