Enjoy a festive city break in Alfama, Lisbon

On the eve of the feast of St Anthony, Lisbon becomes a spectacular street theatre

By Simon Rocker, March 12, 2009
A view across Lisbon’s red-topped roofs to Alfama, the Moorish district

A view across Lisbon’s red-topped roofs to Alfama, the Moorish district

From atop their pillar, the Marqués de Pombal and his pet lion survey the preparations taking place for the night’s festivities. It is the eve of the Feast of St Anthony, patron saint of Lisbon, on June 12, and along Liberty Avenue, beer stalls, barriers and spectator stands have been put up for the parade.

My wife Karen and I are in the Portuguese capital to enjoy a belated 10th anniversary getaway in the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz. From our balcony, we can see — across the lilac jacaranda trees in Eduardo VII Park — the towering monument to Pombal, who rebuilt the city after the 1755 earthquake and, incidentally, lifted restrictions on New Christians, the descendants of Jews forcibly converted in the Middle Ages.

Come night, and the stately boulevard of shops and hotels becomes a street theatre for the procession of extravagantly costumed young men and women vying on behalf of their neighbourhoods to win the annual Marchas Populares. Down the avenue they step, the women hands on hips that rock to traditional tunes thumped out by marching bands; some twirl brightly coloured parasols ringed with hearts, others bear aloft guitarras — the lute-shaped Portuguese guitar — mounted on tinselly standards like portable shrines.

With its winding alleys and paved squares, Lisbon is a city to explore on foot. But beware taking the wrong shoes. Not only is it incredibly hilly but the cobbled pavements are such to make flat shoes an imperative for women visitors and promise orthopaedic surgeons a killing.

Our first excursion, to Alfama, the old Moorish district, took far longer in the midday sun than the half-hour we had planned for. We were forced to break at the Pastelaria da Suiça, one of the cafés that open into the impressive Rossio Square. Here I renewed my previously ambivalent acquaintance with bacalhau, salted cod and stuff of ancient Portuguese mariners, which this time came in a rather tasty kugel of potato, onion and breadcrumbs.

The Four Seasons’s Varanda restaurant

The Four Seasons’s Varanda restaurant

Rossio seemed a happy concourse of tourists, strollers and office-workers meeting for lunch, bordered at one end by the imposing neo-classical façade of the Donna Maria II National Theatre. It was hard to remember it was once the epicentre of one of the worst antisemitic outrages in medieval Europe, where, in April 1506, the bodies of Jews burned after a three day-pogrom that left thousands dead.

Ascending the Alfama, twisting and turning through the narrowest of lanes, we passed housefronts decorated with azulejos, the distinctive blue-and-white tiles, with the waft of sardines from bars the size of kiosks drifting into our nostrils.

At the summit stands one of the city’s finest monuments, the Castle of St George, a Moorish citadel and medieval royal palace that was restored in the 1930s. From its ramparts stretch awesome views of the red-topped roofs of the city, the bay and, across the Tagus, a smaller version of Rio de Janeiro’s landmark statue of Jesus, at Cacilhas.

As we made our way down, stumbling into the excavations of a Roman amphitheatre, we suddenly caught the sharp rap of military drums, as if a ghostly battalion had rumbled out of the past. Following the belligerent clatter, we traced its source: a youth band was saluting the dozen, village couples who are traditionally married on the saint’s day as they departed the cathedral in vintage cars.

After pounding the hilly cobbles all day, what better way to unwind than in the spa of the Four Seasons, a softly lit sanctuary of wood and marble devoted to the art of de-stressing. After a pre-dinner dip in the lap-pool, I laid out on a lounger with a chapter of Kalooki Nights and a glass of iced mint tea. Karen, meanwhile, yielded her weary muscles to a “city of the seven hills” massage at the expert hands of Fatima.

