Lisbon: a hedonistic haven

Within the warren-like confines of Portugal's capital city is a pumping bar scene that's perfect for a hedonistic weekend. John Walsh clubs beyond the call of duty

It wasn't just meat I found there. Across the muddy cobbles of the Travessa Agua da Flor, on the corner of the Rua da Rosa, a tiny sign under a 20-watt bulb read "Catacumbas Jazz-Bar". Inside, by the cramped serving area, Manuel the proprietor knocked up some hot pork baguettes, which I devoured like a shipwrecked savage; then he led the way into the tiny back room and poured some rough red wine. The décor hadn't changed, I'd guess, in 30 years, its weary paintwork and gurning portraits of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie like a Preservation Hall shrine. On a bashed-up old piano, a glorious figurine of Bessie Smith seemed to project the blues silently into the room.

There were nine of us in there, sitting with our tumblers of vinho tinto, murmuring across the tiny candlelit tables. But when Manuel started playing, you'd have thought it was for 9000. He opened the lid, solemnly removed a muslin cloth from the keys, and hit some heavy chords. "Rock me, baby," he sang. "I wan' you to rock me real slow..." Just as he piled into Willie Dixon's "When the Lights Go Out", the lights, apparently by coincidence, went out. It was probably a power-cut, but it left the room in a gorgeous, shadow-leaping semi-darkness. And as he segued into a more familiar Billie Holiday blues number, that's when the girl began to sing.

"If I go to church on Sunday/ Cabaret all day Monday/ Ain't nobody's business if I do..." Her voice was a beautiful, purring contralto. Her face, in the candlelight, was full of smiles rather than racked with agony at this beaten-wife's lament. When it ended, someone said, "Yeahhh", and we all clapped with the enthusiasm of genuine surprise. Where had she come from? Between songs, she just sat with her boyfriend, smoking and chatting, then Manuel would touch some new chords and she'd sing with him, their voices blending so well on "Come on in my Kitchen", it was like a perfect marriage. The flames from the two candles on the piano seemed to lean into each other...

And then it was all over. The proprietor replaced the muslin cloth on the piano keys with exaggerated care, and brought the bill. The lights came back on. I looked at my watch; 4.25am. Soon, it really would be time to consider going to bed.

It was just one epiphany among dozens that assailed me on a weekend in Lisbon. The ancient capital of an ancient imperial civilisation, Lisbon's resemblance to London is otherwise confined to three things: the shops in the Baixa district, the city's Bond-and-Regent-Streets; the music played in the groovier bars and nightclubs; and the poly-ethnicity (Ukrainian, Romanian, Brazilian, African and Asian) of the population. In every other respect, the Portuguese metropolis is a battered paradigm of pre-Enlightenment Europe, an eye-popping reminder of what cities used to be like.

Behind the façades of modern banks, behind the neo-Brutalist government buildings and the wide, noble praças, or squares, lie slender alleys and rat-runs of narrow streets. The Salazar dictatorship held off incursions of the modern world that transformed other European capitals after the war; but since liberation in 1974, things have changed. Rather than invent a glossy new shopping-and-boozing area, a glitzy mall or anonymous precinct, the Lisbon city fathers took parts of town that were close to slums and let into them the combined essence of Greenwich village, Prague Old Town and the late-lamented Vieux Carré of New Orleans.

Lisbon is a great place for serendipitous wandering: you don't stick around for long in one bar, one restaurant, one shop, one street, one fado room. Hedonists will, however, stick to just one district. Sublime, gorgeously decadent, hectically multi-faceted, the Bairro Alto is a grid of seven long avenues and a dozen lateral streets in which you can wander all weekend. Only after 6pm though. By day it's a residential area, as dead as vaudeville. It's also spectacularly ramshackle, graffiti-slashed and frankly unlovable. After dark, it becomes a warren of tiny bars and eating houses, some no bigger than your own living-room, lit by Victorian lamps, a long dark lamé ribbon of excitements. Around 2am, you have to squeeze past knots of young drinkers who've spilled out on the pavement, necking Sol and Corona and each other.

