Europe in December has never been on my radar but come the end of last year, dreading Cape Town’s descent into high season madness, I started looking for somewhere interesting to flee.
Flights to Thailand were unreasonably expensive and local getaway rates were looking ridiculous so when a friend suggested Lisbon it seemed like a great option.
As it turns out, I made the best decision. Journeying during the off-peak month meant attractive flight and accommodation offers, fewer tourists and a gentler climate.
I’m not one for holidaying to places where I have to endure rain, sleet and snow and schlep a suitcase stuffed with cumbersome clothes that have to be peeled off and on every five minutes.
Lisbon is a lot like Cape Town in winter and ticked all the right boxes so off I flew and already I’m plotting a summer return.
I’m going to start this story with cake, because at one point it felt my holiday had turned into a pastry safari of sorts, my very own rebellion against banting. Lisbon is uber famous for its pastries.
Heaped on trays behind shop windows and displayed behind glass counters they tempt you at every turn and you don’t stand a chance if you suffer even remotely from sugar addition.
The star of the show is undoubtedly the pastel de nata (plural being pastéis de nata), a small, round tartlet made with light crispy pastry, filled with aromatic vanilla custard and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Not much to look at but don’t be fooled by its size and shrivelled, burnt-looking top layer. The minute you bite into the crackly phyllo cup, all is forgiven. As an elderly Portuguese lady told me: “Eat your pastel warm and don’t rush and savour the moment.”
I’ve yet to find a local baker who makes pastries like those in Lisboa. The backstory involves the monks at Jeronimos Monastery in Belém who were the first to make them, before the 18th century.
They would use egg whites to starch nuns’ uniforms, and the leftover yolks went into making and baking decadent goodies. At some point, post-1820, the Brothers started selling their coveted wares to make extra money after the monastery was closed due to secularisation.
The secret recipe was then sold to a sugar refinery whose owners opened the Casa Pastéis de Belém in 1837, practically next door.
The descendants of that family own and run the business to this day and it’s on every tourist’s must-see list - no trip to Lisbon is complete without it.
Some say, although not everyone will agree, the very best place to go for pastéis in central Lisbon is the Confeitaria Nacional in Praca da Figuiera. It’s a toss-up between this establishment and Pasteis de Belem in the district of the same name. Confeitaria has been in business for 175 years and has belonged to the same family for five generations, since 1829.
On a busy Sunday they’ve been known to sell tons of pastries to the sweet-toothed masses. Of course, one pastel is seldom enough which is unfortunate for one’s waistline, but since no one cares, go large and double your gym time when you return home. It’ll be worth the pain. Try the delicious brinhois while you’re at it - pumpkin fritters drizzled in sugar and cinnamon that are traditionally only available at Christmas time.
Lisbon, with a population of about 557 000, is a beautiful city on the Iberian Peninsula at the mouth of the River Tagus. It’s said to be the oldest city in Europe, predating Paris, London and Rome by centuries. The city is divided into several districts, each rich in history and with its own charm. Walking is the best way to explore and each area flows seamlessly into the other, a superb example of well-considered town planning.
Downtown Baixa, beginning at the river at the vast Comercio Square and ending at the main avenue called Avenida da Liberdad, is the elegant heart of the city and a great place to spend time, sipping espresso at outdoor cafés and watching the world go by.
Picturesque Bairro Alto is the bohemian arty area that comes alive after 10pm. Neighbouring Chiado is chic and has luxury brands like Hermes, the opulently gilded Tavares Rico Restaurant circa 1784 and the world-famous fine porcelain shop Vista Alegre.
Bertrand is there, too, the oldest bookstore in the world dating back to 1732.
Tourists always head for the Carmo Convent ruins, the Chiado Museum of contemporary art and magnificent churches like St Catherine’s. After traipsing around and exploring all that, a glass of wine slips down easily at the elegant A Brasileira café, established in 1911, with its bronze statue of the contemplative poet Fernando Pessao, who used to be a regular patron back in the day.
Belém, on the river’s edge, is a must, not just for its coveted cakes but for three stunning architectural wonders that stand there - the Monument to the Discoveries (Padrao dos Descobrimentos), the Belem Tower (Torre de Belém) and across the street, the medieval-looking Jeronimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jerónimos). The 52m-high Discoveries Monument was built in 1960 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator who led several expeditions into the New World.
It represents a three-sail ship with Henry at the helm and other notable explorers, monks, poets and cartographers bringing up the rear.
The sculptural work by Leopoldo de Almeida, made of marble-like concrete and rose-tinted stone, is remarkable. The Tower, a short walk away, was built in 1515 and sits on a small basalt outcrop in the water.
It’s a four-storey fortress built of white limestone in the Manueline style with strong Moorish influences in the detail.
It’s no surprise that the Jerónimos Monastery across the street, built by King Manuel I in 1502, was once a symbol of Portugal’s wealth and power. Designed by French and Spanish architects, it’s a World Heritage Site and an elaborate and fitting tribute to Vasco da Gama’s successful voyage to India.
Alfama, best accessed via Tram 28 that takes people to most of the city’s historical sites, was a highlight. It’s situated on the slopes beneath the Castle of St George (Castelo Sao Jorge) and spills down towards the river.
With its narrow cobbled lanes and small public squares it has a distinctly medieval look.
The city’s oldest church, the Lisbon Cathedral, is in Alfama, built between the 12th and 14th centuries.
Like Alfama, Mouraria, the old Moorish district, has held its authenticity. This quarter used to be a ghetto of people of different faiths and is one of the most traditional of Lisbon’s neighbourhoods. It’s a melting pot of cultural wealth and ethnic diversity, with large communities of Indians, Mozambicans, Brazilians, Russians and Chinese.
