An Englishman abroad in Portugal
Day 1 – Sunday
As it’s Sunday and there is plenty of time, instead of the usual chore getting to the airport, I decide to turn it into a fun trip. I alight at Victoria and walk across Manchester to Piccadilly. I could do with something to eat and I wonder if, instead of over-priced food at the airport or a limited choice on the plane, I should have a look around the station complex. That way I can relax and keep an eye on the train times. I wander around and then take a chance on Carluccio’s. I have a Peroni and mushroom broth followed by beef ragú with a nice glass of red wine. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s all excellent and so is the service.
Re-fuelled, I take the train to the airport and then a bit of a pain as we are called to the gate and then have to stand in line for ages, waiting to be bussed to the plane, which is delayed by an hour. I sit between a reading man and a sleeping girl, so quite a relaxed flight.
Upon leaving the airport, I head for the taxi rank and seeing a couple looking a little confused, I seize the opportunity to ask if they would like to share a cab. They turn out to be very amiable and as a consequence, my fare is only €10. Result!
The taxi driver, Bruno, is very friendly and talkative, but I am a little dismayed to see that unlike the pictures and TV shows I’ve seen with blue tiles and terracotta, it all looks a bit grey and industrialized. We reach the hotel where I receive a nice welcome and the room turns out to be perfectly adequate with a wardrobe and ensuite shower and toilet. It’s good value for money and quite surprisingly, it’s not noisy.
Day 2 – Monday
Marques de Pombal
I leave the hotel and attempt to get my bearings. It’s warm with clear blue skies and I need not have worried – in the daytime Lisbon is beautiful and vibrant. I decide to head to the Praça do Marques de Pombal and then walk down Avenida da Liberdade towards the centre. It’s a wide avenue with a tree-lined central reservation between the lanes and it’s lined with exclusive shops. Very much one of the places to be. It’s a pleasant walk and then I come upon the Praça do Rossio, one of the central squares and turn a corner to its larger neighbour, the Praça Dom Pedro IV where I stop for a coffee.
Dom Pedro IV
I see that if I walk towards the river and turn right, I will eventually reach the Time Out Market. It’s the old Merdado da Ribeira which has been given a new lease of life as a food hall. There are stalls all around the outside producing different meals – good quality and including some local chefs – and rows of tables down the centre on which to eat one’s purchases, if you can actually find a space. I’ve been a couple of times to a similar set-up in Palma, but this one is absolutely packed and not as easy to navigate. On Rick Stein’s recommendation, I try the Bacalhau á Bras and it is good – far superior to the poor effort I had in Tavira (see “Algarve Diary”), but all in all, the place is ok if you don’t mind jostling with crowds and paying restaurant prices for cafeteria service.
Bacalhau á Bras
I have a pleasant pause in the sunshine and then on consulting my map, I realise that I am not far from one of my projected lunch stops – Taberna da Rua des Flores. I had read that Lisbon is built on hills and to beware that some streets were very steep; this is definitely one of them! On reaching the restaurant, which is indeed very small, there is a forty minute wait so I book in and wander up to the top of the hill and sit in a pleasant square watching the trams go by.
Once inside the restaurant, the service is relaxed and friendly. I order fresh cheese with chilli sauce followed by veal liver with potatoes to which the waitress shows her approval with a theatrical wink. A small beer and a glass of red wine accompany the meal. I pass on pudding, but finish with an espresso and a ginghina, the cherry liqueur which I later discover to be ubiquitous in Lisbon. The food was ok, but if I am really honest, given the obvious popularity, web presence and award stickers all over the window, I was expecting a little more.
I stroll down to Cais do Sodré and stop for a caipirinha, a very refreshing Brazilian cocktail made with cachaça (sugarcane liquor), sugar and lime. It’s very pleasant sitting in the sunshine, watching the world go by.
Walking back towards the centre I notice, down a side street, Loja das Conservas and stop for a couple of petiscos and a Happy Hour €1 beer. I choose Chamuças de Atum con Caril (tuna samosas with curry) and Pataniscas de Bacalhau (salt cod fritters). Simple but good, though they could have done with some dips.