But we'll go there later. First, you must get your bearings. The three serious landmarks in the city are the Praça do Comercio, Rossio and the castle. The first is a wide, white, empty-seeming expanse down beside the riverfront, with a statue in the centre and a market on the right. From here you walk up through the posh Baixa streets - especially Rua Augusta and Rua da Prata - doing some shopping (and checking out the amazingly conservative and preppy quality of the menswear) until you get to the Piccadilly/Leicester Square of Lisbon, the Praça Dom Pedro IV, or Rossio.

This is the bustling heart of the city, traversed all day by tourists, people-watchers and those in search of trains to Oporto, Faro and the seaside town of Estoril. Crossing the main square is an experience, because the cobblestones - ranged in a wavy mosaic pattern - wobble before your eyes like a Bridget Riley painting and disorientate you until you require a little sit-down at the Suica Pastelaria, for a coffee and one of the little custard tarts (pasteis de nata) that are a city favourite.

In the next square along, the Praça da Figueira, with its equestrian statue always festooned with pigeons, you'll find the Confeitaria Nacional, the city's oldest cake-shop, founded in 1829 and a lovely old grocers' shop, Manuel Tavares, offering "Queijos, carres fumadas, whiskeys, licores, chocolates". Its windows are crammed with salami, chorizo and black port bottles dating before 1960. Port may be a touristy purchase, but a bottle of Fonseca '97 for €10.50 still seems fine with me (now I'm halfway through it).

The third landmark is Castelo de Sao Jorge, whose battlements can be seen from all over the city. Actually, the battlements were only added in the 1930s, when the town authorities decided to remove some government offices and make the place more dramatic. Today, when you walk through the great archway and into the gardens, you're in the ancient heart of Lisbon, where an Iron Age settlement was occupied, in turn, by Romans, Visigoths and Moors. The castle interior isn't available for inspection; all that's on show is a pricey restaurant and a film-show of Lisbon history, taking in the terrible earthquake in 1755. But it's good to walk around the walls, to see how the city's districts fit together, marvelling at the Thames-dwarfing Tagus river and the Alcantara bridge, a faultless copy of the Golden Gate.

That's the basic itinerary. The best way to see it in one jolting, half-hour journey is to catch the No 28 tram from outside the castle. Did I mention the trams? The old ones are beautiful, resplendent with wood panels and metal flanges. You enter at the front and exit at the rear, as though passing through a digestive system, clinging for dear life while the tram bucks and rears and takes corners at 45 degrees; while you notice, en passant, the spectacular bulk of Sé cathedral (built by an Englishman called Gilbert of Hastings, who became Bishop of Lisbon in 1147) with its wonderful rose window and the array of long trumpets that burst across the altar from the twin organs.

There's lots of other exciting things you should be experiencing, but look, it's 6pm, and you must start the evening's entertainment.

If you have any sense, you'll stay at the Bairro Alto Hotel in the Praça Luis de Camoes, right on the edge of the hedonist's paradise. It's a 19th-century building, four storeys with an attic, newly renovated by Grace Leo-Andrieu, who nods to Portuguese architectural tradition while being stridently modern. So while my room is a coolly understated blue-grey with Brazilian wood flooring (the only other colour supplied by a carafe of ginjinha, the local wild-cherry liqueur), the bar downstairs is aggressively modern, with black lacquer tables and wall of light boxes. You ask the charming barmen for their recommendations. And then you head out into the night.

6.30pm. Unaccountably, I missed lunch, so I dive into the Primavera for a grilled-fish snack. It's a tiny restaurant on the Travessa da Espera, and is like eating in a Portuguese mamma's kitchen, down to the tiles on the wall, inscribed with the owner's genial apophthegms about stitches in time. The noise level, even at this early hour, is impressive.