Once the most neglected and marginalised district due to rampant prostitution and drug trafficking, it’s undergoing a measure of rehabilitation and restoration.
Mouraria is also said to be the birthplace of Fado although other districts also make this claim. Fado was made famous globally by Amalia Rodrigues.
When she died in 1999, the prime minister declared three days of national mourning. Fado is at the very heart and soul of Portugal and a symbol of the nation. It is emotional urban folk music that’s all about saudade - nostalgia, yearning and a longing for unrealised dreams.
The Moorish Castle of St George (Castelo Sao Jorge) is perched on top of the hill overlooking Lisbon’s orange rooftops, the river and the Pont 25 de Abril bridge that bears a close resemblance to the one in San Francisco. The castle boasts 18 towers and parts of the structure go as far back as the 6th century. Visitors are permitted to walk along the ramparts and take in the superb views of the city below. On the way back down the hill to town, stop and have a latte (galao) and a pastel at the famous restaurant Nata.
Street art is my new obsession and I blame it all on Lisbon. On my very first day I came across the large-scale murals on the abandoned corner buildings on Avenue Fontes Pereira de Melo made by local and international artists such as Os Geméos, Blu, Sam3, Ericailane and Lucy Mclauchlan.
There are, by the way, an extraordinary amount of neglected and derelict buildings in Lisbon which I found really odd.
Aside from their work, I also saw other great pieces around the city as well as loads of graffiti around town, much of which has unfortunately been drawn, tagged or sprayed over historical site spaces, park benches and mosaics. A pity.
For creatives, a visit to the LX Factory in Alcantara is inspiring. Datin to 1846, the area was once a vast industrial site that has since been restored into a hub of arts related businesses, from fashion to food, architecture, PR and design.
If I lived in Lisbon, DIVA PR would be based there. Wonderful stores include India That Wears You and Wish and lunch at Cantina is highly recommended for great food and friendly service.
On Sundays, there’s an open-air market selling second-hand goods and other bargains.
Those who occupied Lisbon over time have left traces of their culture and heritage throughout the city in the diverse magnificent architecture, the food, town planning, and perhaps the most striking of all, the ancient and magnificent decorative tiles (azulejo) that are still intact after hundreds of years and wonderfully preserved throughout the city.
During my short visit, I became obsessed with them and the way they transform the ordinary into the extraordinary.
Smaller and quite different to a typical household tile, they prettify walls and façades, framing doors and windows, depicting life stories, historical events and religious imagery. The patterns on streets and pavements and in public squares are just as gorgeous. So aside from what you see at eye level and above, don’t forget to look down at what lies beneath your feet.
We have spoken of cake but not of the cuisine, as I am not a huge fan of all the local fare. Breakfasts are all about fresh bread, cheese and preserves and, as my weakness, pastries. Popular dishes include salted codfish (Bacalhau), sardines dried and in stews, and tripe (tripas), the mere mention of which sends me over the edge. The potato soup (caldo verde) was good and the spicy chorizo (chouriço) sausage in spicy peri-peri sauce delicious when mopped up with fresh bread.
I ate several times at Pizzaria Lisboa, owned by one of Portugal’s top chefs, José Avillez, who scored his first Michelin star at the legendary Tavares restaurant. I think the alcohol upstages the traditional gastronomy in Portugal. Ginjinha, a syrupy sweet liqueur made of sour cherries, alcohol and sugar, became a regular indulgence on my walking tours and bicycle rides. The most famous outlet for it is the tiniest of shops called A Ginjinha, in Sao Domingos Square just off Rossio Square where you’ll also find the famous church, the Jewish 1506 massacre memorial and the Wall of Tolerance. For f1 (about R12.50) you get a shot glass of ginjinha with cherries at the bottom.
Better is to drink it out of a chocolate cup so you get that double bonus of being able to down both the drink and its container.
Portuguese wine and port has an excellent reputation worldwide. I never had a bad glass of red anywhere although their “green” wine (referring to the white wine’s age not colour) is an acquired taste. I ate out in Chiado a lot.
The Great Earthquake of 1755 that measured 8.5 on the Richter scale played a great part in the city’s history. Severe tremors, a tsunami and the ensuing fires that raged for days damaged 85 percent of Lisbon. The prime minister, the Marquis de Pombal, is famously quoted as saying “let’s bury the dead and heal the living” as he set about reconstructing Lisbon as soon as possible and is credited for designing its spacious squares, widened streets and rectilinear, large avenues.
If it’s a day trip you want, the Pena National Palace in Sintra, about 30 minutes outside of Lisbon, is one of the top attractions. Situated on a rocky peak, the castle, one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal, looks very much like something one might find on the banks of the Rhine.
It’s painted in bright yellow and ochre and surrounded by lush gardens and a forest of more than 500 tree species.
King Ferdinand II is largely credited for renovating and refurbishing the existing monastery in the 19th century. The castle architecture is a mix of, among others, Manueline and Romantic styles, with vast Moorish arches, motifs, mosaics and Gothic facades.
The village in Sintra is quaint, offering a lot to do with many small shops and places to eat as well as the Town Palace that houses a wonderful museum. The greater Sintra region is full of wonderful palaces and castles and the area is yet another Unesco World Heritage Site.
The Cabo do Roca, the westernmost point of Europe, is 18km away and worth a visit if only for its breathtaking sunsets.
Portugal is waiting for me to return in the summer. And until I can find that master confectioner back home, I’m going to have to seek it out the pastéis de nata in Lisbon.
Allison Foat, The Sunday Independent