Portugal 2018: Lisbon (Free As In Jazz Or Free As In Beer)
As I've mentioned before, I first visited Lisbon back in 2009. I brought back a souvenir for The Belated Birthday Girl - a t-shirt featuring a whimsical illustration of how the city's trams work. Which is odd, because I don't think I encountered a single tram while I was over there: I've looked at the route between the airport and the industrial estate I was trapped on for two days, and I wouldn't have crossed a tram line at any point on that journey. I'm guessing I saw the t-shirt at the airport and thought it was fun.
Nine years later, we finally got to ride on one. They don't have a plug on the end at all! This is just one of the many discoveries we made during our six days in Lisbon in late July. Here are a few more.
There are plenty of public transport options in Lisbon, and they're all covered by the Viva Viagem card... well, more or less. The smartcard system issued by the Carris network can be used on trains, trams, metros and buses, as well as the three funiculars and one elevator that help you cope with the multi-level nature of the city. But the catch is this: there are a variety of different one-day passes that cover various combinations of transport methods, and you can't hold two different passes on the same card simultaneously. At one point in the holiday, we end up carrying around three separate cards: one for metros and trams, one for the mainline trains out to Sintra, and a third for Sintra's independent tourist bus network. Be sure to find out exactly which pass you want, and how much it costs, before attempting to buy it from the ticket machine. On one occasion, some helpful staff offer to assist us at the machines, and then proceed to buy us the wrong bloody thing (which is partly why we end up with three cards).
As suggested right at the top of this page, the tram network is the main transport method tourists associate with Lisbon, particularly the circular route 28. Sure, it's fun to ride, but everyone else in the city is thinking exactly the same thing. If you try to get on one at the traditional jumping-on point at Martim Moniz after, say, 11am, then you could end up queueing for the best part of a couple of hours, while being constantly hassled by tuk-tuk vendors who'll offer you their services as a quicker, more expensive alternative. Your best option is to ride the 28 early or late in the day, taking it all the way out to Mercado de Campo de Ourique for some market shopping and a nibble before heading back. Alternatively, try the less popular 12 tram, which covers most of the central highlights and is much easier to get onto.
The image of the 28 tram appears over and over again during our six-day visit: from the label on a bottle of disappointing local beer, to a surprise cameo at the Museu da Marioneta. I certainly couldn't have told you before this that Portugal had any sort of tradition of puppetry, but it does, and this museum puts the history of the nation's puppets alongside that of the rest of the world's. There's a wee digression into animated film right at the end, with a small model set and a digital camera arranged for you to try it for yourself. With The BBG operating the camera, and me pushing the tram along between frames, we create the short loop you see here.
There are plenty of more traditional sights to be seen around town, and the 28 tram will get you out to them. Although on the day, we use the aforementioned 12 instead to get out to Castelo de Sao Jorge, which is a terrific castle with a few bonus features - glorious views from its battlements over the city, and an even better view courtesy of its camera obscura. The ticket price for the Castelo gets you a tiny discount on entry to Teatro Romano, a nice little exhibit based around the old Roman theatre excavated in the late 18th century. A little further afield, a hop on the Metro takes you out to the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, with its combination of free and paid art exhibits: just be aware that the exhibition is spread over two buildings, with several hundred yards of grounds separating them. By the time you've walked from the Modern Collection to the Founder's Collection, the latter may already be closed.
For anything further afield, you're generally looking at the trains out of Rossio station. One of the key destinations is Sintra, home to some of Lisbon's loveliest buildings - but like the 28 tram, if you're going there in mid-July you won't be the only ones. The rail journey there isn't actually too bad: but with the queue for a local bus pass, the queue for the bus, the slowness of that bus, and the ridiculously long queue at the other end, a full three hours elapse between us getting off the train and finally walking through the entrance of the National Palace of Pena. It's incredibly pretty, sure, but the huge number of people there means that you're herded through at a pre-defined pace and never get the chance to stop and look at anything for very long. By comparison, the much smaller Sintra National Palace is less busy, more fun, and has wonderfully distinctive chimneys. If you've got time, your Sintra bus pass can take you out as far as the beach at Cascais, if you enjoy that sort of thing.
The other option is to take the commuter ferries out to other parts of Lisbon - you can put the reasonable return fares on your Viva Viagem pass, and they're much more convenient and cheap than the Lisboat cruise tours. One of the ferries goes from Cais de Sodre to Cacilhas, which is a pretty ride in its own right with great views of the bridges and the Rioesque statue of Christ. At Cacilhas, the main attraction is the splendid old ship Dom Fernando II e Glória, moored a few minutes walk away from the port. By comparison, the ferry crossing from Belem out to Porto Brandão is rather dull, and the destination has nothing of interest at all. Belem itself does have a couple of nice features, though: the one you'll immediately spot while on the ferry is Padrao dos Descobrimentos, a gigantic monument with glorious views from the top of its tower.
