I felt oddly sad as the aircraft was pushed back from the Lisbon airport terminal but I didn’t know why. It wasn’t as if the Portuguese capital had grabbed my imagination or swamped my emotions in the week I’d been there.
It was December so the weather had generally been cool or crappy. Service in restaurants and elsewhere had, more often than not, been up the spout… begrudging at best.
The baroque architecture and sculpture were striking but not a patch on Rome or Paris. Teenagers were snogging all over the place but the city couldn’t be described as remotely romantic. Nor, despite the abundance of chic, beautiful young women, was it sexy – much too Catholic.
Pastelarias (cake shops) were clean and inexpensive but hardly warm and inviting. The underground trains were clean and punctual but riding them was nothing like the adventure of gadding about on London’s Tube network.
To describe Lisbon as an unremarkable city is simultaneously accurate and demeaning. As western European capitals go, its status in the underwhelming rankings is exceeded probably only by Brussels.
So why was I already missing the place?
And what makes it so popular with travellers? It’s the second-most visited city in continental Europe (Barcelona is the first) and annually attracts about 10 million travellers.
Almost everyone I know who has been to Lisbon speaks of it in faintly glowing terms and say they would return if they got the chance. Some of them have even done so.
Let me make it clear: I didn’t go in summer or whenever it’s supposed to be best to visit Lisbon; I didn’t stay in a fancy hotel and eat at fine restaurants, and I didn’t do the guidebook or package tourist thing.
In fact, I did very few of the things tourists normally do. This was hardly surprising because… as the phrase goes… I was an incidental tourist. I’d come to Lisbon to attend Europe’s largest skills competition and found myself with a couple of hours here and a day there to spare.
In those hours and days, I walked. I explored my arse off and, in so doing, ensured that the taverners of Vasco da Gama’s fair city of departure would rue my departure… even if they clearly couldn’t have been bothered by my presence at the time.
One of the greatest fallacies of life is that too much caffeine makes you hyperactive. Lisboans quaff gallons of industrial-strength espressos at innumerable pastelarias and mall kiosks but never seem to make it out of second-gear amble.
Coffee is also why the national economy is shot: it’s all very well belting down thimble-sized cups of the stuff, but when you have to wait ages to be served between each bica (short black), there’s not much time left to be economically productive.
It’s also just about impossible to get wellied in a Lisbon pub with local bar staff. If they’re not ignoring you, they’re drinking coffee.
There are two ways of reading the official statistic that tourism accounts for about 11 percent of Portugal’s gross domestic product. One is that it is a popular, vibrant destination with a well-developed and slick tourist infrastructure. The other is that the rest of the national economy is up the Tagus without a paddle.
The charm of Lisbon (for me) is that it does not impose itself in the same way as great cities such as London, Paris, Berlin, New York or Singapore. Its influence is much more subtle and there’s something wonderfully refreshing about that.
It’s a city where real people live, and though they won’t welcome you into their lives, they’ll tolerate you while you circle anonymously at the fringes. For those who like it – and I am one – it is a city in which to be inconspicuous.
My explorations took place in two phases. The first was conducted during the working week and ranged down the Linha Vermelha (red line) Lisbon Metro route from Saldanha to Oriente.
Saldanha is the old (as opposed to historic) residential area of the city. Bisected by the Avenida de Republica, its buildings are wonderfully ornate but, sadly, in varying stages of dilapidation – wrought-iron balcony railings are rusty, cornices are crumbling and exterior ground-to-eave tiles are cracked or missing entirely.
There’s old money, though, and graciousness which means extensive renovation is taking place. It’s one of the few areas in Western Europe where I’ve seen car guards – when they’re not away drinking coffee – though by and large they’re wasting their time because most of the parking spots are occupied by skips filled with rubble.
The refurbishment programme is obviously taking effect because the broad avenue and its side-streets boast upmarket outfitters, Bentley dealerships and embassies. It’s a shabbier version of London’s Piccadilly or Berlin’s Unter den Linden.
The side-streets are also home to a range of good, inexpensive and, if you’re local, friendly family restaurants. The city’s proximity to the sea means fish is fresh, plentiful and usually of a better quality than meat, which is also more expensive. Portuguese cuisine is exquisite and offers something for every taste.
The lack of overt friendliness must not be misconstrued as its antithesis or the lazy arrogance that often characterises the Spaniards’
interaction with tourists. The Portuguese will let you get on with your life as long as you let them do the same; the Spanish want you to go home immediately but leave your wallet.
Oriente is end of the line for Parque das Nações and the contrast with Saldanha is remarkable… though not immediately apparent.
The interior of the station is modelled on a Soviet nuclear fall-out shelter, but emerge onto street level and the architecture is modern and breathtakingly beautiful, especially on a clear day.
Lisbon’s legacy remains its maritime history and there are few places where this is more obvious than Oriente. Everything is named is named after Vasco da Gama – the upmarket mall where you can still get a bottle of Jameson’s for R80 less than in South Africa, the enormous tower on the banks of the Tagus (Rio Tejo to the locals) and the 17km bridge that spans it.
Parque das Nações is Lisbon’s exhibition centre and a brave attempt at a waterfront development to match those of Cape Town and Melbourne. There’s a strip of restaurants that might be busy in high season but were deserted when we were there.
The park is, however, a lovely site for a stroll or cable-car rides along the riverbank – opportunities residents and their families seemed glad to accept whenever the winter sun appeared.
My second bout of exploration took me along the Linha Verde (green line), initially to Baixa-Chiado station.
It was a clear, mild Saturday afternoon and pedestrians were out in force along the Rua Augusta and throughout the Baixa (lower town). This is touristy Lisbon but the only tawdry bits I found were an alley housing a grimy casino and a shop that seemed to sell only Cristiano Ronaldo replica merchandise.
The lower town stretches up from the Tagus, past the Praça do Comèrcio and through its triumphal arch (which features a statue of, you guessed it, Vasco da Gama), up the Rua Augusta to Rossio, Restauradores and Avenida. Buskers, mime artists, fast-food stalls and outdoor cafès abound, as do pastelarias.
The ubiquitous pastelarias! No depiction of the city is complete without their description.
They are the social glue of Lisbon – sometimes glittering but more often modest coffee shops with glass-fronted counters that display a delicious selection of pastries and baguettes. They’re what pass for bars in most of the capital because each boasts a full liquor licence.
They’re more like alcohol-dispensing pitstops than boozy watering holes and most close quite early after workers have had a noisy natter, quaffed their glasses of wine or beer (Sagres and Super Bock are the local brews of choice) and departed home for dinner.
As for real bars, these can be found at Cais do Sodrè. I’d tell you more but I can’t decipher my notes. - Saturday Star