If you’re looking for a weekend break in a city with easy to follow street signs, smooth, well-kept pavements, graffiti-free buildings, a simple subway ticketing system, and taxi drivers that stay well within the speed limit, then I’d suggest that you give Lisbon a miss. But if you don’t mind things on the rustic side, and you’re ambivalent about gloss and polish, you might just fall in love with this ancient, cobbled, quirky city.
I had no idea what to expect, when we booked flights to Lisbon for our tenth wedding anniversary, but it’s somewhere I’ve always had on my list. Plus, it’s warm at this time of year. Turns out, if you get married in October, your wedding anniversary will always be in October; when it’s a bit cold and a bit damp and a bit grey almost everywhere – who knew.
The Portuguese capital is around 20′ to 24′ a this time of year, and only two and half hours from Dublin, so that’s where we picked for our first ever weekend away without the kids. I assumed it would be similar to other European cities, with some Pastéis de Nata thrown in, but actually, I’ve never been anywhere that’s quite like Lisbon.
Our arrival at the hotel was via a 120 kmph taxi journey in traffic that didn’t really facilitate such speeds – as he zipped in and out of lanes, missing other cars by a tense nerve’s breadth, I gripped my husband’s hand (because of course that’s what would save me in a collision) and reassured myself that the taxi-driver must know what he’s doing. It was the first of many such journeys over the weekend, because while they may be slightly unnerving, Portuguese taxis are in plentiful supply and reassuringly cheap.
It was already 5 o’clock by the time we had checked in and carried out the obligatory recce of the room (yes there’s a kettle, yes there are tea-bags, no don’t touch anything in the mini-bar), so we figured we’d go downtown to check it out, then come back to get ready for dinner. The hotel staff suggested the “Chiado” area, when we asked “where do people go?”, so off we went, in another taxi (our hotel not actually being the twenty-minute walk from the city-centre that we somehow thought it was)
Perhaps it was the route that the taxi-driver took, but what we saw was graffiti, worn shop fronts, broken footpaths and a general weariness. It wasn’t what I expected, but it also wasn’t off-putting – we were curious to find out more. Arriving in Chiado (less graffiti, more polish, still broken footpaths but of the pretty, cobbled variety), we wandered down the street for all of three minutes, then decided to stop for a drink in a very pretty courtyard restaurant called Aprazivel.
My husband had local red wine, and I had gin and tonic which came in something resembling a fishbowl, and after a while, we decided we might need some chips to go with it. And another glass of wine. And then it suddenly made no sense at all to go back to the hotel to get ready for dinner – sure weren’t we grand the way we were, and couldn’t we eat right there in the lovely courtyard? So we had scrambled eggs with sausage, and steak in cream sauce, and many more chips, and some more wine, and dessert, and more wine, and then it was very dark, and time to go home.
On Saturday morning, we braved the sub-way. There was no sign-post or markings of any kind to indicate the entrance to the station, so we were kind of pleased with ourselves when we found it. We were equally pleased when we managed to buy two tickets, having worked out that we had to get reusable cards and then add fares to them. At least I think that’s what we were supposed to do – anyway, it got us through the turnstiles and nobody stopped us. Emerging at the other end, we found ourselves down at the waterfront – almost in the water. A huge square, Largo de Comercio, leads right down the edge of the River Tagus, giving the sense that the city rises out of the water. Back behind the square, the city stretches upwards into seven hills, looking down over the wide river. And the hills, coupled with the broken cobble paths, are why flat, reasonably comfortable shoes are a good idea in Lisbon.
We set off to find the Castle of São Jorge, deciding against asking for directions. Which is how we ended up climbing the hill via the tiny, cobbled back streets that wind their way up in between narrow, colourful houses – we were literally in front-yards (or back-yards, I couldn’t tell), walking through lines of washing, hoping at each turn to see the castle.
Finally, we saw a group of tourists, and followed them up some steps, where we found a lookout – but no castle. At that stage, we didn’t care – we needed coffee and some looking-out time.
We decided then to follow the tram-line, in our ongoing bid to find the elusive castle. Half an hour later, deep into the Alfama area of Lisbon, with its Moorish influence and traditional tile-fronted buildings, and its shops that smelled of spices and barbecued fish, we accepted that this could not possibly be the way to the castle. We agreed that while it was sensible of the 11th century Portuguese to build a castle that was well hidden from invaders, it was probably safe to put up a few sign-posts at this stage.
We retraced our steps to the lookout, took one previously unnoticed side street, and finally found the castle – yay! Having worked so hard to get there, we felt fully justified ordering some white wine from the handy wine-seller on the castle grounds, and drank it sitting in the turrets, looking down over all of Lisbon. I’d like to say we had deep and meaningful conversations, but actually we had a big discussion about how perfect Lisbon would be for a James Bond film. The mix of European and North African culture, the ancient city with its 21st century cafés surrounding broad squares, the narrow, windy streets, the seven hills, the ruined castle, the view over the orange roof-tops and down to the sea – I can totally picture Bond on a motorbike here (actually, I’ve since read that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was partly shot in Portugal – there you go)
I won’t bore you with every coffee, ice-cream, pork in red wine, pastry, more coffee, steak, more pork, prosecco, red wine and more pastries that occurred over the next twenty-four hours but we did feel we had to try everything once (or twice) and our dinner in Clube De Journalistas was particularly good (plus they welcomed us with a glass of Prosecco – they could have served anything after that and we’d still have loved it)
Sunday morning, we subwayed our way downtown again, blending in with the locals because we totally knew how to buy tickets this time. We sat in the sun for an hour, in a café called Can The Can, drinking many coffees and eating some more pasteis de nata. Watching the world go by, or at least a small slice of it, on the south-western tip of Europe.
Lisbon is different – that’s for sure. It may take a little bit of getting used to, but then again, we only had a weekend, and we were very quickly won over. I’d definitely recommend it, and I’d definitely return. The mix of ancient and modern is beguiling, and the views are spectacular, but I’ll mostly be going back for more pasteis de nata.