Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Ask any seasoned traveller about Lisbon, and they will wax lyrical about the wonders of the majestic capital of Portugal. It has architecture every bit as opulent and grand as Paris, a nightlife that can easily rival anything in London, and beaches and a waterfront lifestyle that can stand toe to toe with anything in Barcelona. And yet, for some reason, the Portuguese capital wins none of the plaudits of those world famous banner cities.

I think that part of this is down to geographical location. Set on the most south western periphery of western Europe, Lisbon is the only capital city on the continent that actually faces directly out onto the Atlantic. It is closer to North Africa than it is to Scandinavia.

And yet, Lisbon begs your indulgence, with it’s graceful, flower filled squares flanked by majestic, colonnaded buildings. The winding, beguiling maze of the Alfama District, and the Barrio Alto, is a sinuous, sometimes maddening maze of cobbled streets, with houses painted in shades of terracotta, ochre and blue. Lines of washing flap lethargically between these rows of houses. Every so often, a bright yellow tram beetles gamely uphill, past gangs of old men playing chequers in the shade of cafes flanked by gnarled old trees. And from those Olympian heights of old Lisbon, the views right down to the sparkling, sun dappled expanse of the River Tagus are simply spellbinding.

In among the hustle and bustle of modern living, the past glories of this beguiling city litter the present like so many mouldering exclamation marks. From the squat, diminutive stance of the ancient, fourteenth century Belem Tower, still crouching gamely along the waterfront, to the sprawling, baronial splendour of Jeronimos Monastery, Lisbon often feels like a city shrouded in the legacy of former times, when it was the capital city of one of the greatest seafaring empires in the world.

Lisbon tram

Lisbon tram

Built on seven hills and tumbling right down to the edge of the River Tagus, Lisbon is a city will surprise you when you least expect it. Check out the quirky, spindly steel edifice of Gustave Eiffel’s  (of  Eiffel Tower fame) steel elevator. Now more than a century old, it was built to link the waterfront level of the city with the streets above. Even now, it still works perfectly.

The mad, chaotic splay of Alfama finds an ordered, serene counter point in the formal Edward VII Gardens, near the main thoroughfare of Avenida da Liberdade. Named after the son of Queen Victoria, these constitute an amazingly symmetrical green lung for the city, and again they offer heart stopping views down to the Tagus down below.

Across the great river itself, there is a statue of Christ the Redeemer on the far side; an identical copy of the more famous one in Rio De Janeiro. Brazil was originally a colony of Portugal, and the links between the two countries still run very deep.

Spanning the river itself is the languid, graceful April 25th bridge, the mirror image of its much more famous twin in San Francisco. Coupled with the aforementioned Belem Tower and the more modern, waterfront memorial to Henry The Navigator, it gives the approach to Lisbon from the sea a stunning trio of instantly recognisable landmarks. Seen against the first rays of the rising sun, they serve as a fabulous appetiser to this dignified, almost dream like sea city.

Lisbon panorama, looking down to the River Tagus

Lisbon panorama, looking down to the River Tagus

Speaking of food, if ever a city had a sweet tooth, it is surely Lisbon. Try the local custard tarts, which are simply mouthwatering, or an ice cold bottle of the local Super Bock beer at some breezy waterfront cafe. If ever a city was meant for lounging, indulging the inner man or woman, or simply wandering round in a constant state of awed amazement, then Lisbon is surely it.

Highly recommended.


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