LISBON, MARCH 2023
We all know about Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese prince who, in the fifteenth century, started the country’s global trails of discovery. Then there was Vasco de Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Diogo Cao, and a boatload of others. Clearly the Portuguese learned quite a bit, quite early on, about finding their way around. It comes as a surprise then to find that in Lisbon the maps are pretty hopeless – which is a pity because parts of it are quite tricky to, er… navigate.
Receptionists can normally give you a decent city map, torn from a pad, and then do an annoying swirly scrawl on it in biro to show where their hotel is. The one our hotel provided looked like a pink picture of Lisbon taken from space, with no street names or metro routes, just a few random labels of ‘attractions’ but no clear idea of where they are.
Getting around is actually quite complicated because so many of the streets are short and narrow. Something like those orientation maps you see on posts all over central London would be a real help.
The good news is that the airport has its own metro station which connects seamlessly with the centre, and the metro in general is a cheap and efficient way of getting around. By the way, not all the cork produced in Portugal goes into wine bottles; the seats on the metro trains have cork cushions (or, more accurately, hard slabs of cork that you sit on). So our passage from plane to place to stay was straightforward – although we managed to come out of the metro station at the opposite end to where we should have, making our progress to the hotel front door a bit of a puzzle.
The hotel was picked out by Trailfinders. Given the lingering problems associated with Covid, Brexit, etc., I thought buying the trip through a decent travel agent was the best move. If anything went haywire, they could sort it out. Mama Shelter turned out to be pretty groovy. Bedside lights with a Star Wars stormtrooper mask and an Iron Man mask draped over them, bedside tables that could be used to play chess or backgammon, a sign by the basin that said “make love not laundry” – that kind of thing. Decor so discrete that I had to consult the fire escape plan to work out that the loo lay behind a secret black panel.
I was in Lisbon to give a short talk at a design conference at the Polytechnic. It was very easy to get to by the metro – a few hundred yards from the Benfica stadium, in a beautiful old college building graced with sunny corridors lined with bookcases, lots of decorative tiles, and flowery friezes under the eaves.
I quickly decided I like conferences. Nice people, absorbing talks, lots of interesting chat, plenty of stimulating ideas. Delegates had come from as far away as India, Canada and Australia so just flying down from Manchester almost felt like cheating. I spoke around the old design adage that ‘form follows function’, aided by a Lego model truck and an inferior rival to reinforce my points. The use of props went down well. One of the benefits of going was of course that it informed my views and changed my opinions, so the theory going forward is a little bit different.
I actually skipped most of the conference, so that Chris and I could have a good look round Lisbon. The city was flattened by an earthquake in 1755 – an event which resonates strongly to this day. Many large buildings collapsed (including the royal palace) and there was terrible loss of life. The city centre was completely redeveloped on a grid pattern with wide boulevards and some big squares. The inner suburbs, which stretch across seven hills, were rebuilt in a more haphazard way.
To the east of the centre, narrow streets clamber up a hill surmounted by the Castelo Sao Jorge. There are lots of old-fashioned bakeries, hardware shops and the like, plus pleasant little cafes perched on the occasional plateau. A major hazard though is the way the pavements are so narrow (the word ‘narrow’ comes up a lot talking about Lisbon) and are surfaced with small shiny stone blocks. It seems like every morning an army of council employees must go round swilling them with grease because, even on dry days, they are perilously slippery.
The area to the west can be reached by panting up hills, taking one of the funicular trams, or having a ride on the Elevador de Santa Justa. I was keen to try it. This contraption looks as if it was bolted together from bits left over from the Eiffel tower. It was opened in 1902, and the car smoothly rises up 30 metres in under a minute to deposit you on an iron bridge that juts out from the hillside. It’s run by the bus company, so operates to a strict ten-minute schedule even though it could shift people a lot faster – which must be infuriating in the summer when long queues form.
My other must-do was a ride on the 28 tram route. Lisbon still has six routes, serviced by little trams which look about a century old and can each squeeze in about forty riders. The 28 route is the longest, and we managed to get a spot to stand on the enclosed rear platform, which for a view is probably better than a seat. The segment of the route we took is the famous one, where the car winds its way through narrower and narrower and steeper and steeper streets until at a couple of points the tram almost completely fills the road.
When we got off, we went straight into the Museum of Decorative Arts. I expected lots of twentieth century rugs and lamp shades, but it was all about the traditional skills used in copper beating, leather working, and so on. The museum was a palace until the earthquake, and through repairs and various ownerships is now the home of lots of examples of fine Portuguese furniture and fittings which exemplify those skills.
Our tour round was just us and a very knowledgeable guide, who had the sort and amount of hair that would allow him to easily take the part of Henry the Navigator if anyone was putting on a historical drama about the Age of Discovery.
One fascinating insight was that the rich Portuguese would have rooms containing furniture like chairs that are the size we have today. Yet in their private rooms the furniture was noticeably smaller, because they were generally quite short. It’s hard to imagine all these posh types looking dignified at fancy events while their feet were dangling above the floor.
One afternoon we went to see the Calouste Gulbenkian collection in its own beautiful and verdant park on the northern edge of the city centre. Gulbenkian was a tremendously clever Armenian who was a pioneer in exploiting the oil wealth of the Middle East. That made him very, very, very rich and he amassed a huge collection of historical artefacts and works of art.
For rather complex reasons he eventually settled and died in Lisbon. He bequeathed his collection to a foundation that built a structure to put it in that is so brutalist that many enthusiastic brutalists would probably say, “My word, that’s a bit brutalist”.