I wander casually towards the cathedral and stop on a busy wide plaza adjoining the riverbank to answer a call from home, when I am approached by a scruffy middle-aged man with a bag of weed, which I politely decline. How strange. I continue the uphill trek to the cathedral and I’m looking for a bar which is recommended for its fado performances. Fado is a music style which originated in Lisbon in the early eighteen hundreds and the Alfama area is renowned for its fado houses. I am struggling with directions when I notice, a short distance away, a bar called the Bohemia LX advertising fado. The owner, a middle-aged lady, politely invites me in and I think, why not? The place is really quaint with arches and a tiled bar and the décor, including a small shrine, obviously reflecting the tastes and idiosyncrasies of the owner.
I sit at a little table just inside and have a beer and some Batatas Bravas á Portuguesa, not the basic dish, but mixed with chorizo and peppers. It’s quite substantial for a petisco, delicious and very spicy! As I’m here for the evening, I order a bottle of red wine from the local region of Tejo. They bring me a couvert of bread and cheese. In Portugal, the couvert is an accompaniment which you are not obliged to eat and if you don’t touch it, they don’t charge you. However, it looks very appetising, so I tuck in. The barman evidently doubles as a fado performer and sings a couple of songs acapella. They ask me if I would like to see the show and move me to a little table around the corner, just set back, where I can see the stage. Of course, I’ve nothing with which to compare the standard, but it’s very good and the passion is palpable. The singer is backed up by two guitarists. It’s tempting to compare it with flamenco, but one shouldn’t really. They share the melancholia, but fado cries the heart softly to sleep, whereas flamenco rags it out and stamps on it.
I tell the waitress that I should have liked to try some more of their food, but that unfortunately, I am completely full. However, she brings me a couple of cod fritters, insisting that they are light as a feather and indeed they are. I ask if they have an interesting digestif and she brings me a glass of rosemary liqueur – Nobre Terra Alecrim. It’s unusual, but absolutely gorgeous. I cannot fault the friendly service here.
Only in Portugal – The Holy Air Conditioner
They order me a taxi as it’s too far to walk at this time of night with a full belly. While I wait, I chat with the owner and it’s obvious how passionate she is about her little place and the fado. Another friendly taxi driver drops me back at the hotel and as I turn in for the night, I rate my first day as a success.
Day 3 – Tuesday
I’ve decided to visit the monastery and the Torre de Belém today, but on the way to the tram, I make a slight detour to ride the funicular (elevador) to Jardim do Torel, an iconic viewpoint over Lisbon. However, there’s not much to do here unless you have a book or a dog, so I take the next carriage back down. There was a beer festival here last week – bad timing or what!
I take the tram from Praça da Figueira and at first I’m disappointed to find it’s a large modern one, but I soon find out why – it’s absolutely packed. We trundle along to the monastery where most people alight. The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos to give it its full name is deserving of its reputation as a classic piece of architecture. The exterior is visually stunning, but the queue to go inside stretches off into the distance. The wait must be at least two or three hours so, reluctantly, I pass on it. However, the church, although busy, is accessible and proves to be worth the visit. Apart from the tomb of Vasco da Gama and the beautiful masonry work, something else really intrigues me and I only know about it from a television documentary as it’s not in any of the guidebooks. As you look up at the vaulted ceiling, it is dotted with coloured discs. They are the bronze escutcheons from the caravels that sailed to the New World. The Portuguese were so proud that they embedded them in the very fabric of the church.
