Letter from Portugal: Lisbon Rocks!
By Mary Alice Kellogg
Portugal is a country that enjoys its traditions without being chained to them, reveres its history, lives fully in the present with an enviable lifestyle and embraces the future with sophisticated savvy from lifestyle to design. What’s not to love?
After all, the Age of Discovery began here (shoutout to my homie Vasco DaGama!). And with all the historic and 21st century wonders on offer — miracle of miracles — all this hasn’t gone to the populace’s heads. One would be hard-pressed to find a country with so much going for it where the entire citizenry is not jaded. That translates to not only a warm welcome, but a warm stay.
We know the disappointment of an homoginized destination, leading to the feeling one should have simply stayed home to shop at Chanel or drink at Starbucks. To them I say: go to Portugal, and begin by taking TAP, the national airline. The fleet is modern, the safety record pristine … and all staff and crew are dressed in the snappiest attire aloft or on the ground (a new Portuguese designer, of course). You’ll know you’re already in Portugal when the first course is a hearty, sophisticated soup. Beginning any meal with soup is a Portuguese tradition and embodies the country’s old-new spirit of place from the get-go.
To begin the adventure – and to discover the John Malkovich connection, without which no travelogue is complete – we land in Lisbon, where everything old is not new again, because there’s plenty of new stuff to compliment it.
Built on seven hills on the shores of the Tagus river, today’s Lisbon is in the midst of a renaissance, the most recent in its 1000 years of history. (The world’s oldest bookstore? Check.) This city of 600,000 is chockablock with historic monuments, museums and whole neighborhoods designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. Not hidebound by all this history, it has a thriving modern art and design scene, world-class contemporary architecture, rejuvenated industrial riverside neighborhoods, and more rockin’ nightlife than cities four times its size.
Easily navigable by old-fashioned tram, bike (more than 20 miles of bike paths were built since 2009), horsedrawn carriage, Segway (Lisbon is obsessed with going green in all things), or – the best – on foot, Lisbon has an abundance of must-see monuments, of course. And they all have glorious views, from the hilltop 5th century S. Jorge Castle to the riverside 14th century Jeronimos Monastery, a Moorish masterpiece across the road from where Vasco DaGama set off to find the sea route to India. You can’t turn around without encountering centuries of history, from the narrow 18th century streets of the Alfama and Belem neighborhoods, ubiquitous elaborately tiled building fronts … even the iconic black and white stone city pavements, each an ornate work of art.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find a city that embraces the future as Lisbon has done. A modern Portuguese Style Offensive stretches from art and design galleries in the city’s oldest neighborhoods, to new riverfront museums and clubs, and the Gulbenkian Museum, a sleek gem showcasing decorative and fine arts from the 13th century to present day. Parque das Nacoes (Nations Park), built for Expo 98, filled with impressive contemporary architecture is a vibrant riverside neighborhood of culture, condos, conference facilities, and nightlife. Anchored by a soaring Calatrava-designed train station, it boasts the Lisbon Oceanarium, Europe’s largest aquarium.
At night, the historic Bairro Alto nabe still rules, with the most bars and clubs in town, all packed with jovial groups spilling out onto narrow streets dotted with galleries, restaurants, cafes and boutiques. True to Lisbon spirit, the boutiques offer a spectrum of cutting-edge and traditional wares. So do the restaurants, and here is where John Malkovich comes in. With two local partners, he owns two of the hottest venues in town in the new riverfront warehouse district.
Malkovitch’s partners also own Pap’Acorda in the Bairro Alto, where Lisbon style lives with a hip yet no-attitude young staff and diners a mix of local families, too-cool fashionistas, and celebrities. Housed in a 16th century streetside building, with an interior that brings minimalist to a new level (save for the two landmarked 18th century crystal chandeliers in the bar), one would expect contemporary cuisine. One would be wrong: this is the place to sample the best traditional dishes prepared simply and with love, including the richest dark-chocolate mousse on the planet. Really. Pure Lisbon all the way.
York House, on the other hand, affords an opportunity to party like it’s 1606, which is when the main buildings were constructed as a convent. Converted to a hotel by two British ladies (hence the name) in 1880, it has been an elegant, intimate hideaway ever since. A hidden stone stairway leads up from the street to a lush terrace garden ringed by 33 luxe contemporary rooms that belie the gracious buildings housing them. Even if you can’t score one of the coveted rooms, do book for a terrace lunch or romantic dining hall dinner, as the chef is one of the more celebrated in town and the wine cellar boasts a stellar collection of Portuguese still wines and ports (doubles from 60 euros)
Speaking of celebrated chefs, Lisbon is welcoming a new star. Leonel Pereira’s Panorama restaurant, on the top floor of the Sheraton Lisbon, is not only the place to be seen and to see tout Lisbon gathering to enjoy the epynonomous views (it seems the TAP planes on final approach will land on the bar), but a must-dine oasis: contemporary cool with a provocative, innovative modern menu. Call it Luxe Locavore if you must but call for reservations.
Lisbon may be sophisticated, but its citizens are among the most warm and gracious on earth (for this experienced traveller, giving the Tahitians a run for their money). Lifestyle is all, and relaxed, day an night. Where else would the main boulevard – Avenida da Liberdade – be closed for a day so the populace could hold the world’s largest picnic? Whether it made the Guiness Book of Records or not, a good time was had by all.
And yes, an evening at a fado club is obligatory. This centuries-old music, unique to Lisbon, is drenched with emotion, with venerated older singers (think Frank Sinatra) and a new generation bringing a modern twist to this traditional form (think Beyonce) . There’s no better place to experience the fado spirit than at Clube de Fado in the Alfama district. In a cavernous dining room dating from the 15th century, a small stage showcases established stars and young upstarts. Stay for dinner or drop by for drinks; you don’t have to know a word of Portuguese to understand the feelings and appreciate the music. Like fado itself, Lisbon continues to evolve.
Red the next Letter from Portugal
Mary Alice Kellogg, a New York-based writer and editor, is a recipient of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for Consumer Reporting. A contributor to many national publications, including Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit and GQ, she has reported from 120 countries and five of the seven seas to date… and counting.Visit MaryAlicekellogg.com