It was a late decision to go….but it was a great one. Lisbon is a magical coastal city infused with influences from all corners of the world. With an epic history that includes, a moorish invasion, an earthquake, seafaring adventurers and colonial treasures this city is a patchwork of many cultures and flavours. It is absolutely charming and for a city break it proved surprisingly relaxing. Here are just a few of the highlights from our trip.
The city is set on steep coastal cliffs and you are struck immediately by the idea of a mini San Francisco (not that I have ever been there) but Lisbon has lovely old wooden trams everywhere and even a suspension bridge spanning the mouth of the bay. However it is in fact one of the oldest cities in the world (only Athens is older) and was way ahead of London and Paris on the timelines. First inhabited by Germanic tribes, then captured by the Moors who invaded in the 8th century and stayed for around 450 years, it was finally retaken by the Crusaders in 1147. It had a golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries when the ‘age of the explorers’ and heroes such as Vasco da Gama who brought wealth and treasures, spices and gold from colonial conquests and voyages of exploration. The trade routes with Africa, India, Japan and Brazil brought a vast fortune to the country and it flourished. A devastating earthquake in 1755 destroyed much of the city, but it afforded the opportunity to redesign and rebuild a more modern layout and this is what you see today.
We spent the first day wandering around the Alfama quarter. From the castle there are spectacular views across the city as it cascades down to the sea front and the magnificent Praca Do Comercio square. We loved all the cosy bistros tucked away - such a refreshing change from the chain restaurants the plague the british high streets. My absolute favourite meal of the holiday at Bistro Gate Pardo with it’s yellow walls and comfortable style. In fact the food in Lisbon generally was a wonderful surprise for me - a fusion of traditional and colonial tastes, with influences from Cape Verde, Brazil, India and Africa. The fruity dishes with a bias towards seafood and light wines were just delicious.
We came across this delightful cafe fashioned from an old tramcar by accident, but it was a charming stop for a drink and escape from the midday heat.
The city itself is a stack of whitewashed, terracotta roofed buildings many of which had the fantastic Azulejos ceramic tiled walls. It was delicious eye candy for a quilter! The geometric patterns are intrinsically middle eastern, however the colours are soft and fruit like, with golden yellows and lime greens, peach hues and marine blues and creamy whites they reflect the landscape and lifestyle of the Portuguese.
The ceramic artists used this art form to tell stories….
Or create cozy corners and window seats.
Some of the other highlights of the week included a visit to the beautiful Maritime museum in the Belem quarter. This was a magnificent tribute to the epic seafaring history of the nation and included beautiful maps and the best collection of model boats and ships I have ever seen.
I found this map to be rather inspirational - I wonder if I could make an embroidery like this.
It is easy to just wander around Lisbon and soak up the ambiance of this pastel paradise. The churches were splendid with marble interiors and inlaid floors.
There are hidden treasures everywhere. Behind an unprepossessing door, Casa do Alentejo revealed a fabulous moorish style interior from 1919.
One of the very best things to see in Lisbon is the Gulbenkian Museum. This was unexpected. It is a vast museum built in the 1960’s to house an immaculate collection. Born in Scutari in Turkey in 1869, he came to be known as Mr Five Percent in his lifetime - one of the richest men in the world in the 1920’s with his 5% share in four major oil companies including Shell. He lived largely in London and Paris and died in 1955 leaving behind the most staggering collection of some of the finest arts and crafts in the world. Despite it’s size, the interior is not what you imagine - spacious and uncluttered, it is curated in a most relaxing way. Each item has plenty of space around it so you can focus on the objects and appreciate their breathtaking beauty. This guy wasn’t just a collector….he handpicked the finest things in the world. There were small collections of almost everything, furniture, painting, ceramics, rugs, textiles, silverware and glass. Here are some of my favourites.
This delicately painted ruby glass jug was perhaps the thing I loved the most though.
Although this painting was a close second - the colours and the subject matter are so vibrant.
After several hours in the museum we emerged into the baking afternoon sun and started to walk back to the city centre through the park named for our King Edward V11. Almost immediately we stumbled across the most perfect place for lunch.
One of the best things about taking a week in Lisbon is that you can break up the sightseeing cultural overload by going to the beach. We simply took the overground train the chugged along the pretty coastal track for about 40 minutes to Estoril. You practically step off the train and on to the beach. We spent two separate days here and it was the perfect antidote to the city. There are restaurants along the seafront and both days we stayed until sunset.
I would have to say that it is a city that has everything for the visitor. It was such a surprise to me and we certainly haven’t done everything that is there - not least Sintra. So I hope very much that we will return. When I got home I was felt very inspired by the colours of Lisbon and looked through my stash to find some fabrics that might tell it’s story….it was easy to find them. I have plans…..
My recommendations to visit are:
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian
Mosteiro dos Jeronimous
Sao Vicente de Fora Monastery
Casa do Alentejo