7.15pm. The Portas Largas, at 105 Rua da Atalaia, a double-fronted, open-to-the-elements saloon, is a ramshackle dive where the tables are small as school desks, a hundred wedges of lime (for the caipirinhas) float in a green soup and drunken sailors consume fistfuls of monkey-nuts from a wooden drum while shouting at the huge black musclemen posing behind the bar. It's rough as a badger's arse but huge fun.

8.15pm. Hearing that I'm a journalist doing an* * article, someone recommends the Snob bar on the Rua do Seculo - it's the journalist's bar, they say, has been for 30 years. I expected a Portuguese version of El Vino, but found instead two cosy-drab rooms for conversation or card games, the only décor being the lit-up cabinets of malt whiskeys.

9.30pm. Olivier's at Rua da Teixeira is the best restaurant in the Bairro. Others in Lisbon - the Michelin-starred Gambrinus and the Belgian A Travessa - are classier and more expensive, but this place, all black-painted wood and naïve paintings, is the business. Olivier da Costa plays with minimalism and dramatic combinations, bombards you with exciting tastes, and offers 12 courses. There are five cold starters (including crab guacamole served on tortilla and carpaccio of octopus, thinly sliced and dotted, à la Jackson Pollock, with chilli and herbs), five hot ones (mushroom soup in a cocktail glass, duck sausage with quail's egg), then a choice of main course and pudding. I had scallops with cream sauce of star anise, saffron and buttered leeks and wonderful they were, too. Nice to discover how densely textured Portuguese red wine can be. Dinner was €30 (£20) a head, the Marques de Borba €20 (£14), and the atmosphere pure bliss.

11pm. You need a digestif? Try some fado music, as traditional to Portugal as fighting the neighbours. Every few yards in the Bairro, you'll be offered a fado experience, which means a plump matron in a black frock singing of her misery in leaving her home for the big city, losing her children to exile, or her fisherman husband to the raging sea. It's a pretty miserable wailing noise alternated with a tormented whispering, a bit like early Meat Loaf. The best is at Cafe Luso, on Travessa da Queimada, with its handsome vaulted ceilings.

1.15am. Taxi out of the grid and head for Lux, the most fashionable nightclub in Lisbon. It's down by the docks at Santa Apolonia, a converted warehouse on two floors, with a roof terrace (featuring a giant, high-heeled shoe) that must be a wow on summer nights. The first-floor bar features a giant pool, a stuffed black panther in a cage, and some effortfully wacky seating - 50 or 60 prison-issue single metal beds with bolsters. This is where clubbers will chat, until the music gets danceably loud.

I talked to a dark beauty called Anne, whose dad used to run a restaurant in the Bairro Alto. She and I shared a single chair, but since it was a giant posing chair (like the one in which David Walliams perches while impersonating Dennis Waterman in Little Britain) it wasn't especially intimate. The ground-floor disco started up at 2am. I met a lissom Scandanavian called Ah-na, the kind of girl Paris Hilton would have become if she'd grown up more conceited, and asked her to dance. "No. Fuck. Ing. Way," she replied with a certain deliberation. Escaping from the techno hell, I met Ike, a young American sailor from San Diego who was built like a dreadnought. His neck was as wide as a Giant Redwood. His jawline is chipped from Mount Rushmore. This was his first time in Europe and he was keen to make an impression, though both of us were a bit drunk. "Navy guy are you?" I said. "What's your ship called?"

"I don't have a ship, sir. I'm a diver."

"Oh. You investigate wrecks on the sea bed?"

"Well, no sir, we don't do salvage work. We look out for unusual behaviour patterns under the sea."

"Good heavens. Like what?"

"Well," Ike took a swig of Red Bull, "there's been a number of giant squid spotted off the cost of Florida."

"Giant squid? Good God. Are they hostile?"

"No sir. But they're said to be... highly intelligent."

I digested this for 30 seconds.

"What are they doing down there?" I asked. "Playing chess?"

When I left, Ike was trying to interest Ah-na in predatory molluscs, and failing. ("She's Norwegian, John," he hissed. "I don't know shit about Norway. Tell me some things I should know." "Vikings," I said. "Herrings. And, er, Ibsen.")