Moving onto the subject of food and drink, a few notes on Lisbon's craft beer scene. The best craft bar in town has to be the Duque Brewpub: you'll end up feeling every one of the 45 metres you have to ascend from street level to the bar, but its lovely atmosphere and entirely Portuguese beer selection make the climb worth it. Cerveteca Lisboa has an even better range from all over, but is so discreetly styled that we walk past it several times without even noticing it. Lisbeer is decent enough, though surprisingly empty on a Saturday night: Beer Station has some good selections, balanced against the lack of atmosphere you'd associate with a station bar. The most bewilderingly bad one is Pub Lisboeta, which initially claims to have no local beer at all before grudgingly giving us a bottle they've been hiding behind the light fittings. In each case, look out for local brewers like Dois Corvos and Mean Sardine as well as Duque's own brews, while maybe steering clear of 8a Colina (responsible for the beer mentioned earlier with the tram on the label, as served at Pub Lisboeta). Alternatively, if you're just looking for a glass of wine and some lumps of cheese, The Old Pharmacy in Bairro Alto does the job perfectly.
If we're going to talk about eating in Lisbon, well, that's where The Belated Birthday Girl comes in. This will take a while, because we ate quite a lot.
Our first meal in Portugal fittingly was a breakfast of pastels de nata bought at the Apolonia station café. They had a good deal with 6 for the price of 5. Accompanied by a cup of coffee, this set the pattern for many of our breakfasts over the next 6 days in Lisbon. But as well as pastries and breakfasts, we had many excellent lunches and dinners.
There isn’t room to talk about every meal, but the first to mention was dinner at Ribadouro where we indulged in a shared crab and bread as the couvert – something to note in Portugal is the practice of putting food down on the table before you order, which you will be charged for if you eat it, but not if you don’t – followed by some traditional Portuguese mains. My gambas à bras, slightly less traditional than the bacalhau version, was a very tasty combination of prawns, fried matchstick potatoes and eggs, while Spank went for the carne Portuguesa, which was pork cubes with fried potatoes and pickled vegetables. Both were very good. We washed the meal down with two Sagres beers from their faux craft range, one Bohemia Original and one Bohemia Trigo, which weren’t bad, although we were to have better actual craft beers later. The attractive and stylish surroundings of the dining room in Ribadouro made for a very enjoyable setting for a pretty decent first night’s dinner.
Another traditional Portuguese meal which I was adamant we have was an arroz de marisco – the Portuguese cousin to the better-known Spanish Paella - and we found an excellent place for one, just on the edge of the Bairro Alto, at Adega de Sao Roque. We ordered the small size and a portion of calamari, sharing both. When the arroz arrived, we thought they had made a mistake and brought the large, so big was the portion. The seafood was excellent, plump and juicy, and the rice nicely done with still enough bite. This time our beery accompaniment was Super Bock’s faux craft, 1927 Bengal Amber IPA. When the bill came, confirming our portion was indeed the small size, we were confirmed in our view that we had chosen very well. A lot of places deeper into the Bairro Alto were packed, but Sao Roque had plenty of room, and with good food and generous portions it is somewhere I would definitely recommend.
We ate in a few markets in the course of the holiday, but the Time Out Market stands out as being a bit different. The various stalls set up around the edge of this food hall inside the Mercado da Ribeira at Cais do Sodre are all chosen by Time Out Lisbon and include many top chefs. There are a lot to choose between, but we settled on the stall of Chef Alexandre Silva. Spank chose the risotto negro with scallops, which might well have been my own choice if I hadn’t been taken by the idea of another twist on a traditional dish, the pica pau de atun - basically a tuna version of the meat with pickles that Spank had at Ribadouro, although a lot more modern in its presentation. This seemed a good meal to drink wine with, so Spank chose the red Quinta Sao Jeronimo, and I felt it was time for a rosé, so I went for the Rosé Barranco. It was all so nice that we decided to stay for another drink, one glass each of Selo Tinto and Dois Terroirs.
