We returned our car to Lisbon Airport on Saturday morning and caught a taxi into the city. When we’d booked our one bedroom apartment the location had been a key attraction, and we were not disappointed. It was just below the São Jorge Castle, on the fourth floor of an apartment building at the top entrance to a free elevator. At the bottom of the elevator was a good supermarket and another free elevator that in turn debouched onto Lisbon’s central streets. We had views across the central city, up to the castle above and out to the river. Better yet, the entire central city was within easy walking distance.
We’d planned to end our trip in Lisbon in the hope that we might enjoy the tail end of the golden weather. Unfortunately that hope wasn’t borne out. We did have some good weather, but every day the forecast promised better weather for the morrow, despite which it rained for part of almost every day. When we did get a good day, however, it was very good. On our last full day we took a suburban train to Parque das Nações, the site of the 1998 World Expo, and it was like a day in midsummer.
We roamed Lisbon’s hills, both near our apartment and across the valley. They’re characterised by narrow, cobbled streets, or more commonly by an unholy mix of different types of cobblestones interspersed with patches of asphalt and concrete, over which we had to pick our way with care. Wonderful views were presented around every corner. There was also a lot of graffiti – far too much graffiti, although some of it was very artistic.
Lisbon’s hills are also home to its quaint electric trams, which bustle up steep hills on impossible gradients and rocket around tight corners with an ease made possible by a narrow gauge and small bogeys. On foot it’s difficult to be sure of the tram routes, as there are lines everywhere, most not currently in use (although work is underway to reopen some of them). But tickets are inexpensive, and we enjoyed several rides on the hill suburbs as well as a longer ride along the coast to Belem.
Shopping in Lisbon has been only a little disappointing. There appears to be a lot of choice, but when you put aside the plethora of souvenir shops, all of which sell identical trinkets, and the trans-national chains, some of which have half a dozen stores, there isn’t as much as you’d hope. But where we did find good shops the prices were generally cheap, and the service friendly.
We also made a metro trip to the Colombo mall, which is the biggest on the Iberian peninsula. It’s as big as that claim suggests: three floors of shopping that seem to go on forever. Once again, though, the multi-national chains which offer most of the shopping all have multiple stores in the mall; when we distill these down there’s nowhere near as much choice as its size suggests.
We’ve encountered music everywhere in Lisbon.
We wanted to experience authentic fado. After research and preliminary exploration, Wednesday night took us to a warren of small alleyways in Bairro Alto filled with restaurants, cafes and bars. We slipped into the only two free seats in Tasca do Chico, which already held sixty people in an area not much larger than our living room. There was a mix of tourists and locals, including elderly men in berets and checked shirts, and two guitarists squeezed against one wall, tuning up.
As each set of the evening’s fado programme started the entry door and windows were closed and the lights were turned off. The first singer was a man in his seventies wearing a dark grey suit. After half a dozen songs the door, windows and lights were restored for fifteen minutes before a similar set was performed by a young woman in a very sharp black dress and impossibly high heels. We stayed for a third set, and the singer took us by surprise. As the lights were turned off, one of the elderly men on the far wall put aside his crutches, took off his beret and treated us to a set of surprising vocal agility and range in a fine tenor voice. He looked ninety, and any power his voice had lost was more than made up by the feeling with which he delivered his six songs.
Fado songs tend to melancholy, and when sung with feeling they tug the heartstrings. Our evening in Tasca do Chico is one I’m keen to repeat. Sadly there wasn’t another opportunity on this trip.
If you eat like a local, food in Lisbon is very cheap. If you eat like a tourist, you’ll pay about the same as you would elsewhere in Europe. Quality and flavour aren’t exceptional in either case and we both suffered stomach upsets, so we’re not sure about food safety either. Still, they know how to do pastries: the iconic pastéis de nata being firm favourites with me.
I mentioned our day trip to Belem on the tram. There is a lot to see and enjoy there, including the Jerónimos Monastery, the Torre de Belém and the original pastéis de nata factory, although I didn’t realise the latter was there until after we’d returned home. An opportunity missed, perhaps.
When I first visited Europe Paris was my favourite city, and it’s still a very special place. But if I were asked to select the European city which offers the must accessible and affordable delight to a visitor, I would have to put Lisbon at the top of my list. The people were unvaryingly friendly and we never felt unsafe. There’s history, shopping and a vibrant night life, all in a pleasantly warm climate.