Trail of the unexpected: Lisbon

Portugal's undulating capital can be tiring to explore – but not in a 4x4. Will Hawkes enjoys the ride

Rome is famous for being the city of seven hills – but it's got nothing on Lisbon. Visitors to this most beguiling of European capitals would be well-advised to work on their calf muscles before arriving, or at least bring extra cash for taxis. It's no joke: this place makes the Eternal City look as flat as an Opus Dei comedy night.

All in all, it is the sort of town where you could do with a 4x4 to get around. Lucky, then, that an enterprising local already has had that idea. Bruno Gomes, 31, started running his "King of the Hills" tours in a former Portuguese military vehicle this year, having spent the previous couple of years ferrying friends around this intricate city.

Gomes' motivation was simple: he wanted to make sure visitors experienced the authentic Lisbon. "People were leaving not having seen the best of the city," he says. "I want people to get a real feeling of the city."

Gomes' company is called We Hate Tourism Tours. Clearly, this is no ordinary tour. How could it be, when you see the city whilst bouncing around on the back seat of a 4x4? There are no seat belts here. Locals stand and stare as the boxy matte-green vehicle whizzes past. "I don't need a Playstation, this is the real deal," Gomes says. "It's like Grand Theft Auto, racing through the city."

The traffic in Lisbon is certainly chaotic. Most streets are narrow – the Portuguese capital's own Baron Haussmann, the Marques de Pombal, had only a limited impact on the city's geography. When we parked to take in the view at Largos das Portas de Sol, which overlooks Alfama (the old town and the spiritual home of Fado) the screech of brakes and a female scream from behind us suggested a near miss. "It's normal," Gomes, says.

The tour covers all of the central districts of Lisbon, but with the added benefit of the sort of juicy local information denied those sitting uncomfortably on sweaty coaches. Take the illegal pastry shop in Bairro Alto, the part of town where young natives go to drink away the weekend. "It's like you're buying drugs," Gomes says. "They pass the pastries through a hole in the wall. Sometimes the police turn up to bust them and a queue builds up because they refuse to serve. People are like, 'Go away! Someone is getting attacked at the bottom of the hill!'"

Or there's the Thieves' Market in the east of the city, where the tour stops on Tuesdays and Saturdays. "We say that if you have something stolen, it will turn up at the Thieves' Market the next time you go," Gomes says. Wandering through the market, you can't help thinking that some of this stuff must have been nicked in 1950. Still, it's like the best car-boot sale you've never been to. The Thieves' Market has been around since the 13th century.

Gomes' tour also takes you past any number of crumbling apartment blocks that would fetch millions in Paris or London.

Lisbon is a city of views, and perhaps the best can be experienced at Miradouro da Senhora do Monte (Our Lady of the Hill viewpoint), one of the last stops on the trip. Our Lady – trapped in a glass box, peering out over the city – has it made. A bit off the beaten tourist track and a distance from any public transport, this is a tranquil spot to soak in Lisbon's idiosyncratic splendour, as long as you can shake off the Goan man trying to sell you tiny paintings of trams.

And then, finally, there's A Ginjinha, the hole-in-the-wall cherry brandy bar in the Largo de Sao Domingos. The drink itself is sweet but not cloying – in that respect, it's not overly dissimilar to its English equivalent, Grants Morella. It's unlikely, though, that you would find groups of Englishmen standing outside a cubby hole on a Saturday morning drinking liqueur.

But this is not London. The pace of life is slower and, as Gomes has found to his advantage, laws are there to be broken – or at least bent. "I have a licence to park illegally," he says. "Sometimes I arrive somewhere, there's a cop there, he looks at me, I look at him. 'Five minutes,' I say. And it's cool."

It's no wonder he can take liberties with the law: Gomes is a natural with people. He thinks this has a lot to do with his background. "My father has a shoe shop," he says. "The way that he deals with the public, I think I have that in my genes."

And Gomes' engaging manner means the tour doesn't end when he races off. "Sometimes I don't know things, but if I can't answer someone's question, I email them when they're back home and I give them the answer."

This good nature is as unwavering as the city he so clearly loves. "Lisbon doesn't really change," he says. "We like to have the things that we have always had. It's bad in a way, but also nice."

Travel essentials: Lisbon

Getting there

* From the UK the widest choice of flights is offered by easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), with services from Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Liverpool and Luton. Portugal's national airline TAP (0845 601 0932; flytap.com) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow.

Visiting there

* We Hate Tourism Tours (00 351 911 501 720; wehatetourismtours.com). 'King of the Hills' costs €20 per person and lasts three hours.

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