Along with a cooling down of temperatures, this Autumn has brought with it a few short breaks to Europe, whether this is a sub-conscious attempt to get to places before we start needing visas, I’m not sure, but they’ve been a lot of fun. This first trip at the beginning of September was to Lisbon with Jenny.
I’m a big fan of walking around cities, as I get a good feel for the place and whilst cabs, buses or trams can be useful – and are fair enough if you’re laden with luggage or have urgent business to attend to – on foot you can get your bearings properly, get a picture of how the city interconnects and how differing areas relate to and complement one another. Our hotel was in middle of the city, which is not to say the centre – as Lisbon’s beating heart is down by the River Targus on which it is built – and so having dropped our bags at the hotel we made our way down the gently sloping streets to the river.
With the exception of the castle, of which more later, all of the city centre’s buildings date from the late 18th century onwards as a huge earthquake in 1755, which left only 15% of its buildings habitable, destroyed all of its Roman and Moorish architecture. The resulting rebuilt city has many grand plazas, each with the requisite fountains, pools and military statues that all the empire hungry nations of old were wont to build. The finest of these in my opinion are the Praca do Commercio, (which at a whopping 36,000 square metres is one of the largest public squares in Europe); the Praca Dom Pedro with the national theatre at one end; and the Praca de Marques Pombal, which is the Lisbon equivalent of Trafalgar Square, complete with their very own Nelson’s column.
Another feature of the city is that it is built on a series of hills – 7 to be exact, the same number as Rome, resulting in some fairly steep up and down inclines; however in the late 19th century the city’s leaders were thoughtful enough to build a number of funicular trams and lifts for their citizens, most of which are still working today. The most recent addition to these is a series of escalators which have been installed at Praca Martim Moniz and take pedestrians a good way up the hill to Castelo de St Jorge and I for one can think of no better way to reach the castle than that. Perhaps Edinburgh’s civic leaders could do the same – imagine how many more folk would come, just to ride the escalators…
Lisbon’s castle is a real gem, it’s known that people have lived on the castle rock since about 800BC, with some buildings dating from the Roman occupation in the 1st century AD and ongoing excavation work of the Roman Governor’s villa is continuously revealing mosaics and other architectural features. The Moors also built on the castle rock, but the bulk of what still stands – and there’s a lot of it – dates from when the Portuguese overran the Moors and built the Castelo de St Jorge as a bulwark from which to defend their city. Being sited at the top of the hill would have given defenders 360 degree views of anyone approaching and its 40ft high walls, which are 25ft thick at the bottom and 8ft at the top, ensured that although it was subject to siege and bombardment, it was rarely seriously damaged and never taken. As a tourist attraction, it is definitely worth the visit.
As with most cities, Lisbon has plenty of parks and green space, two which stick in the mind are the Eduoardo VII Park, which is the largest park in the city centre and comprises botanic gardens, greenhouses and box hedge lined flower beds, with paths criss-crossing its acres of green and sweet smelling plants. The second is a much less formal affair, as the Jardim Braancamp Freire is a shaded city park with ducks, geese, chickens and cockerels roaming freely in it. Although it’s not clear to the outsider if they are domesticated and looked after, I expect the chances of them being wild birds who just happened to arrive there seems remote. Whatever their situation, the scene is one of rural living right in the city centre and brings to mind thoughts of The Good Life, albeit without the pigs, home-made rotary ploughs or a bossy, disapproving and snooty neighbour.
Another excellent attraction is the Zoo, which is home to about 2000 animals from 300 species and covers an area of about 25 acres. Conservation is a key part of their work and many of the animals are involved in breeding programmes with other zoos around the world – currently they’re working with the San Diego Zoo to maintain viable species levels of Rhinoceros. Aside from the animals, the (quite literally) highlight is the cable car which runs around the zoo at a height of about 30ft and gives visitors a bird’s eye view into most of enclosures. Whilst offering a fairly unique perspective it also allows you to spot some of the more elusive creatures who often may not be seen through the windows as they’re hidden in the undergrowth and trees.
Finally a trip to Lisbon would not be complete without trying the local speciality Pasteis de Nata, which are better known to us as custard tarts. Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve never been a fan of custard tarts before, no doubt this stems from memories of what was served at school – cold, solid custard in a hefty and tough pastry – so I was a little wary. However (and forgive me for going all Mary Berry here) the ones we had were a delight – the custard was smooth and airy with a crunchy, crème brûlée style top, resting in light and crumbly pastry. Simply delicious, 100% recommended!