Sunday, May 25, 2008

48 hours in Lisbon

Lisbon had never been on my list of places to see before I die.

Buenos Aires, yes.
Sardinia, yes.
Berlin, yes.
Lisbon, ... well, no.

So it was without any great expectations that I arrived there, lured by a very cheap easyjet flight.

Fourty-eight hours later, I can tell you my top 100 needs revising.

Lisbon is a city ideal for people like me who like to travel without fixed itineraries. It is a city to get lost in without the normal tourist crowds and buses.

This is not to say that there isn't any tourism. There is but overall Lisbon is a city that has refused to be lured by the European tourist circuit. This is a city that prefers to be lived in rather than visited.

All good holidays start with food, and mine begins with the Mercado Ribeira. By the time I arrive, the varinas or fish wives have already put out their fish. Of the catch of the day, it is the prehistoric looking peixe espada (scabbard fish) with its silver foil scales and sharp teeth that catchs my attention.

Unlike many markets in Europe, this market is quiet. The normal hordes of tourists are missing and there are no local specialities vacuum-packed waiting to be sent home. There are just locals shopping. Walking from aisle to aisle, I enjoy an impromptu lesson in Portuguese cooking. All the ingredients for caldo verde and pasteis de bacalhau are there ready for the kitchen.

Nearby, on Rua das Flores, is Carvoaria, a workers canteen opens daily from 12 noon to 3.00 pm. I've been told to arrive early as the place fills quickly. I'm not surprised as the the food is good and very cheap. I select my lunch from the prato dos dias, and order sardinhas assadas with a salada mista and then sit and watch my fellow diners. There are university students, local businessmen and locals. No tourists.

My sardines arrive encrusted in rock salt and cooked on an open-grill. They prove to be one of the best meals that I have ever eaten. Not only are they fresh but the smokiness of the grill combined with the salt and crisp skin of the fish is ... words escape me.

I savour each one, almost to the point of drawing attention to myself. I linger over all four of them, eating slowly in appreciation of each mouthful. If I was ever in any doubt, I know why I travel – I travel to eat.

Post lunch, I head toward Chiado famed for its elegant shopping and A Brasileira. On Rua Garrett, this café has been a favourite with intellectuals and writers since it opened. There is a faint smell of cigar tobacco and its wooden panelled interior has lost none of its lustre. The original painted panels overhead are unmistakable in their Art Nouveau style. This is the perfect place to rest and sample one of many patesis de nata.

Beyond Baixa with its elegance streets is Alfama. During the day it is an uneventful neighbourhood. Off the well worn path of Rua de Sao Joao da Praca near the cathedral , the streets become even quieter. There are very few tourists walking these paved streets of Lisbon. There is only the sound of your own footsteps and of families lunching and dishes being washed behind closed doors. Each corner offers a new sight, such as this grafitti near San Miguel.

The streets are deserted and it’s an opportunity for me to simply meander. Alfama is a labyrinthine of streets, of neighbourhoods within neighbourhoods.

My destination in Alfama is Castelo de Sāo Jorge, a 11th century fort that is a reminder of the presence of Moors in Portugal. On this Sunday afternoon the fort has welcomed some contemporary invaders in the form of mercado mundo mix, a fair of contemporary design from the local college. A DJ mixes the sounds of flamenco and salsa and store holders happily look on despite the inclement weather.

It is easy to spend several hours here, walking through the streets that line the fort.

Beyond some tourist shops selling the famed Lisbon cockerel and titles, the neighbour belongs to its inhabitants rather than tourists. A rooftop café made up of what looks like a make-shift bar and deckchairs belies the contemporary life of Lisbon. This café with no name offers one of the best views of this city.

The neighbourhood of Alfama is perhaps the best neighbourhood for fado and it is worth finding one of the smaller houses to spend an evening discovering this music. At A Baiuca, a small restaurant off Rua de Sao Pedro, I experience this rich heritage. To hear fado is to be told a story. The translation of fado is fate and it is a celebration of what has been lost and what has never been attained. Its poignancy comes from this.

In this small and very overcrowded fado house, these songs of melancholic yearnings are shared. The man who greets us at the door joins with another two men to sing Teiquei rinrha. There are no professional singers and there is no tourist menu.

Late in the evening, our hostess sings and I’m told one of the kitchen-hands sang the night before. It is a local place and during the night more singers will appear at the door and sing fado before leaving again. They greet one another, old friends.

A young woman in her early twenties is encouraged to sing. She does somewhat nervously at first, before she gains confidence and her voice rings out mournful and sad. There is no translation and the depth of the music touches the heart as her voice reaches out across the room and into the small square outside.

Perhaps our best journeys are the unexpected ones. It is those wrong turns, closed signs and misread maps that take us to places beyond familiar guide books into local neighbourhoods. Having never been a great map reader, I find myself lost and in Estrella, a neighbourhood that doesn’t even rate a mention in some guidebooks.