I was tiring. I'm not big on nightclubs after 2.30, whereas these guys go on till 7am. I hailed a cab and headed back to the grid, in search of a bar I'd been recommended. I was glad I did. The Pavilhao Chines (Chinese Pavilion) on Rua Dom Pedro V is possibly the most amazing bar I've ever seen.

Designed by the clearly deranged Luis Pinto Coelho (who also did the Parodia and Procopia bars), it's an Ali Baba cave cluttered with kitsch - whole walls, whole rooms, filled with glass cabinets of toy trains, dolls, battleships and masks, shelves of china dancers and brass tigers, statues of black servants, hat-racks of toppers, a score of teapots dangling from the ceiling. It's grotesque but irresistible. The front room is full of cocktail drinkers, the next full of whisky-bibbing geezers, a third full of students watching television, while in the back room two interchangeable blondes played pool with much bending and stretching, watched in silence by their fortunate boyfriends.

Under the efflorescent chandeliers, red-waistcoated waiters moved about as self-importantly as if they were at the Ritz. The jukebox played Blur, U2 and Supergrass. Really, there seemed no reason why one should ever leave this magic junk shop. Nothing short of a need for something hot at 4am.

By the way, Manuel, the piano man at the Catacombs, turned out to sing under the name of Catman in a band with Petra, the girl at the table. Ike finally made out with Ahna, the snooty Viking. And at 6.05am, nursing a last bourbon on the hotel balcony, I realised I'd never before been on a 12-hour bender. I want to keep it a secret, but that's impossible. I dread to think how many stag-party hordes will fly in on future weekends to be blown away, like me, by the wonders of the Bairro Alto.

Traveller's Guide

GETTING THERE

Lisbon is served by TAP Air Portugal (0845 601 0932; www.tap-airportugal.co.uk) and Monarch Scheduled (08700 405040; www.flymonarch.com) from Gatwick, British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow, and Portugalia (08707 550025; www.pga.com) from Manchester.

The writer travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 070 0612; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), which offers three nights at the Bairro Alto Hotel from £519 per person. This includes return flights from Heathrow with British Airways, transfers and B&B accommodation. A walking tour costs from £105 per party.

STAYING THERE

Bairro Alto Hotel, Praca Luis de Camoes 8, Bairro Alto (00 351 21 340 8288; www.bairroaltohotel.com). Doubles start at €350 (£250), including breakfast.

SHOPPING THERE

Confeitaria Nacional, Praca da Figueira 18, Baixa (00 351 21 342 4470).

Manuel Tavares, Rua da Betesga 1, Baixa (00 351 21 342 4209; www.manueltavares.com).

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Catacumbas Jazz Bar, Travessa Agua da Flor 43, Bairro Alto (00 351 21 346 3969).

Primavera, Travessa da Espera 34, Bairro Alto (00 351 21 342 0477).

Portas Largas, Rua da Atalaia 105, Bairro Alto (no functioning phone).

Snob Bar, Rua do Seculo 178, Bairro Alto (00 351 21 346 3723).

Olivier, Rua da Teixeira 35, Bairro Alto (00 351 21 342 1024; www.restaurante-olivier.com).

Gambrinus Restaurant, Rua das Portas de Santo Antao 23-25, Baixa (00 351 21 342 1466).

A Travessa, Travessa do Convento das Bernardas 12, Bairro da Madragoa (00 351 21 390 2034; www.atravessa.com).

Cafe Luso, Travessa da Queimada 10, Bairro Alto (00 351 21 342 2281).

Lux, Avenida Infante Dom Henrique Armazen, Cais da Pedra (00 351 21 882 0890; www.luxfragil.com).

Pavilhao Chines, Rua Dom Pedro V 89, Bairro Alto (00 351 21 342 4729).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Lisbon Tourism (00 351 21 031 2700; www.visitlisboa.com).

Portuguese Tourism Office (0845 355 1212; www.visitportugal.com).

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