Wandering round the galleries I found myself thinking about what motivates rich people to ‘collect’. Fun, ego, one-upmanship, intellectual enthusiasm? Is it better that things stay where they originate from, or are cared for in public institutions? All I know is that the Egyptian section contained perhaps a hundred items, but I learned more looking round a charming little archaeology museum only open two afternoons a week in the University of Liverpool a couple of months ago.
Over the road is the El Corte Inglis, a massive department store which compensates for the general absence of large shops in the centre. Over eight floors and four basements it sells just about anything most people could ever want – from washing up liquid to giant flat screen tellies. I always enjoy looking round shops abroad (almost as much as I dislike looking round them in the UK, except for the centre aisle at Aldi or Lidl). El Corte Inglis gives a perfect snapshot of what the local culture and taste is – at least among the Portuguese equivalent of John Lewis shoppers. They are definitely into plenty of colour, and not into bling. I like it!
Time to discuss food. Lisbon is famous for the nata – a small custard tart in a filo pastry case. The quality varies but the best was in the Confaitaria Nacional, which is a charming old-fashioned café on one of the squares. Our best lunch was at Sol e Pesce, which is bang in the middle of the gay quarter. This is obvious from the pedestrianised street being painted bright pink. At Sol e Pesce the menu is all about tinned fish, served up with pasta or salad. As for dinner, Trindade is in a very long, vaulted hall, and served an excellent cod and potato dish cooked in olive oil. Simple but delicious. Otherwise nothing we ate or drank was awful, but a certain amount was mediocre.
Incidentally, tinned fish seem to be a delicacy in Portugal. A tin of sardines costs about 60p in Sainsbury’s but typically runs at around 3.95 euros in Lisbon. There is even a glitzy shop at the airport that sells a vast array of tinned sardines. Somebody, please explain.
On Saturday we took the train out to Belem, which is actually a western suburb of Lisbon. Despairing of the hopeless automatic ticket machine, I queued up and bought two cheap returns. Over the bridge from Belem station lies the Museu of Art, Arquitetura e Tecnologia. The new bit stands next to the Targus river front and is an essay in swooping white tiles with a roof you can walk up to get a fine view of the huge suspension bridge across the river and the statue of Cristo Rei on the other side.
Inside was basically an exhibition of tat collected by a Frenchman keen to promote the idea that just about everything is valid to be described as art. A bit of a contrast to the Gulbenkian.
More seriously, another gallery had an excellent show about plastic – how it went from wonder material to massive headache. That tied in nicely with my pitch at the design conference, with plastic Lego as its centrepiece. Lego are promising to move away from plastic by 2030 and indeed one of their competitors (Fischer of Germany) had a display of less-plastic wall plugs made largely from castor oil – so it sounds like a short hop to making its Fischertechnik kits out of similar stuff.
The old part of MAAT was formerly an electricity generating plant, with a lot of the original boilers, steam turbines, dynamos and control gear still in place. In between all this was a modern art gallery – a kind of mini Tate Modern.
A hike up a big hill (glad we did this in 20 degree spring and not 35 degree summer) takes you to the Palacio Nacional Ajuda. When his palace in town was destroyed by the earthquake in 1755, the king wisely decided to go for an earthquake-proof design made out of wood on this site in Belem. Sadly, it burnt down. Crossing their fingers, the royal builders put up a new palace in stone.
At one end you can go round a new museum housing the royal treasures. Needless to say, most of this was paid for or made from plunder from the colonies – especially Brazil. There is a nugget of gold that is as big as a boxer’s fist, plenty of crowns, tiaras, necklaces and so on – most of them heavy in style as well as heavy to wear. No wonder all the portraits of royals decked out in their regalia have them looking decidedly uncomfortable.
When we came out at the other end we realised, from the enormous door, that we had in fact been wandering round inside a giant safe. Perhaps they were a little late getting to this level of precautions; when a selection was shown in the Netherlands a few years ago, six pieces were stolen!
The other side of the palace offered a wander through state apartments. In its heyday, Portugal was very wealthy and the royals did not skimp on their interiors. Strange then that the king’s bedroom at the far end of the row of rooms was quite modest, with a pretty small single bed tucked in one corner. Another thing that struck me was the way that a wall in one particularly lavish room was decorated by two large pictures of peasants working, which seemed a tad hypocritical.
Not far away is the Ajuda Botanical Garden. Going through the gates a vista emerges of endless triangles of square-cut box hedges – overlooked by terraces with light stone parapets. A perfect oasis on a hot day. Alas, close inspection showed that, despite the work of volunteers, the garden is past its glory days, although some of the plants and trees are remarkable.
Back down the hill and on to the Museu Colecao Berado. Like MAAT, this is pretty new and its highlight is a fabulous art gallery. The basement was showing fairly recent stuff, and higher up was a tour through the story of modern western art with all your favourites: Picasso, Andy Warhol, Bridget Riley and so on and on. Another great place to soak up some culture and stay in the shade if you have to.
Next to the water’s edge is a mighty monument put up in 1960 to commemorate the Portuguese men of discovery. The fore-end of a ship has Henry the Navigator at the prow, and down each side are lined up other explorers, plus sponsors, colonisers and even priests. Portugal seems (on the surface at least) to be more comfortable with its colonial past than Britain has become, even though it too was responsible for much exploitation, destruction and slavery.
Overall impressions? Someone said that Lisbon is worth one trip, and that seems about right. It has the feel of an important provincial city, not a capital (even though it is one). More Leeds than London. It’s a nice place to wander round, people are very friendly, and just about every sign is in English as well as Portuguese. Definitely recommended, but I’d say avoid the summer. One bonus factor is that tipping is not expected – so you can save a few pennies to spend on tins of sardines at the airport on the way home.
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