Lisbon is one of those places my spouse and I’ve discussed on many occasions. It is intriguing because it is close to the things we love in Europe. But we seldom meet anyone who has been there. As an unexplored place we decided to visit as part of a recent trip to Spain. What we found was surprising. It is a city that has lagged behind Europe, but is now rushing headlong to join the crowd and maybe even differentiate itself with art neuveau hotels and restaurants.
We obtained a flight and hotel package from Expedia, not a usual approach for us, but the flights alone were very expensive from Madrid. We decided we only wanted to do an overnight and return to Madrid late the next day. Air Portugal is the least expensive means of getting to Lisbon from Madrid under that package and we were able to book into The Boutique Hotel on Figueira Street, which is right on the edge of the main attractions which are: The Castel de San Jorge, Se Cathedral, The Rossio and Baixa Shopping districts, which includes the Elevader Saint Justa elevated observation tower and the Bairro Alto, which is where one finds night life here. An area that is up and coming is the Chiado, where interesting restaurants such as Sacramento are changing the landscape of what neuveau cuisine represents.
At the modern art Boutique Hotel Figueira, where we stayed, we asked the concierge for some recommendations. She gave us two restaurants. The first was Populi, (Terreiro de Paco +351 916 722 753 www.populi.pt) which is down by the river near the statue of King Jorge I. He was the King of Portugal in the 1800s. We were greeted by Dimitri, a young waiter from the Ukraine, who speaks five languages and was very helpful in understanding the menu and their extensive wine list. He recommended for lunch that we try a tapas that included three kinds of cod, which is a staple of the Lisboa diet. He also recommended a plate of cheeses which included sheep and goat cheeses which were all excellent. We also had a bruchetta, which came with a flavorful olive tapenade, olive oil and herbed butter. This too was very good. With this we selected two different glasses of wine. In the process we rediscovered Alicante Bouschet grapes. One of the wines we selected was a Julian Reynolds blend which included Alicante Bouschet, Trincidero and Syrah. We both enjoyed this wine the best of the two we selected as it has a great bouquet and layered flavor.
After lunch we made a short visit to the cathedral, but after visiting Alhambra, Sagrada Familia and the Toledo cathedrals on this trip I’m afraid we didn’t spend much time investigating here. We then climbed the hill to the Castelo de San Jorge. You can take the street car, a tuk tuk, or cab up if you prefer not to walk. It is a long way up, but we found it not too difficult to make up in about fifteen minutes. About three quarters of the way up there is a terrace where you get excellent views of the riverfront. Once we reached the top we found the admission to be €8.50 and the tour in English goes out at 1:00 pm most days. We missed the tour, so took a map for a self-guided walk around. A little more than an hour later we had read the descriptions of what it was like to live in Lisbon over the ages in the museum, had viewed the artifacts that had been discovered and walked the walls of the fortress, even though about all that remains and has been restored is the walls. It was difficult really getting a good feeling for what living here was like during the various time frames discussed without more to the site than the walls. What did catch our attention was a flock of peacocks who put on a show for all who ventured by. That alone was worth the admission price.
We walked back down the hill and as we came into town again we found the Napoleao wine shops and gourmet at Rua Misericordia 121. They can be found at www.napoleao.co.pt. We went in and asked a woman if they had any Alicante Bouschet wines. Not only did she have some, but she was able to show me a variety that included 100% Alicante Bouschet or blends. We were very pleased at her wide knowledge of Portuguese wines. She ships wine anywhere in the world and has just a great inventory of wines including old wines back into the 1970s in some cases. This will be a find for me to occasionally stock up on the hard to get varieties from Portugal, especially the hard to find 2007 and 2011 vintages.
After a break to record my thoughts from the day at the hotel, we went back out to find the restaurant, Sacramento, which had been recommended by the hotel. We found it was booked solid and we could not get in. Absolutely the best recommendation. It is located on the ground floor of a convent near an up and coming square with several restaurants all with Carmo in their names as the square is Largo do Carmo. We wandered about for a while and since my spouse wanted a caprese salad of tomatoes and burrata cheese, we ultimately ended up at Populi again. This was fortunate for us as Dimitri, who had also served us for lunch recommended a Reserva bottle of Julian Reynolds and that we sample another group of tapas, which included the necessary caprese salad, phyllo, pork and mushrooms, pork with green peppercorn sauce and a white chocolate and raspberry dessert. In my nearly two weeks of wandering about Spain, I’d not had a dish as good as the green peppercorn pork. It was exactly the right blend of spiciness and sweetness. It blended perfectly with the Julian Reynolds Grande Reserva 2007. (www.reynoldswinegrowers.com).
The next morning we slept late as the hotel has blinds that make the room dark and we did awake to the sunrise. We stopped a block away from the hotel at Confitereria Nacional, which celebrated more than 130 years in business. It is an excellent pastry, bakery and sandwich shop with what appeared to be the largest range of selection in that area of Lisbon. We sampled a fruit dish, croissant and a meringue pastry for breakfast, even though it was a Sunday and most of the non-restaurant shops were closed. We explored the area north of the square in front of our hotel as everything the day before was south. Similar shops, but more ornamented governmental buildings, obelisks and theaters are in that area. One obelisk had memorials dating back to the 1630s when Portugal was a competitive sea power. We headed back to Populi at noon as we needed to take a taxi to the airport at 2:00. Since we were returning to the US the next day from Madrid, this would be our last major meal in Europe so we made lunch a reprise of the day before. Dimitri met us and suggested, we conclude our wine sampling in Portugal with a 100% Alicante Bouschet and recommended at Dour 2012, a producer I’d never heard of. Dmitri warned us that it would take a while for this wine to open up and breathe properly to experience the full taste. He was right as it took nearly an hour, but the wait was worth it as it expressed a bouquet and layers of flavor much different from the Julian Reynolds blend. Is this an everyday wine? No. But it was well worth experiencing a different combination of wine and foods. Of course we had the green peppercorn pork again, even though it was lunch time.
What did I learn about Portugal? That I didn’t do my homework before coming. It is doing its best to become a world class city. The stirrings are there. And while it may still seem behind the rest of Europe economically as you drive in from the airport, once you get into the city center things begin to change. There are pockets of uniqueness, modernity and tradition blended together. The people, the food, the history that upon further exploration creates an experience unlike any other city in Europe. The combination makes this a worthwhile visit. You just need to do your homework before going, be patient as you explore, and look for the opportunities. The people will help you find them.