Cosmopolitan, cultural, cool – Lisbon certainly has a lot going for it. But on the late November days that we were there, there was nothing cool about the weather. It was warm, gloriously warm as we sat on the terrace of the Castelo de S. Jorge basking in the sunshine watching some peacocks preening their feathers.
The old Moorish castle perched high on one of the seven hills that make up Lisbon dates back to the 11th century. And whilst it eventually became a royal residence it is one of the few European castles that was not built as a home. It bristles, as all forts should, with crenellations and towers – a perfect defence stronghold should Lisbon be under attack. The views from the parapets are magnificent.
It is a steep climb up through the old Moorish Alfama quarter to the castle but Lisbon’s most famous tram – tram 28 takes passengers to within a few yards of the gate.
A working tram…
Tram 28 has become something of a tourist attraction itself. Eléctrico 28 as it is more correctly called actually links two hills – its route runs between Martim Moniz and Campo Ourique.
Whilst it is much beloved by tourists this is very much a working tram and it is definitely not luxurious.
It jerks and rattles its way up and down steep narrow cobbled streets with passengers sliding around on faux leather seats
Be prepared to stand, and forget any thought of air-conditioning other than the windows, but it is an inexpensive way of seeing some of Lisbon’s highlights and you can hop on and hop off so to speak. It takes about 40 minutes if you choose to stay on for the entire journey.
We walked down to the city centre through the quaint and historic Alfama district. It is Lisbon’s oldest district and is a veritable labyrinth of stairs, squares and narrow streets decorated with washing hanging from balconies, and in the summer with pet birds taking the air in their cages.
The hills of Lisbon have always been something of a problem, they are very steep. So to make life easier for city dwellers apart from the trams, funiculars and lifts were also installed. Four still exist today -three funiculars and one lift – the Santa Justa. The Santa Justa Elevator links the Baixa and Bairro Alto districts.
It is housed in a neo-Gothic tower that dwarfs the surrounding buildings, You’ll probably have to queue to use it, and because it is also a tourist attraction it’s usually crowded. It costs €5 (a little more if you want to go to the viewing gallery at the top) but it does save that steep walk.
…and a triumphal arch
Whilst you are ‘down town’ take time out to ascend the Rua Augusta Arch. Lisbon suffered horrendous damage in the 1755 earthquake and resulting tsunami and this triumphal arch was built to celebrate the rebuilding of the city. Today a lift takes visitors part way.
To reach the viewing platform beneath the giant statues some 30m above street level it is necessary to climb a narrow spiral staircase. But the view from the top over the Tagus and the city and looking down on the ant-like pedestrians scurrying up and down the Rua Augusta is well worth the effort.
Down by the riverside
Lisbon is not only built on hills it has also grown up on the banks of the mighty River Tagus.
From its shores in the time of Henry the Navigator small caravels set sail on their epic Voyages of Discovery. In 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry’s death an impressive monument was erected. It depicts a prow of a caravel with Henry gazing out to sea along with other noted people from Portuguese history.
A short walk away there is another impressive building. Sitting sturdily in the water of the Tagus is the Torre de Belém built in the early 16th century to protect the port. Close by is a replica of the plane that made the first flight down to Rio in 1922, by the Portuguese aviators Gago Coutinho and Sacadura Cabral.
Across the busy road is the stunning Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. This architectural wonder dates back to 1502 and Manuel 1, who also gave his name to the ornate style of architecture known as Manueline. It is truly well worth a visit if only to marvel at the exquisite double cloister pillars with their delicate filigree work.
For a change from sightseeing, and there are lots of sights to be seen, take in one of Lisbon’s museums. In on guide book I counted over 50 of them, and I suspect there are more. There appears to be one for every conceivable topic from art to archaeology, from electricity to tiles, from toys to coaches, from the orient to fado and many more.
We had been wandering along a pedestrianized street when we heard music coming from a shop. Also walking along were four young women. One of them started singing. What the song was about we we knew not but she had a terrific voice and we stopped to listen. Already it had that certain quality that is necessary for a fado singer.
One evening before dinner we called in to watch Fado in Chiado, a nightly performance of fado held in the small theatre on the Rua da Misericórdia just round the corner from the wonderfully centrally located trendy Mercy Hotel where we were staying. Incidentally. For 50 minutes accompanied by a classical and a Portuguese guitar the two singers sang their songs of love and longing – a charming introduction to fado. www.fadoinchiado.com
The next evening we were taking a stroll down the Rua Diário de Noticias and called in for a nightcap at the intriguingly named The Old Pharmacy. What was once an old pharmacy is now a cosy wine bar which along with wine serves petiscos (Portuguese tapas). We had a couple of platters and baskets of bread, cold meats and cheeses .
We were about to leave when in walked two young women clad in traditional black fado dresses and shawls and their two guitar accompanists. For 10 minutes the girls took it in turn to sing for us. The memory of their voices haunts me still. https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Old-Pharmacy-wine-inn/499051963441872
Close by the base of the elevator in Rua do Carmo, a must for glove lovers is Luvaria Ulisses, a tiny shop filled with the most beautiful leather gloves in virtually every conceivable colour.
Madame only has to look at a hand to know the glove size, and following the choice of style and colour the skilled ritual of fitting the gloves takes place. www.luvariaulisses.com
And if you like gloves you might also like hats. Lisbon has a number of hat shops. One, Chapelaria Azevedo Rua, a traditional hat shop on Rossio, one of Lisbon’s famous squares, opened in 1886. It’s stocked with all types of hats and they will even tailor-make.
In fact Lisbon is great for shopping. Apart from trendy fashion shops there is also a wealth of small shops ranging from hats, gloves and handmade shoes to linens, habedashery and of course food.
Lisbon is indeed cosmopolitan, cultural and cool. And we haven’t even mentioned those sublime custard tarts.
Want to read more more about custard tarts and other Lisbon foody delights? Read our article Lisbon Treats – Custard Tarts and Ginjinha Liqueur.
5* Mercy Hotel offers 47 rooms and suites from €117 room only. www.mercyhotel.com.
On the ground floor of the hotel is the Restaurant Umai serving superb Asian food.
TAP Portugal has daily flights from Manchester, London Heathrow & Gatwick to Lisbon, prices start at £126 return including all taxes and surcharges. www.flytap.com
Hugo Gonçalves: Bi-lingual tour guide and tour organiser: Walk Border www.tours.com.pt
The Lux Way: private transfers and customised tours with bi-lingual hostess www.theluxway.com
Red Tours Ecobuggy tours from €30 for a one hour circuit. www.redtourgps.com