The spa is one of the pleasures of the hotel which lived up to expectations in every way, with its refined grandeur and imperial service. Its lobby, lounges and public spaces double as a gallery displaying a collection of modern Portuguese art largely from when the hotel was built in the 1950s. Among the most impressive, a Centaur stretching beneath the stars in one of the vast tapestries that animate the walls, and a mural celebrating the harvest in gold leaf on black marble.

If you can afford them, the presidential and four other suites recreate the splendour of 18th-century craftsmanship. Our own de luxe room was a study of spacious comfort, designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon with traditional touches such as replica 19th-century Portuguese furniture. Guests more dedicated to fitness might have begun the day at the rooftop fitness centre and running track which afford fine views of the city.

We headed straight to the Varanda Restaurant and a breakfast table which repaid prolonged indulgence; omelettes and quiches, pancakes and waffles, and, of course, pastéis de natas, the prized national patisserie, the creamy custard tarts, of which the hotel’s were — according to Karen, a growing connoisseur — simply the best.

One night we fine-dined at the Varanda on white asparagus soup, Dover sole and bass cooked to perfection, and chocolate mi cuit: the chef sent out tasters of strawberry gaspazio and cucumber sorbet and the sommelier recommended an excellent Verdelho, a local dry-white. At lunch, we popped into the restaurant, not to eat but to admire the artistry of the buffet.

The Four Seasons is within a comfortable stroll of the Amoreiras Shopping Centre and the Gulbenkian Museum with its collection of Lalique. A Lisboa card will get you round the easy-to-use network of trams, tube and buses and free access to many museums. There was no time for an out-of-town trip to the palaces at Sintra but we took a cable-car over the river at the Parque das Nações, a modernised waterfront with a multitude of restaurants and bars.

Mostly, we were happy to meander, enjoying the sights as we passed them: the unexpected magnificence of Commerce Square: the taverns of the Bairro Alto at night, where the fado singers sing their dolorous songs and the fish is barbecued in the street.

However short your city-break, not to be missed is the historic maritime district of Belém, from where Vasco da Gama set sail for India in 1497. Here you can visit the Jerónimos Monastery — where his remains now lie — a showcase of Manueline (late gothic) style: its cloisters are especially beautiful, with turrets like barley-sugar twists and stone lit almost white by the brilliant sunlight.

Here also is the famous patisserie said to be the original home of patéis de natas; the Berardo Museum of Contemporary Art, opened in 2007, whose pale stone echoes Jerusalem; and the 500-year old Tower of Bélem at the water’s edge. On the tower you can still make out a carving commemorating the landing of a rhinoceros from India in 1515. Alas, the beast later perished in a shipwreck while being delivered as a gift to the pope.

Travel facts

The Four Seasons Hotel Ritz (www.fourseasons.com/lisbon ; 00800 6488 6488: or res.lisbon@fourseasons.com) has double rooms from ¤300 (£268) per night including breakfast. Until April 30, guests staying three nights will get the fourth night free, or sixth and seventh nights free if staying five nights. TAP Portugal Airlines (www.flytap.com; 0845 601 0932) operates 43 weekly flights from Heathrow and Gatwick, with fares from £54 one-way. Info on tourism, at www.visitlisboa.com

Jewish Lisbon

● After the expulsion in 1497, Jews began returning in the 1800s. The Lisbon community is around 300-strong.
● The Comunidad Israelita de Lisboa (www.cilisboa.org) and a Maccabi club (001-351-213-31130) run activities. The website includes info on finding kosher food.
● Lisbon has an Orthodox Sephardi synagogue, Shaaré Tikvá (59, Rua Alexandre Herculano, 001-351-213-58604). Built in 1904, it is open weekdays and for Shabbat and festival services.
● A new Masorti group, Kehillat Beit Yisrael, meets at the Ashkenazi Ohel Yaakov Synagogue (103, Rua Filipe da Mata) and includes descendants of crypto-Jews who have returned to Judaism: (www.beitisrael.org; 001-351-217-975283).
● Episode Travel runs ½ and full-day Jewish interest tours (www.episode-travel.com)

Last updated: 12:51pm, April 27 2009