Just down the road is the bakery and café of Pastéis de Belém. World famous and always with a queue outside, it’s not a bad achievement for somewhere that only produces one product. I bypass the queue for the shop and enter the café through an open door just in time to see someone vacate a table. I sit down and order two pastéis and a coffee. The pastéis is basically a custard tart, but it’s certainly more than that; light crispy pastry filled with a rich custard that’s traditionally dusted with cinnamon just before you eat it. I’m joined by a pleasant couple from Manchester with whom I have a good conversation. They say they’ve been queuing for ages, but I don’t know quite what they mean. Before leaving I decide to take advantage of the toilet and on the way, pass a long queue of people waiting to be seated. Well, there was no sign on the door by which I entered and the waitress was perfectly happy for me to sit down. I don’t see why I should feel guilty so I don’t.
The Monument to the Discoveries
It’s a short walk through some parkland to the river and the first thing one notices is the Monument to the Discoveries. It’s undoubtedly impressive, though some call it monstrous. The exterior is adorned with figures from the Age of Discoveries whilst inside are an auditorium and exhibition halls. What I really want to see is a little further on. The Torre de Belém is a fortified tower built in 1520 to help defend the estuary and is now a World Heritage site. Of course, it’s packed with a long queue waiting to go in, so I just admire it for a while from the outside.
Torre de Belém
I really can’t face finding a tram stop and then queuing for ages, so although it’s a little extravagant, I take a taxi back into the centre. I’m heading for my lunch stop and he knows the street, but can’t find the restaurant in question so he drops me off and I find it a short distance away. It’s called A Merendinha do Arco and is very unassuming from the outside – “hidden gem” springs to mind. It’s small with long refectory-style tables and obviously caters for local workers with good home-cooked fare.
I have a cold beer and order a half-litre of house red with the meal. I start with Caldo Verde, a traditional Portuguese soup of potatoes and greens and on the waiter’s recommendation, dobrada, a hearty dish of white beans with mixed meats – it reminds me of Fabada Asturiana. They call it a half-portion, but it’s enormous! There’s even a side dish of rice, which is completely unnecessary, though it’s very tasty with some of the piri-piri sauce from the bottle on the table. It’s really convivial here; people from different backgrounds all enjoying their lunch. The man opposite bids me farewell with a beaming smile as he gets up to leave. Perhaps it wouldn’t be for everybody, but it suits me fine, especially when I finish with a coffee and the bill comes to only €15.
I stroll casually down to Praça do Comércio, Lisbon’s biggest square. Enclosed on three sides, the other looks out over the river Tagus. I stop for a cold beer outside the Museu da Cerveja. The forecast was cloudy today so I came out without a hat, but it’s actually sunny and baking hot. I decline the waiter’s offer of another, which is probably just as well as it was €7 for one.
I head back and take the Elevador da Glória, another funicular that takes passengers up the steep hill to the Bairro Alto. It’s a warren of small cobbled streets, full of character. It’s a popular area for restaurants, but there is one particular one which is on my tick list, so after a while I decide to ask a local policeman. He not only tells me where it is, but takes me there. What a star!
Petiscos no Bairro
My destination is a little restaurant called Petiscos no Bairro which, as its name suggests, specializes in petiscos. It’s quaint with large black and white photos on one wall contrasting with brightly coloured table cloths. All the seats are stools, which would be fine at lunchtime or a busy night, but on a quiet one such as this, it seems a little odd. No matter, I order Ovos Mexidos, scrambled eggs with farinheira sausage and it is without doubt, the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten. I then have some fried quail in a rich brown sauce, but unfortunately, I simply cannot manage any more so I finish my red wine and have a coffee.
I take the elevador back down to Avenida da Liberdade and trudge up to the top and the right turn for the hotel. It doesn’t seem too far in the morning with a spring in one’s step, but uphill at night it’s a bit of an effort. On reaching the hotel, I am absolutely parched so I look around the corner for a bar. I ask two men standing outside an Indian restaurant if there’s anywhere I can get a beer and they say in there, so I go inside to see all the staff sitting around a massive hookah, taking it in turns. It’s a trifle surreal, but one of them is happy to get me a beer, so I sit down and enjoy it.
For all its fine buildings and plazas, Lisbon doesn’t feel like a capital city – it’s too cosy and friendly. People readily respond to requests for directions and the police are not just approachable, but go out of their way to help, but earlier I saw a taxi driver struggling to push his cab along a busy street, so naturally I went to assist. We were only joined by one other person and it just seemed a little odd.