Thinking the fort is behind me, I head south hoping that I will find the centre of town. What I find instead is the religious celebrations of Corpus Christi (the Catholic feast of Pentecost).

In the houses overhead, locals have hung blankets from their balconies. Families line the small streets holding lit candles and lavender. Rose petals are thrown when one of the many religious statues are paraded by, escorted by local bands and lead by local religious fraternities and orders.

The statue of Mary is carried by pall-bearers. Her mount is a bed of orchids and roses. The smell of these blush blooms is lost in the more pungent smell of ripe lavender that has become more intoxicating as it is dropped by the faithful and crushed underfoot.

The statue of Mary moves slowly by, slowed prematurely by the band ahead of her. Her encrusted mantle of sky blue cloth is richly embroidered and on her face, an expression of serenity that has remained the same for centuries. She is followed by Saint Steven, his torso pierced by the arrows of his tormentors. He too looks ahead, beyond the crowd.

The parade will last for several more hours. The faithful will join the line and follow the crowd through the winding streets further into the heart of the city.

In a city famed for its patesis de nata, the word Antiga Confeitaria dé Belem has become synonymous with the pastries known more commonly as portuguese tarts.

Take train 15 to this cafe. The best way to eat a pastéis is with uma bica (strong black express coffee). This bakery has the reputation for being Lisbon’s best. The bakery now makes 16,000 tarts a day based on a recipe that is 170 years old.

Don’t be deterred by the crowd. Wait until they bring a fresh tray of tarts from the ovens. A patesis still warm is wonderful. The custard is rich as is the flakly pastry. Sprinkle with icing sugar and cinnamon.

While you are in Belem, visit the Monument of the Discoveries, a public statue erected in 1960 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator. The 150 metre high monument is an epic statement about Portugal‘s rich maritime past as is the mosaic behind it showing the Portuguese discoveries of the 15th and 16th centuries.

A further walk along the coast time will bring you to Torres de Belem built in the 1500s. Now it sits strangely close to the shoreline, the result of reclaimed land. This famous landmark is a fortress made in the Gothic style and is a grand statement of the legacy of Manuel I. Stop off at Mosteiro dos Jerōnimos on your way back to the centre of town. This monastery built using taxes from pepper money is another celebrated example of Manueline architecture.

Before you leave Lisbon, go to O Bacalhoeiro a Licorista, just off the Rua Augusta in Baixa. I have strange suspicion that this is a local fraternity devoted to all things bacalhau. This is the place to order bacalhau cozido.

Your dish will arrive rather unceremoniously – a piece of cod, boiled potatoes, chickpeas and a single egg. Watch the locals turn these uninviting ingredients into a celebration of this wonderous fish. Flake the cod, removing all the skin and any bones. Mix in the chickpeas, potatoes and parsley and dress with olive oil. As for the egg, that is left on the side. Order a Super Bock beer and you’ve become a member.

SLOWEATER guide to Lisbon

Where to drink
Bar with no name
Travessa do Chao do Loureiro, Alfama
This place was closing just as I was arriving but the view, however shortlived, was perfect. The sun had come out and reclined on one of the modernist deckchairs I looked across the skyline of Lisbon. Perfect.

Solar do Vinho (Port Wine Institute)
Rua de Sao Pedro de Alcantara 45
For an advanced study in port of all vintages and varieties, this is the place for some serious study, including the famous Grahams, bottled by the Symington family!

Where to eat
6 Rua des Flores
The first time I turned up, I reasoned it was another traveller’s experience of the lunch that got away. Informamos os nossos estimados clientes que … or so read the sign. Never being one to give up or lose sight of the opportunity to eat a good lunch, I persisted and returned the next day. The result, one of the most fabulous meals I have ever eaten.

O Bacalhoeiro a Licorista
Rua dos Sapateiros,Baixa
Your meal will begin with pasteis de bacalhau, fried bacalhau and potato patties. This unpretentious restaurant is always busy. Order the bacalahau coido and watch the locals to turn this into an appetizing dish. If you can try to the Pudim de Oros. It is the portugese equivalent of a crème caramel only with port and sugar. The question is who or what is Campanhia Portuguezza de Licoreis?

Café de Sapa, Sintra
There are many imitators on the road side, so beware. Instead enjoy your first taste of a queijadas, a local speciality made with either cheese or an almond meal. From the inside of this café I first sited the Palacio Nacional de Sintra, immediately recognisable by its famed conical chimneys. This place is easy to find as it is the only café, once you are on the road to the old town from the train station.

Where to shop
Rua do Carmo 87a, Chiado
Lisbon is not famed for its shopping but it is worth finding this specialist glove shop. It is little more than an entry and there is only room for one customer at a time. The gloves are all hand-made.

Fabrica Sant’ Anna
Rua do Alecrim 95, Chiado
Portugal is famed for its cermaics and this shop is one of many through the city where you can purchase that must-have bowl or platter to take home. My advice: take your credit card.

In memory of Bill McLennan, my grandfather, a man who liked to travel and tell stories.