I first thought Lisbon was a knockout destination when a friend honeymooned there and right away realised her marriage was over. Walking the multi-tiled streets at dusk, she kept thinking, ‘I want to come back here with someone I love’ — which made for a tense fortnight, obviously, but think of what they saved on therapy.
Having just returned from four days in the city myself, I can confirm that it gets you in the gut. A small metropolis spread over seven hills, it has the effect of instant familiarity. You can walk from one end to the other without feeling much of a burn, then take the rattling 28 tram all the way round again, the whole pretty spectacle unfurling through the open back window.
The Greek hero Odysseus founded Lisbon on his way home from a mini-break in Hades. Barbarians, Moors and revolutions have since battered Lisbon’s walls, but these days, the likes of Norman Foster visit to design futuristic towers. As a result, the super-modern Orient train station and a science pavilion dominate the city’s hypermodern eastern waterfront — the latter with its carved concrete roof hovering like an enormous whimsical sail. Meanwhile, the locals take a quick train ride to beaches in lagoons off the River Tagus on their summer days off, confident that the climate will be clement, the breeze perpetual and the atmosphere almost indescribably laid-back.
Up on the city’s southwestern hill is the Lapa Palace Hotel, a grand old house now surrounded by embassies, outside which security guards lounge handsomely in berets. Checking in, a person couldn’t help but imagine that they had moved up in the world, and I’m sure even Prince Charles would feel the same. The lobby is lined with pots of tamarisks and bougainvillea, the mosaic floor polished to a ballroom shimmer, while the concierge sits in his mahogany booth surrounded by maps and telephones as though at the controls of an antiquated Starship Enterprise. His advice on how best to spend one’s time as a tourist was absurdly low-maintenance: lie by the pool and occasionally head to town for a wander. Reader, I almost married him.
He said his favourite district was Alfama — once all there was of Lisbon. Clustered around the 11th-century Moorish hilltop Castle Sâo Jorge, the streets have a kasbah layout: steep, narrow stairwells and alleys leading to yet more steps and miniature doors. The wealthier residents moved out in the Middle Ages, leaving the quarter to fishermen, and there’s still a hush, a sense of things abandoned. Rising up in the backstreets, floor upon floor, in a mixture of eras and varying states of dilapidation, each building looks distinct.
To walk down a main thoroughfare in Alfama is like this: from the top, everything appears intensely multicoloured, with indigo and orange tiles catching the sun as it passes, leaving the impression of an entirely ceramic city, a cool glamour. But as you get closer, you see these tiles are covered in layers of ancient dust. In 20 paces, you might pass a rack of old postcards of Sophia Loren, a woman selling tiles dating back to the 1500s (I bought one from 1730 for £18), a tiny chic guesthouse, a washing line drying a bikini and a café full of families eating grilled sardines and potato crisps. Next door, in a clapped-out kitchen, a granny sits on a stool cooling her face in the fridge with a tea towel on her knees.
On the tram, a woman speaks to me in Portuguese, pointing out things she likes — a shop selling melons, a dog with a red collar, a government building — not minding that I do nothing but nod and blush uncomprehendingly. There are holes in her knee-length black stockings. Lisbon’s not a rich city, it’s clear. The cars parked on the streets are rarely flashy, and family-run guest-houses welcome visitors for as little £28 a night. The main shopping area, Baixa, is a hub of 19th-century boulevards and designer shops, but there isn’t
an atmosphere of grasping commerce. For tourists, there’s an aquarium and cable cars to a new marina, but few queues, no clamour, no tension.
Back at the Castle Sâo Jorge, less than a hundred people wander the ruins, and we all take a seat on the walls to listen to a busker, entirely unbothered by lists of things to do. From where I am sitting, I can see five actors dressed as conquistadors to promote a walking tour, distracted into playing football with kids.