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A Stroll Around Lisbon

Lisbon tram next to Lisbon Cathedral
Lisbon tram next to Lisbon Cathedral

By Richard West

I know this feeling: vuja de, the strange sense I’ve never been here before. Indeed true.  My wife and I have been trying to visit Lisbon and Portugal, the suburb of Europe, since Moses was beardless. Finally here is the capital: under white scarves of clouds, the staggered  topography of white buildings and their terracotta tile roofs; the wide Tagus River flowing to the Atlantic; quaint, yellow trams from the 1920’s pack-rattling up and down the hills. Just like in the movie version of “Night Train to Lisbon,” one of my favorite novels.

Walking is our preferred way to discover a new city and, by chance, our hotel is close to the beginning of Avenida da Liberdade, the Champs-Elysees of Lisbon grandly ribboning south to the inner city and the Tagus. So off we go down the broad, leafy boulevard past the usual luxe shops selling objects du gout next to the upstale outlets offering the formerly fashionable.

Rossio
Rossio

We soon notice the white-and-black limestone cobbles, the calcadas, rippling down the sidewalk in wavelike or checkerboard patterns. We’re not only walking on art, but the modern connection to the tiled floor decorations of Roman villas when Portugal was a province of the empire. It’s a lovely, quiet stroll—no roistering crowds—that leads us to Praca Dom Pedro IV (locally known as Rossio), the city’s main square since the Middle Ages, lined with cafes, and the national theater built in the 1840’s.

Nicola
Nicola

Lunch on the Rossio. With more restaurants than pomegranates have seeds, the premier choice is Nicola, the only remaining 19th-century coffee house/eatery with its handsome art-deco interior and terrace seating to enjoy the outdoor passacaglia. Menu study quickly reveals the Portuguese passion for bacalhau, salted dried cod, often with small croquettes of mashed potatoes (pasteis de bacalhau).

Which, of course, brings to mind the world’s longest  palindrome, “Doc,  note, I dissent: a fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.”

We, however, opted for the cured ham (presunto) artfully brought on three vertical sticks (stuck in pineapple chunks) to resemble sails of a Portuguese frigate. To quote the locals, “cair dads nuvens,” to fall from the clouds, a nice way of saying you’re astounded. Appreciated even more with a bottle of Portuguese rose. I had heard of the local oxymoronic “sausage without pork” but failed to find it.

Fed and watered, we ambled down pedestrian-only, stunningly-tiled rua Augusta toward the Tagus, almost always in view at the end of ruas, before turning west and climbing up to rua Garrett, the trendy Chiado (She-ar-doo) neighborhood’s main drag which drew crowds like gnats to sweet wine.

First stop, Livaria Bertrand, the so-called world’s oldest bookshop (est. 1773), a nice building but only airport-esque offerings of English-language books. Then on west a block to the city’s most famous café, the A Brasileira (est. 1905) marked in front by the sitting bronze statue of Fernando Pessoa, Portugal’s greatest 20th-century writer. No seating inside but outside, yes, as well as the empty seat next to Pessoa.

Café Martinho da Arcada
Café Martinho da Arcada

After a poignant ramble around the Largo and Convento do Carmo, the ruin of the 14th-century Carmo church and memorial to the catastrophic 1755 earthquake, we rejoined rua Augusta until we passed under the Arco da Rua Augusta , an arch built to celebrate Lisbon’s reconstruction after the earthquake, and into the arcaded Praca do Comercio, Europe’s largest square. Our destination, on the square’s northeast corner, is Martinho Da Arcada, one of the city’s oldest (est. 1782) restaurants whose dining room walls are lined with Pessoa photographs, an homage to the great writer who was a regular. A coffee with a pastel de nata, the ubiquitous Portuguese egg tart pastry, on the terrace is highly recommended.

Next day to the Alfama, a remnant of Moorish Lisbon, the city’s oldest and most atmospheric neighborhood, untouched by the earthquake, with its climbing, tangled streets that twist along each other like a thumbprint whirl, steep stairs, patios and archways. At night they echo with melancholy voices singing fado, Portuguese blues, from well-known spots like Clube do Fado and A Parreirinha De Alfama. From doorways grills with sardines saltier than Lot’s wife sizzle as the beer and sangria flow.

We flaneured up and around the Se Cathedral, behind which I found the charming hole-in-wall  Fabula Urbis Bookshop that did stock English-language Portuguese books and our delightful luncheon stop, the Canto de Villa: on the 10.50e menu, gazpacho, feijao tropeiro (beans backed with pork/bacon/sausage in cabbage, topped with fried egg); one drink and either passion fruit, mousse, or carrot cake with chocolate. The latter of course, now recalled, along with many other memories of Lisbon, with fond déjà vu.

Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters. He lives in Amsterdam.
Richard West spent nine years as a writer and senior editor at Texas Monthly before moving to New York to write for New York and Newsweek. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a freelance writer. West was awarded the National Magazine Award for Reporting in 1980 and is a member of Texas Arts & Letters. He lives in Amsterdam.
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