Day 4 – Wednesday
I decide to visit Sintra so walk down to the station at Rossio. The trains are every thirty minutes and the journey is only forty minutes with a return fare of just €4.50. The journey is pleasant enough, though not at all picturesque until the last leg into Sintra. One thing that I’ve noticed around Lisbon and particularly on this journey is the amount of graffiti – it’s everywhere. There are only a couple of pieces that I could have been cajoled into calling “street art”; the rest is just vandalism.
The train is fairly full when it disgorges its contents at Sintra, so I just follow the crowds downhill and then uphill into the town. It’s gorgeous and is full of fairytale buildings. If you have transport or are up for a good hike, there is a lot to see around here, but otherwise it’s all in the small town centre.
I have a refreshing cold beer and then look for somewhere for lunch. Obviously, everywhere is busy and geared up for tourists, but a short distance away, I find a little place called Romaria de Baco that has a good menu of petiscos. It doesn’t look much from the outside, but inside it’s nice and the staff are very friendly and make me welcome. Although I’m only having a glass, the waitress brings me a couple of wines to taste. I have croquettes of alheira, a type of Portuguese sausage, with alioli and baby squid with prawns in a piquant sauce. It’s all delicious and nicely presented, but I find a stone in the squid dish, so I whisper to the waitress. It’s one of those things and I don’t want to make a fuss, but she is mortified and despite my protestions (I had eaten it all and enjoyed it), she insists on knocking it off the bill. I leave a generous tip.
Upwards from the square, the little town is built on a hill and consists of a maze of steep, narrow streets. It’s mainly gift shops with an occasional restaurant, but as I turn a bend I come across the famous Lord Byron bar and it’s quite a thrill to go in and have a glass of port. It is so called because Sintra was a favourite of the poet, who spent some of his youth here.
Although now that I’ve seen it and know that it is an absolute must for a visit, there isn’t actually a great deal to do here, so I decide to head back. But first I decide to chance a glass of Vinho Verde, the very slightly sparkling Portuguese white wine. I say chance, because we bought a cheap bottle from a supermarket when we were in the Algarve and it wasn’t too good. This one is delicious and perfect on a hot day like this.
On my return to Lisbon, I mooch about and buy a toy tram for Elizabeth and a picture of the Torre de Belém for the office. I take the Elevador da Glória up to Bairro Alto again, but when I consult my map, I realize that my dinner stop is actually quite a distance away, so I get a taxi. The friendly driver drops me off outside the Cantinho Lusitano, but when I enter, I find it is even tinier than I expected and they have no vacancies at all. I am despondent until I suddenly realise that I am near to the Cerveteca Lisboa, a beer bar which I had quite fancied visiting, but dismissed as being too difficult to get to. Delighted by my adversity having been changed to apparent advantage, I find it and go in.
It’s quite typical with bare floors, a long wooden bar and a massive blackboard with the day’s beers. Whilst in the UK, ales tend to be served via handpump, here and in Spain, they are kegged and served on tap.
I park on a barstool and find that the bar staff speak perfect English. We joke about my Portuguese pronunciation and they say it’s not bad, but I tell them I know it’s shocking.
I try three beers – D’Os Diabos Strong Bitter at 5.3%, Letra D Red Ale at 6% and the locally brewed D’Ourique Prazeres Belgian IPA at 8%. They are all very good. I ask the barman about getting back to Bairro Alto and he tells me to walk up the road at the side and then turn right at the top. It’s not a bad walk and then, sure enough a little further on the right and there I am, with the Elevador da Glória on the left.
I check out the menu at the appallingly named Tapas Wine Bar 139 and it does look good. Two American gents, the only diners, tell me they really enjoyed the squid, so I decide to try it and take a table outside. I order a bottle of Terra da Beira for only €8.95 and have a chat with the Americans. I’ve only been here three days and I’m already a tour guide! They are fortunate enough to be staying in the bijou hotel opposite, though they will be paying a pretty penny for it.
