Sunday, 23 October 2016

A Sunday stroll in Lisbon.

There is no way you are going to be able to 'do' a city the size Lisbon in a day. You can sample a few highlights maybe, but then the issue becomes choosing which ones. In Porto we used our Lonely Planet guide's 'half day walk.'. For Lisbon help was on hand from afar. Last March our daughter and her boyfriend took a long weekend city break to Lisbon. Gill sent a Whatsapp message asking for hints. We received a an immediate response:

1. Belém, Pastéis de Belém - heavenly 'nata'. 
2. Cais do Sodré - Ribeira Food Market. 
3. Walk towards the old Arabic quarter - the Alfama. 

And that is exactly what we did. Two grey- hairs following in the footsteps of a couple of Hackney twenty-something creative types who are well atuned to what is trending. I think we did OK. I wonder if we could apply somewhere for dual generational identity, in the same way you acquire dual nationality. We could start a trend towards generational hybridity - 'babyboomer-millennials' for example. Actually, Gill would not be too pleased at the prospect since she is wholly dismissive of generational labelling, and rightly so. The terms are probably just as destructive a form of stereotyping as that associated with race and gender. It seems, however that the media can make sweeping negative generalisations about babyboomers and it is greeted with all-round tacit approbation. 

Rant over. Back to Lisbon. Before we could follow in Sarah's footsteps we needed to get ourselves from the campsite to the city. Either, you can catch a bus, or take a bus then a ferry. We chose the latter option, partly because the bus stop to the ferry terminal was only a short walk from the gates, but also arriving at city's waterfront is always interesting. 

The ferry was truly a rust-tub, however we did get a great view of Lisbon's Golden Gate lookalike before it deposited us in Belém, where Sarah had suggested we start our stroll.

Belém is interesting. The area next to its ferry terminal has a series of riverside parks. They are full of monuments commemorating Portugal's conquests in the East Indies. Most people probably don't give them a second glance, but if you do, then you find lots of scenes of supplicant natives bowing before triumphant Europeans. Like most countries in Europe, there are aspects of Portugal's past that are deeply shameful by modern standards. 

Across the Avenue da India are two of Lisbon's iconic monuments - the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Torre de Belém. Both date from around the turn of the 16th century, at the apogee of the country's maritime power. With only one day to spend in Lisbon we were unable to visit the interior, so made do with admiring the Mosteiro's ornate facade. 

Where we went instead was another of Lisbon's legendary monuments, the Pastéis de Belém. It serves famously scrumptious Portuguese custard tarts, called 'nata'. They have been doing this since 1887. It is truly a case of practice makes perfect; the nata were delightful. When we arrived  a long queue spilled out onto the pavement. We feared there was no way we were going to get served until we realised this was the takeaway queue. A Sunday morning cake fest is clearly a Lisbon institution. Luckily Pastéis de Belém is geared up for mass production, the cafe inside, spread through a series of azulejos clad salons, can seat 400. It is arranged so you can watch the pastries being made. Even better, it's very inexpensive, the bill for two small coffees and four pastel de nata was less than €6.

Afterwards we caught a train to Cais do Sodré, two stops east of Belém. It is opposite the Ribeira Food Market that Sarah had recommended as a good place for lunch. Having just consumed two nata each we were not ready for lunch. What we needed was to work up an appetite, so we headed up Rua do Arsenal towards Baixas, the grid of streets and squares rebuilt in the grand manner after the devastation of the 1755 earthquake.

Gill had gone ahead as I spent ages snapping examples of 1930s buildings by the riverside. Because of their association with Fascist regimes, the mid 20th Century buildings of Italy, Spain and Portugal tend to be treated as a footnote to the story of architecture in Western Europe from the last century. This does not really make much sense, as we don't apply the same judgement to buildings produced by other repressive, violent and autocratic regimes. Otherwise we would never enter a building constructed by the Roman Catholic church, and studiously ignore all Roman architecture.

I caught up with Gill in the enormous Praça Comércio. This is the centrepiece of Lisbon's eighteenth century redevelopment. The nearby streets are building sites at the moment as the city updates its tram network. You get a real sense of municipal ambition and confidence about Lisbon.

