The great escape

It's the kind of place where you go to loiter and snoop. But then this is Lisbon, home of floppy waiters, wriggly eels and trembly tarts
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Indy Lifestyle Online
If the point of an autumn break is to board a plane in the grey London morning and emerge two hours later into another climate, another world, then four days in Lisbon in dazzling air and without a coat is all it takes. It's the perfect antidote to the sullen onslaught of the British winter.

It should be admitted right now that Jonathan and I are lazy travellers. We don't go abroad to visit churches and historical buildings. We go to escape our children, to shop, to have proper conversations and to sit as-long-as-we-like in cafes. The lack of a schedule is absolutely vital. No arrangements, no phone to answer, just drifting, loitering and acting impulsively.

Our first time in Lisbon, in 1997, we were blown away by its unassuming beauty, but surprised too by its shambolic poverty. It felt like a city stuck in the Fifties. In fact, Lisbon was under Fascist rule until 1974. Bars and cafes were not allowed, and less than 30 years ago Portuguese women could not even leave the country without their husband's written permission.

In 1997 we found hatters and glove shops and cobblers and mothball-smelling joints selling swathes of nylon and polyester. On every street corner you could buy feathery heads of grass dyed every imaginable shade of orange, green and purple. Elderly women struggled up the steep, narrow streets with baskets, while above their heads huge bras and mammoth knickers flapped on lines in the dusty, stolid breeze. There were thin grubby children and even thinner, mangier cats, and piles of rotting rubbish flung out on every pavement.

Naively, we had expected something a little more chic, more comfortable. We were unnerved. Maybe it's just that we avoided the tourist drag, but we kept wandering into scenes that made us feel impossibly rich and clean and well-shod, like voyeurs, like tourists. It was hard - in such a place - to sit around and drink coffee.

This time, much had changed. Though in 1997, we took little notice of the big exclamatory billboards which heralded it, Lisbon was starting to be made over for "Expo '98", a general clean-up and money-spend which now shows. The docks have been groovied up with clubs and restaurants; new bridges and shopping malls have opened; and the grubby Torre de Belem (Bethlehem) that's flaunted on everything from ashtrays to key-rings has been cleaned to a creamy, Disneyland white.

Now we were astonished at the number of new bars and cafes (and the inevitable scowling, black-clad men with mobile phones that seem to go with them) and the newer, younger shops that have jostled in amongst the designer places. Thankfully, Calvin and Donna seem to have had no impact whatsoever on the elderly metalwork and upholstery shops (a fixed-lease law protects these places in areas of otherwise fast-increasing rents) and not everything has gone slick and posh.

The taxis (a mere pounds 1.50 to cross the city) still hurtle suicidally down the sinuous, sloping streets, the old yellow trams still chunter up and down, the streets are still messy and the cats are still thin. Maybe because it's a place of such extremes, what I really love about Lisbon is its messy jitteriness, its sense of flux. You never know quite where you are with it. Unlike, for instance, Paris or Rome, you feel that no-one has quite summed it up - and because of that, you can make it your very own.

We got out of bed late on every one of our three mornings there and took our pick of the older, tiled cafes for breakfast. Sitting at a pavement table at the Pasteleria Bernard, I fell immediately in love with the floppy- haired waiter who distractingly resembled Kevin Kline. Having established a rapport, I was a little loath to eat three custard tarts in front of him. I managed it all the same.

Pasteis de Nata are a Lisbon speciality - a fist-sized pastry shell that holds a wobbly vanilla filling. You have to eat them quickly before the whole trembly thing drops in your lap. The Lisboetas apparently devour a huge number every day - looking at some of them you can believe it - and naturally, there are all, sorts of stories: secret recipes made up by monks; men who get up at dawn and bake behind locked doors, passing on the secret only when one of them dies (could anyone's last words be "Gas Mark 7 for 30 minutes"?).

In Lisbon, you go up or you go down. There's hardly any flat. We went up, hiking a remembered path up through the snaky streets towards the Castelo de Sao Jorge, through the Bairro Alto district, which feels like tiptoeing through delicate but slightly chipped crockery, with its hundreds of tiled, cobalt and turquoise facades. So many patterns and textures, delicately jostling in the watery sunlight.

Among the tiny, smoky cafes where old men play backgammon, are the antique shops. We fell for the painted Portuguese saints, mysterious wooden women, some of them three or four feet tall with real silk skirts or jewels in their wooden ear lobes, created to lead the processions on saints' days. Their painted faces, ruby lips and black polished hair are wonderfully quirky and bossy-looking. Unfortunately, they cost thousands of pounds and the overly-groomed and frowny shop women seemed to know they were well out of our price range. We got icy stares as the brutal electronic door buzzers sneered at our arrival and departure.

Up in the stone ramparts of the castelo, a toddler in a black, old-fashioned beret, was tottering around with an armful of wailing kittens. When I'd finished worrying whether he was going to drop either them or himself over the thick buttressy wall ("Who's in charge of him?" "For God's sake woman - you're on holiday!"), I managed to concentrate on the view. There's something baffling about seeing a foreign city spread before you. It gives you a crunchier sense of the place than a map, but it also catches you off guard as distance dissolves to nothing more than a trick of the light.

We lunched at the clinky, hushed Casa d Leao in the remains of what was the Palcio de Alcecovas. This time I made sure I avoided the dreaded "bacalhau", the absolute worst thing I've ever tasted. I am not alone. Two years after I tried it I was walking down a Suffolk street when my six-year-old asked me to name my worst food. I told him it would have to be salt cod and immediately the stranger in front of me spun round to agree.

After lunch, we wandered, yawning, into the Alfama district that is Lisbon's oldest and creakiest area. Traffic is barred, so the deathly silence is broken only by the occasional trill of a canary hanging inside the bruised shade of a doorway or the sharp click of heels on the chunky cobbles. Here are sudden archways, pinkwashed walls and steep stairways.

I made up at dinner for avoiding the bacalhau. My eel starter at the fussy Casa da Comida turned out to be millions of barely dead baby ones, slithering in a dish of garlic and oil - imagine your standard threadworm, but with eyes. I shut my own and made the best of it, managing to swallow most of them.

I dreamt all night of desperate young elvers swimming and struggling to get back to the sea.