48 hours in romantic Lisbon
Portugal's capital will fan the flames of your ardour. By Simon Calder
Tuesday 12 February 2002
Why go now?
Lisbon is the one Continental capital in the same zone as Britain, so you need not adjust your watch – just your attitude – as you slip away for a romantic break. Mid-February in the Portuguese capital brings sparkling days, ideal for exploring the seven hills over which Lisbon is draped, and for discovering the fragile façades that give the city such soul. Also, the tile-clad cafés and restaurants are emptier and more intimate than in the height of summer.
Write a postcard
Take the ferry across the Tagus from Cais do Sodré to Cachilhas. Head to Santuario de Cristo Rei for picture-perfect views of Lisbon and echoes of Brazil. On top of a windy observation deck stands a diminutive version of Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer. This spot gives inspirational views of Lisbon's skyline and a bird's-eye perspective of the Ponte 25 de Abril, which towers over everything on the other side of the river.
A walk in the park
The ramped nature of Lisbon means its principal open space is guaranteed to be a grand place for canoodling: the Edward VII park shelves gently down towards the Baixa. Such is the scale that it never feels crowded, and such is the angle of rake that you get good views from everywhere.
Brunch at Belém's Antiga Casa de Pasteis de Belém is a Lisboan institution. Yes, it's full of tourists, but it's also stuffed with locals and for good reason: this tile-clad café serves the city's most famous pasteis de nata (cinnamon-dusted custard tarts). Only three bakers at any one time know the secret recipe for Pasteis de Belém, passed on from the Hieronymite monks of the Jeronimos monastery. A couple of these and a glass of galao (like cafe latte) will set you up for the day.
Sunday morning: go to church
But don't go in. The best assets of Lisbon's cathedral are the views from its south side: over mottled terracotta roofs towards the broad, slow Tagus and, in the distance, the 25 April Bridge doing its best to mimic San Francisco's Golden Gate.
British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.ba.com) and TAP Air Portugal ( www.tap-airportugal.co.uk, 08457 581 566) fly between London and Lisbon, both departing from Heathrow and Gatwick. The lowest fare that I have found is £132 return on TAP Air Portugal. Portugalia (08707 550 025, www.pga.pt) flies daily from Manchester via Porto.
Get your bearings
Lisbon's airport is conveniently located on the north-eastern edge of the city and has a helpful tourist office. Several buses serve the airport, including the Aerobus shuttle that runs every 20 minutes (7am-9pm) for the main squares of Restauradores, Rossio and Comércio in the centre of town, continuing to Cais do Sodré station for trains to Estoril and Cascais. The fare is €2.29 (about £1.50). A taxi making the same trip should cost no more than €12 (about £7).
The city sprawls along the north shore of the Tagus, but there are only three areas you need know about. The flat part in the middle is the Baixa (pronounced, roughly, bye-sha). Rising to the west is the Bairro Alto (approximately biro alto, literally high quarter) and to the east the Alfama.
A romantic option for not-quite-faded aristocratic glory is As Janelas Verdes, at Rua das Janelas Verdes 47 (00 351 21 396 8143, www.heritage.pt), formerly the 18th-century mansion of the Portuguese writer Eca de Queiros. His novels line the walls, begging to be read outside in the plant-filled patio garden. Double rooms from €148 (£90), with breakfast an extra €12 (£7) each. If you are after a budget seduction, look no further than the Residencial Londrina at Rua Castilho 61 (00 351 21 386 3624, a quiet and very comfortable place charging only €45 (£28) for a double room, including breakfast (and industrial-strength coffee).
Taking your sweetheart to peruse some junk doesn't sound the most romantic of ideas, but the Saturday morning Flea Market in Alfama is a spectacle as much as a retail opportunity. The market stretches out for a far-from-golden mile or so. Take your time to immerse yourself in this eccentric carnival of commerce. For more conventional retailing, Baixa, the old downtown area, is the most atmospheric place to window-shop, with streets named after the once-resident tradesmen, some of whom can still be found dotted among the contemporary high-street names.
Take a ride
Tram 28 is one of Europe's great romantic journeys, an exercise in kinetic eccentricity as it sways up improbable gradients and squeezes through impossible gaps. Handsome timber trim, stained by time and traffic, is wrapped around a sturdy steel frame and an earnestly effective engine. But this is no tourist trap: the 28 is just another component of a ricketty transport network rooted in the last-but-one century. In less than an hour (badly parked cars permitting), you can ride the whole convoluted journey from Prazeres, west of the Bairro Alto, to Martim Moniz (north of the Baixa). Or pick it up en route, for example at the Praça do Comércio.
Dinner with the locals
Tourists and locals head to the Bairro Alto for dinner, drinks and Fado (traditional Portuguese music). Primavera, at Travessa da Espera 34 (00 351 21 342 0477) is a tiny tasca with seafood, including a tasty bacalhau (salt cod), the city's signature dish. Check out the walls painted with Portuguese proverbs and ask owner/manager Senhor Manuel Primavera to translate. Two courses with a glass of wine for around a tenner.
At the Solar do Vinho do Porto, which translates loosely as the Port Wine Institute, you can subside into deep leather armchairs and choose something white and cool from hundreds of varieties of port.
Hop aboard tram number 15 and head for the maritime district of Belém. Almost a town in itself, the verdant sprinkler-watered parks of Belém provide a peaceful setting for the city's museum district. Wander hand-in-hand out to what feels like the end of the world to visit the iconic 14th-century look-out, the Torre de Belém.
Lunch on the run
Meander along to the top of Rua Garrett, where you will find the old Cafe A Brasileira, a grand old hall of dark, aging wood and fresh, young faces reflected in a million mirrors. You could linger here for hours, or grab a coffee and pastry in minutes.
Take a hike
The tram will convince you that Lisbon is defiantly three dimensional. Any excursion on foot around Lisbon is not just a gentle meander, and is best tackled outside the height of summer. From the tram's eastern terminus at Largo [Square] Martim Moniz, you can steer a gentle downhill course to touch down amid the swirl of traffic around the Baixa. Stay on the same course, and soon you will find yourself at the foot of the Elevador Santa Justa, an Eiffel-designed lift that will haul you from the sea-level scene to higher ground, generating the potential energy to see you through a spring stroll through the Bairro Alto.
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