Yes, I’m in Lisbon; and yes, my first official stop of the day involves pastry. Don’t judge me. While I’m ready to argue my fixation with the warm, cinnamon-dusted custard tarts called pastéis de Belém is more addiction than casual culinary distraction, I no longer have any perspective on the issue.
When he realizes my destination, my husband simply shakes his head and follows me off the street into the tiled, fragrant interior of Antiga Confeitaria de Belem. Located not far from the waterfront in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, the bakery turns out an estimated 10,000 pastries on a daily basis, and if pressed, I will unashamedly point out I’ve directly contributed to the health of the local economy with my purchase of warm, sweet treats.
We finally leave, double checking our directions and making our way uphill along the uneven stone streets and alleys, stepping carefully on the tilted sidewalks that are the lasting evidence of the many earthquakes endured by this city. Winding ever upwards, the streets give way at the apex to the ruins of Castelo de São Jorge. Built in a Moorish architectural style, the castle sits atop a hill overlooking the red-tiled roofs of this city’s historic core, with views of the Tagus River glittering in the sunlight. Just beyond the portal entrance is a small square, and we linger in the warm air, gazing down at the bright warren of twisting streets before heading to the tram stop for the short ride to the old Baixa district.
We pause for coffee in the Nicola Café, famed for its past literary clientele, then wander across the sea of rippling black-and-white tiles that form the surface of Rossio Square. Here, just across from the Teatro Nacional, one of Lisbon’s most splendid fountains offers a watery respite from the heat. The wide square, edged by a busy street, is surprisingly quiet today, offering plenty of reason to relax for a bit on a stone bench, watching as the fountain’s spray, caught briefly in the air, forms arcing prisms of light.
A stroll along the wide shopping avenue of Rua Augusta ends beneath the massive Rua Augusta arch. Facing the waterfront and rising more than 100 feet from the ground, the beautifully ornate portal was originally intended to be a bell tower. A group of figures above the arch, designed by French sculptor Célestin Anatole Calmels, features the gigantic figures of Valor and Genius having honor bestowed upon them by the figure of Glory, all silhouetted against the cornflower blue of the Portuguese sky.
We’re staying at the Altis Belem Hotel & Spa, also located on the waterfront. We make the 20-minute walk at a leisurely pace, passing the famous Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument created to celebrate the country’s Age of Discovery — and anticipating dinner in the hotel’s Michelin-starred Feitoria Restaurant, where the menu of modern Portuguese cuisine was dreamt up by Chef João Rodrigues. The contemporary wood-and-glass design hotel seems to rise from the Tagus, nestled against a harbor filled with bright sails.
In the morning, we pass under the city arch and continue our sightseeing in Comercio Square. Here, the Santa Justa Elevator (also known as the elevator of Carmo) connects the lower Baixa neighborhood to the upper Bairro Alto district. A sort of funicular transport, it was designed by Raoul de Mesnier du Ponsard, an engineer who once apprenticed to Gustav Eiffel (best known as the builder of the Eiffel Tower in Paris).
Today is museum day, and we begin at the Museu Coleção Berardo. Just a block from the water, the complex is home to an immense permanent collection that explores more than 70 artistic movements from Dadaism, Expressionism and Surrealism to the Cubists and British and American Pop Art. Besides a constantly changing selection of temporary exhibitions, the museum’s anchor collection has more than 900 contemporary works by such artists as Max Ernst, Arshile Gorky, Alexander Calder, Man Ray and Picasso.
We spend time perusing a temporary photographic exhibit of works by Fernando Lemos. Taken in the years 1949–1952, the collection of black-and-white portraits were subjected to multiple exposures, creating a slightly otherworldly effect that seems to have intuitively captured the inner life of the subjects. Lemos concentrated on intellectuals and public figures from Portuguese society, and the resultant works offer a rare glimpse into a past world.
Back out in the sunshine, we make our way along the wide riverside path to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum), where the vast spaces of the former Madre de Deus Convent are devoted to the art of the decorative tile, called azulejo. Walking around Lisbon, it’s hard to miss the multi-hued tiles that adorn abundant exteriors, or the magical tiled scenes that appear on the walls of so many public interiors. The tiles tell tales of battles and sea journeys, and of exploration and Biblical stories. The museum houses an enormous permanent collection, and is actively involved in restoration projects around the city designed to save some of the oldest tiles, many of which have been damaged.
Once inside, we follow a path that leads to a display of materials used in the creation of the ceramic tiles, and which also explains the process all the way through the final glazing. From here, the route continues with examples of times from the 1500s to modern times, with lovely — and often moving — examples of this Portuguese art form.
It’s late by the time we’ve walked back toward the historic center, equipped with the address for a small local restaurant recommended by one of the museum guides, who couldn’t recall the restaurant’s name — only that it was owned by a man named Manuel who cooks everything on his menu from old family recipes.
By now, the shops have mostly closed, and it’s less crowded. The energy is different. As we slip into the smaller streets, the noise of the city and the rattling of tram cars recedes. Somewhere not far away, someone is singing; above us, a woman hangs a yellow dress on a laundry line suspended from her window. Hungry, we pause at the corner, looking for the street that leads to a place where fresh fish features on the menu, and cool green wine from the northern Vinho Verde region, ready to salute our days in Lisbon.
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