One of the best discoveries of the holiday was the Taberna do Vilarinho which we just came across wandering the streets near the castle looking for somewhere for lunch. It was enough off the tourist trail, but still looking lively when we arrived, with a large Portuguese party taking up a long table who seemed to be having a great time. The menu was in Portuguese only, but the helpful and friendly staff explained each dish to us. We ended up sharing – apart from me not eating the meaty dish - a meal of tiborna bacalhau, ovo farinheir (eggs cooked in the fat from the sausages they're served with) and beldrodegas (cheese and fig salad), with excellent bread and glasses of local white wines, and rounding the meal out with a couple of coffees. All the food was delicious, and the service was excellent.
Although I prefer to eat local cuisine whenever I can, the night we went to the Calouste Gulbenkian to see John Zorn, our research turned up Ground Burger as not only one of the closest options, but also having a great selection of craft beers. The food - veggie burger with fries for me, and the burger of the month (Black Angus, fresh goat cheese with peanuts, padrone chili and caramelized peach with basil) with fries for Spank - was imaginative and really well executed, and the range of local craft beers was extensive. Between us we had a Matine from Dois Corvos, a Hipster Monkey from Bolina, a Vila Maria from 8a Colina and a Roasted Rye from Dois Corvos (again). This was probably the point at which our love of Dois Corvos as a brewery was formed, and also where our view that 8a Colina wasn’t so great was confirmed. If you’re considering burgers in Lisbon, you could do far, far worse.
One place we knew we wanted to eat in before we even left for the holiday was Sol e Pesca. Not only was this mentioned in our guidebooks, but it has come up in an episode of Travel Man with Richard Ayoade and Adam Buxton travelling to Lisbon. The USP of Sol e Pesca is that it specialised in tinned fish and seafood. There are lots of shops in Lisbon that sell a vast range of tinned fish, but Sol e Pesca decant your choices and serve them in style, along with accompaniments. We chose and shared tinned codfish (bacalhau lascas c/ grao), tinned cuttlefish (pota c/ alho) and tinned mackerel (cavala petiscada c/azeitona amendoa), with bread and half a litre of wine. It all made for a fun and tasty lunch.
I have to make a brief mention once again of pastel de nata, as we had examples on the same day from two of the most famous producers of the delicious little egg custard tarts. Manteigaria have their main shop in the Bairro Alto, but they also have a café in the Time Out Market, where we had a couple of pastels each plus coffee for breakfast. The other shop which is absolutely famous for them, so famous that there is a huge queue down the street for the take-away service, is Antiga Confeitaria de Belem. We joined the queue and bought a pack of 4 pastels to take away – although when we opened it later on the train, we found somehow we actually got 5! The other thing we noticed when we opened the box is they were still warm. This was over an hour after we’d bought them, so they must have been piping hot when bought – and I later realised this was part of the point of the Belem shop, and no doubt why the queues are so long. Which was best? To be honest, I can’t say, but the fact that the Belem ones are served hot would probably be a point in their favour. They were definitely both very good, but possibly having so many egg custard tarts on the same day isn’t the most balanced diet.
One other non-Portuguese meal we had which was really good and worth a mention was dinner at Peruvian restaurant Qosqo. Peruvian food was very fashionable in London a couple of years ago, although that seems to have calmed down a bit lately, but the bright décor and interesting menu enticed us into Qosqo for what turned out to be a very tasty meal. We didn’t want anything too huge (partly because of all the pastels we’d had that day!), so we decided each just to have a causa – where the food comes stacked on top of mashed potatoes. Spank chose the variety with tuna, while I went for the octopus, although we both had a little of each other’s. Both were very nicely done, and visually very appealing, too. We accompanied the food with a couple of cha lima lemon teas, and it all worked very nicely for a light meal at the end of the day.
If you are in the area around the back of the top of the Santa Justa lift and looking for lunch, there are a number of options, but we ended up picking Carmo, and had a tasty lunch of Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato - clams in white wine and garlic – and Ovos Mexidos Esparagus – scambled eggs with asparagus. All the outside tables were gone when we arrived, but the atmosphere inside the restaurant was refined, and it made for a pleasant lunch.
Our final meal in Lisbon was slightly in memory of Anthony Bourdain. Cervejaria Ramiro is a seafood restaurant which serves extremely fresh seafood, and which Bourdain visited for his No Reservations show, giving it glowing reviews. It is extremely popular, and when you go there, you get given a number – non-sequential, to defend against cheating or touts – and have to wait until you are called. Wait times are often around 90 minutes, but we got in after a little over an hour. Once inside, the entertainment continues in watching people ordering lobsters, which are then fished out of the tank (soaking those seated next to them in the process), and flung through the air across to the kitchen. We didn’t go for a lobster ourselves, but chose a variety of seafood consisting of more clams in white wine and garlic (because they didn’t have the other clams we wanted), some prawns in their shells, and a pair of extremely tasty grilled giant prawns, accompanied by bread and washed down with draught beer. There are people who say this is the best seafood restaurant in Lisbon. I really wouldn’t know about that. But it’s definitely worth the wait, and made a great final meal of the Lisbon leg of the trip.
