Explore the many sides of Lisbon’s character and you'll find this beautiful, gleaming city has plenty to cheer even the famously reserved locals
The sun is shining, a welcome breeze is blowing off the Tagus and I’m sitting outside the gorgeous, Art Deco Cafe Nicola watching the lisboetas go about their business. What could be better? I voice the question to my friend Carmo, who has joined me for a bica, that nerve-jangling shot of black coffee that the inhabitants of Lisbon depend on to ease themselves into the day. “Nothing,” she agrees, “but it still won’t make people smile.”
She’s right. The locals scuttling through the Rossio, which forms the very heart of Portugal’s capital city, don’t seem to appreciate their good fortune. They certainly don’t have time to stop and smell the coffee. “It’s something about being Portuguese,” Carmo explains. “We’re quiet and reserved, very like the British. Also,we have the weight of history on our shoulders. We were a great seafaring nation with a huge empire hundreds of years ago. Since then we’ve been getting smaller. It’s saudade, an untranslatable word,” she adds, in immaculate English, “but it means melancholy, sadness, nostalgia – all those sort of things.”
I can see the logic. This introspective tendency finds an outlet in the sometimes unbearably melancholic art form that is fado. Then there’s the great Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa: no-one could accuse him of being frivolous. And it’s true that you couldn’t call Lisbon a party city – unlike, for example, its neighbouring capital, Madrid.
But I’m not ready to accept that this beautiful, gleaming city of more than a million souls is full of grumps. Carmo laughs when I tell her this, thus proving my theory - though she tells me, still laughing, that she isn’t a true lisboeta. “I’ve lived here most of my life but I was born in the rural Alentejo in eastern Portugal, so I love the city. Good luck,” she adds, finishing her coffee and nipping back to work before her next coffee break “in a couple of hours”.
Needing to gather my thoughts I head uphill from the commercial Baixa district to Chiado – home to designer stores, local restaurants, late night, hole-in-the-wall clubs and the bohemian centre of Lisbon. It’s here I encounter Fernando Pessoa, looking a bit gloomy, to say the least. He’s sitting outside his favourite cafe, A Brasileira, with a world-weary look despite the excellence of the coffee. Actually, the poet is cast in bronze; his statue sits at a table, leaving room for tourists to park themselves alongside him and pose for souvenir photos. Thinking about it, you can forgive him his mood.
I decide I need an overview of Lisbon, so I hop on a tram and head for the Castelo de São Jorge via the narrow whitewashed streets of the Alfama district. Up on the battlements you can see how the city spreads out along the Tagus riverfront and up and down its many hills. From Baixa to the distant memorials of Belém and the majestic sweep of the 25th of April bridge, the city is laid out in all its glory. On the hillside opposite is a more sober sight – the ruins of the ancient Carmo church, a reminder of the earthquake that devastated the city 250 years ago.
The area round the castle was all that survived, but under the direction of the Marquis of Pombal, rebuilding was swift. So swift, in fact, that he ordered all tiling to be finished in blue and white to avoid timewasting, which is why you don’t see other colours on the hundreds of heavily decorated buildings throughout the capital.
A quick stroll back down to Baixa and I’m ready for a different view of Lisbon and its inhabitants. There’s a smart, recently-built metro system but trams are still the best way to gauge the pulse of Lisbon. Tram 28 is the one to go for. It runs from Martim Moniz square and heads in a circular route out towards the western suburbs before delivering you back in the centre. Along the way I bump into plenty of lisboetas, from black-clad grannies to self-important suits jabbering into mobile phones. Not much good cheer here, though a group of twentysomethings pile on and change the mood in a trice – laughing, sharing food and pointing out passing landmarks. Clearly they’re not local so they don’t count.
I try my luck in a newer area – the Parque das Nações, or Park of Nations, built for the 1998 Expo in the shadow of the new, 12-mile-long Vasco da Gama bridge, which connects the capital with southeastern Portugal. The Expo site boasts a vast shopping centre, enough bars and restaurants to feed, well, a city, riverside cable cars, a hands-on science museum and, topping it all, one of the world’s most modern and best aquariums.
Not surprisingly, there are plenty of cheery faces here, and not just on the youngsters. This is an outstanding regeneration project but it’s one for visitors (though lisboetas do flock here on their days off, just to wander around, eat and drink). The route from the centre runs past kilometres of old dockland being converted into housing, smart bars and restaurants and everything here suggests that – despite worldwide economic problems – Lisbon is looking firmly to the future.
But, the Portuguese being Portuguese, they revere their past, and rightly so in Belém, the historical wonderland in the west of the city. An inspiring collection of Manueline monuments commemorating Portugal’s navigational triumphs flanks the Tagus. The breathtaking Jerónimos monastery, with its acres of carvery and beautiful interiors, takes pride of place, while the Belém tower sits on the riverbank like a gleaming white chess piece. Then there’s the 20th-century Monument to the Discoveries and, most recently, the vast Berardo modern art collection, housed in a new museum.
After the sightseeing, the pit stop and a pastéis de nata (custard tart) from Café Pastéis de Belém. They sell 10,000 a day and one bite, with a bica as accompaniment, will tell you why. Plenty of smiling, custardy faces here – and lots of local accents too.
Back in the centre, the Chiado district – Lisbon’s Bond Street – has had a massive facelift after a devastating fire in the 1980s. The reconstruction has been so painstaking that the elegant rows of shops and shady squares retain their air of 19th-century grandeur.
Five minutes’ walk to the north brings you to the Bairro Alto district, with its narrow streets of cafes and bars and its spectacular views across the city. The one thing you notice is how upbeat everyone is. Not a hint of saudade anywhere. I’ll have to tell Carmo.