The week in October that the U.S. State Department and the media ratcheted up the conversations about imminent terrorist activities in Europe was the week we departed for Portugal. This was a trip that had been scheduled and rescheduled and rescheduled. Screw it! We needed to travel, see new places, people and things, and most importantly, road test some Wisecracker luggage. With just two carry-on bags for a 12-day trip, we flew Virgin Atlantic Upper Class to London, connected to TAP and arrived late in the evening at our rented apartment smack-dab in the middle of Barrio Alto in the old city.
The neighborhood of Barrio Alto is a hilly maze of winding, cobbled streets loaded with cafes, hip retailers and Audi A5s scraping their doors on high curbs as they maneuver the hood. Elderly Portuguese townies stand next to fashionistas next to local businessmen next to tourists like us at the coffee bars sipping bicas and noshing on pasteis de nata, which are habit-forming egg custard-filled tarts sold on every corner.
A city fix
For six days we wandered the neighborhoods of Lisbon, attempted to do at least one “cultural thing” each day, poked around the antique shops and churches, drank espumante and ate simple grilled salmon at lunch, napped, studied our maps, dodged turn-of-the-century streetcars, crashed Moda Lisboa (the equivalent of New York Fashion Week), made a day trip on the train to the storybook village of Sintra and tried to adjust our sleep clocks by watching back-to-back runway shows on Fashion TV waiting for our sleeping pills to kick in. This is an undiscovered city filled with culture, creativity, life and history.
Designer Insider places to see…
1 – The Ritz Lisbon (now managed by Four Seasons) is a 1959 midcentury masterpiece decorated in an interesting mix of Art Deco meets Louis XVI style. Common spaces are extravagant (in a good way) and accented with amazing color-filled, highly suggestive Picassoesque tapestries by José de Almada Negreiros. Cocktails at the bar for sure.
2 – Fabrico Infinito, one of those self-described “concept galleries” (which always makes me a little nervous), is pure tongue-in-cheek retail meets art meets fantasy. It all works, and you leave admiring the creativity, vision and guts that go into imagining products and an environment like this but also scratching your head and wondering who buys this stuff. Just go.
3 – Another wonderful and unexpected place is São Roque Antiguidades e Galeria de Arte, located on a street lined with traditional, predictable, dusty and expensive antique stores. The two-story gallery space marries Portuguese and continental antiques with pieces by contemporary Portuguese artists. Over-the-top 16th-century museum-quality gilt frames are repurposed with their original old masters’ work replaced by 1960s abstract paintings… Crane sculptures, exquisitely fashioned of expandable aluminum dryer vent hose, have heads of real bird skulls. Antiques reimagined and reinvented.
A country fix
With a few days to kill, we ventured out of Lisbon, across the impressive Vasco da Gama Bridge and into a different world. Decompression begins the moment you leave Lisbon and start driving east. An hour and 45 minutes later you are in the middle of the Alentejo. This sleepy agricultural region makes you imagine what Tuscany and Provence must have been like 50 years ago. Great plains of vineyards, forests of eucalyptus, cork trees and pine as far as you can see. The vistas are broken occasionally by ancient Moorish looking hilltop towns, each with their own castle of course.
For two peaceful nights our home was a tranquil, well-decorated hacienda just outside the village of Borba. At Monte da Fornalha crisp Portuguese linens dress the bed; artisanal jams, good coffee and cheeses are served at breakfast; candles light the garden paths at night. This is the best low-key, not in-your-face B&B experience ever.
We took short trips exploring local towns each known for something special, like antiques or fine linens or royal families or wine or sausages or aqueducts. Life here is very slow and authentic. The region and the Alentajanos are the butt of a thousand jokes about how lazy the pace is here. One goes: You can tell when an Alentejo man is finished with work…he takes his hands out of his pockets. For us, the tempo is just right.
Not to miss:
- Monte da Fornalha, our country home described above.
- Casa do Terriero do Poco, a lovely restored manor house in the middle of Borba. One of the owners, Rita, gave us an hour of her time to tour us around the series of interconnected buildings and gardens that is now an inn.
Last Word on Lisbon
As with almost all of our 21 years of “leisure” travel, nothing is ever scheduled or scripted… we wander. Wandering is the absolutely best way to discover a place and immerse yourself in the local scene.
A couple of observations: One, for the most part Lisbon (and Portugal for that matter) does not yet appear to be on the tourist radar screen. We saw almost no Americans in Lisbon or the countryside. And two, the Portuguese language spoken in Portugal sounds nothing like the sultry Portuguese of 1960s bossa nova. (P.S: Your Spanish does you absolutely no good in Portugal.)