A few arty things to wrap up our visit. When you think of Lisbon, what kind of music do you think of? Well, you're wrong, especially if you're there in the summer: Lisbon has a surprising amount of jazz going on at that time of year, with two festivals running concurrently during our stay. The biggest one is Jazz em Agosto (despite its name, it starts in late July), which typically dedicates a week or two to a single theme. This year, that theme is American free jazz saxophonist John Zorn, and the opening night concert - held in the open air at the Gulbenkian Amphitheatre - features the man himself with a six-piece band, led by Thurston Moore on guitar. (The video features a few seconds snatched from their soundcheck.) A replica of the Stone Improv Nights Zorn regularly holds in New York, the show features the seven musicians performing as a series of small sub-groups, a bit like comedy improvisation troupes do. It means each number has its own unique texture: when Moore and fellow guitarist Matt Hollenberg get together it's a wall of electric noise, but the later addition of third guitarist Mary Halvorson forces them to dial back the racket and get more subtle. All the combinations work wonderfully, but inevitably it's the ones featuring Zorn that work best - either blasting at full tilt in a traditional sax/bass/drums trio, or honking through his instrument's severed mouthpiece while Moore attacks his guitar with actual screwdrivers.
Elsewhere in town later in the week, there's the other type of free jazz - a weekly series of concerts in parks under the banner of OutJazz. Thankfully, the good weather we've been getting all week holds up on this Sunday afternoon, and we manage to grab a couple of free beanbags under an umbrella. Today's act is vocalist Adilan Ferriera, who achieves the perfect degree of laid-backness for the setting with his jazz-funk-hip-hop hybrid tunes, only really surprising you with the way every song suddenly comes to an abrupt halt. At the end of his hour-long set, he wheels out his new single Tulipas, and suddenly a couple of English words appear in his Portuguese between-song banter - "Spotify! iTunes!" It encourages a little crowd of manic dancing kids to assemble in front of the stage and give the climax a bit of a boost.
But normally, you don't think of jazz in this city - you think of fado, the hyper-emotional folk tunes that are the traditional music of Portugal. Finding fado in Lisbon isn't a problem: but finding fado that's worth your time is, as many places will notoriously rip you off with high cover charges, terrible drinks and substandard music. You'll get served Super Bock beer at A Tasca do Chico, but in all other departments it's pretty great. As a result, it's hard to get into - you may need to get your hotel to phone ahead and book a table, or do what we did and get in around 7.30pm to blag standing space at the bar. The show typically starts at 8.30, with 15 minute sets alternating with 15 minute gaps (at least that's how it works the night we're there). Carla Linhares is our vocalist for the evening (assuming the CD we bought from her afterwards is really hers), accompanied by two guys on guitars, and occasionally replaced by a bloke we suspect might actually own the place. Apart from a group of noisy English women who keep standing in our way and talking, it's a fine night out, especially as the singers remember that we're standing behind them and frequently perform in the direction of the bar.
Finally, to reassure regular readers, of course we got to see some local movies while we were in Portugal. At the Cinemateca, Lisbon's lovely repertory house dedicated to Portuguese movies, there's a perfect double bill that's part of an ongoing season of English-subtitled classics. There aren't many directors from whose work you could programme a pair of films made 80 years apart, but Manoel de Oliveira is one of them: we get his early silent short Douro, Faina Fluvial (Labour On The Douro River, made in 1931) followed by his late-career feature Porto da Minha Infancia (Porto Of My Childhood, made in 2001). In an amusing change to the advertised programme, we're told at the start that Douro, Fainal Fluvial will not have the advertised English intertitles, as they only found out at the last minute that their English print is on nitrate film and could EXPLODE at any minute. There's only one Portuguese intertitle at the start, so it's not that much of an issue anyway. It's hugely experimental for its time, with crazy angles, a fast-moving camera, and dramatic vignettes interwoven into its otherwise documentary view of a day in the life of a river. Porto da Minha Infancia is more a record of an old man's rambly memories, featuring dramatisations of de Oliveira's younger self, archive film, old songs, and shots of how the city of Porto looks now. There are even some neat callbacks to the earlier short to tie the whole programme together.
The reason why it's a perfect double bill for our purposes? Because just a week after that, we get to see the Porto locations from these films in person. But that's going to be part three...