Pasteis de Bacalhau
The food is excellent. I have salt cod fishcakes, clams in white wine and breaded octopus. If ever there were a candidate for a re-brand, this is the place. It is quite late now, but there are still throngs of people walking past and it should be busy. Apart from the awful name, it looks dingy and the service, though friendly, is not attentive. I suggest to the waiter that it should be re-named Petiscos da Glória and he laughs and says it’s not a bad idea. I tell him I’m not joking.
Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato
When I get to the Glória, it’s closed, but walking downhill isn’t so bad and I’m soon at the square. I gaze up the long avenue and think, no, I’m going to get a taxi. What should be a quick trip is interrupted just before our destination by the driver saying, “Hey, I know a really good club just round the corner from your hotel!” Drink, girls, cash machine. Bad taxi driver.
Day 5 – Thursday
I don’t feel too bad after my late night, so a refreshing shower, and I get everything packed. Though a little far from the centre, it’s been very comfortable here and one certainly can’t grumble at the price. The receptionists are all really friendly and one even lent me a ‘phone charger when mine broke.
I dawdle down the avenue, stopping for a coffee on the way, and then enquire at the information centre as to their recommended route to the airport. They say definitely the Metro and there is a station literally a few yards away. To atone somewhat for my excesses of the night before, I have a simple lunch, al fresco, of a bifana (pork steak sandwich) and a glass of vinho verde, but it’s very nice.
A curiosity of Lisbon is the Wonderful World of the Portuguese Sardine, a corner shop which looks like a circus tent. It even has a miniature ferris wheel in the window with sardine cans as passengers and the staff are all dressed as circus performers. It’s entire raison d’etre is cans of sardines with labels of every year from 1916 (the sardines are fresh) with some fun facts and people born in that year. OTT? Yes, but this is Portugal. I pass on the sardines, but buy some sardine paté.
There’s plenty of time, but I don’t want to end up rushing, so I make my way to the Metro. It’s very busy and not exactly a pleasant journey, but it’s fast and only costs €1.95. if I’d known how quick and easy it was, I might well have used it before.
At the airport, there’s a shuttlebus to Terminal 2 and I decide to get through security and relax for a while. At the bar, I’m intrigued by the Sagres with Redcurrant, which I’ve never seen before and, upon ordering one, the barman pours redcurrant cordial into the glass and tops it up with beer. Unusual, but most refreshing.
On the plane, I am embarrassed by an annoying tickly cough until my neighbour offers me an aniseed ball and it works! We get into conversation and pass the time away pleasantly. On arrival, I discover that if I wait a while there is a direct train to Victoria instead of hiking across Manchester, so I wait in the buffet and have a fruit juice. A fruit juice? Yes, I’m driving a short distance when I get back, so I’m being good. Change at Victoria, alight at Todmorden and it’s not even raining. For once.
Residencia Mar Dos Açores
Bernardim Ribeiro 14, Lisboa
+351 21 357 7085
Taberna da Rua das Flores
Rua das Flores 103, Lisboa
+351 21 347 9418
Loja das Conservas
Rua do Arsenal 130, Lisboa
+351 911 181 210
Calçada Correio Velho 7, Lisboa
+351 21 887 0964
Pastéis de Belém
Rua de Belém nº 84 a 92, Lisboa
+351 21 363 74 23
A Merendinha do Arco
Dos Sapateiros 230, Lisboa
+351 21 342 5135
Petiscos no Bairro
Rua da Atalaia, nº133, Lisboa
+351 916 734 655
Romaria de Baco
Gil Vicente 2, Sintra
+351 21 924 3985
Tapas Wine Bar 139
Do Diário de Notícias 139, Lisboa
+351 920 182 391
Praça das Flores 62, Lisboa
+351 21 402 3509
Time Out Market
Av. 24 de Julho 49
+351 21 395 1274