A short, but steep walk takes you to the older part of the city near the cathedral. A favourite thing for tourists to do is take the no. 28 tram from here which gives you a roller coaster ride through the old city. An alternative is a 'tuk-tuk', We took neither and opted to walk to  the old Arabic quarter - the Alfama.

The Alfama's tangle of narrow streets of whitewashed houses decorated with tiles has the 'lost in time' atmosphere of a souk. Our Lonely Planet guidebook takes a particularly romantic view of the area, asserting it was somewhere that you might encounter women about to burst unprompted into a soulful fado, while their fisherfolk husbands sit by gutting mackerel. In truth you are more likely to encounter gaggles of Americans from cruise ships in search of the archetypal image, than the tableau itself.

By now we were becoming somewhat footsore and had thoroughly walked off our scrummy nata brunch and were ready to re-fuel at the renowned Ribeira market. 

It is a very intriguing place which manages to be both a travesty and an icon simultaneously. Ribeira was Lisbon's main food and fish market until acquired in 2014 as a new venture by US based 'Time Out '. Something of their intent can be gleaned from the tenor of the marketing blurb on their website:

"Time Out is your social companion. With a world-class digital platform and top-quality curated content, Time Out connects brands and local businesses to the city. Now Time Out Market is taking that to the next stage, bringing the best of the city together under one roof enabling people to discover, book, live and share their experiences." 
In all honesty for an experience that purports to 'curate' the 'best of a city' under one roof, the place is not as bad as you might expect. It is very 'now', a happening, buzzy place designed for the taste of young professionals and tourists doing Lisbon via AirB&B and EasyJet. 

The food was good, in the main local and cooked to order, served with style, and the vibe was young and energetic. Nevertheless, the sense that the entire place was 'curated', an invention of marketing gobbledygook, felt like Disneyfication updated for the Facebook generation. Do we really need a multinational brand to "enable people to discover, book, live and share their experiences". Collectively have we really become so media dependant, so infantile and useless?

It was now late afternoon and we headed for the train to Belém. Had I not lingered in a queue, clutching a carton of milk in Cais do Sodré's branch of Pingu Doce, and Gill been luckier playing the slots at the station ticket machine, we may have made the 4.30pm ferry at Belém. Instead we observed its stubby mast drift away beyond the roof of the terminal building as we speed hobbled out of the adjacent railway station. 

Now we had an hour to wait until the next boat. Belém is trying to develop itself as a hub for galleries and museums, however most are still only half built. The big brick building next to the station used to be Lisbon's main power station. Now it houses the Museum of Electricity, showcasing the original machinery as well as providing gallery space for temporary exhibitions. In fact the current show was set up in the space outside the building.

Its title 'The Form of Form' was somewhat cryptic. In fact it concerned the way space, shape and mass was used in late 20th century architecture. The content of the exhibition consisted of a series of architectural drawings and projections. The clever aspect of it was the way these were displayed in a series of inter-linked two storey, white roofless spaces which encouraged spectators to think how they, and their fellow visitors related to enclosed space and open space, which, when you think about it, is a fundamental of architecture. 

If all this sounds tedious, it wasn't, it was fun, like a maze for grown-ups. We spent at least quarter of an hour trying to snap the gulls that wheeled from time to time across the open roof spaces. It was trickier than you might think.

As we headed for the next ferry it began to drizzle. We had managed to squeeze our day in Lisbon in-between the forecast downpours. It had been an intriguing glimpse of a city with a 3000 year history reaching back to its time as an Atlantic outpost of the Phoenicians. The place feels like a venerable Mediterranean port city that has inexplicably drifted beyond the Pillars of Hercules. In a sense it has more in common with Palermo than Bordeaux. There is no way you can do it justice in a day, all we are left with are snap-shots - heavenly cakes, a fado-free souk, a grid of grandiose streets half dug up, a curated gastronomic interlude, peaceful parks with monumental sculpture commemorating a violent, imperialist history, a city with ambition looking to the future, unwilling to become defined by heritage. Lisbon, it's a vibrant, interesting and youthful place.


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