LOOKING out over this bustling city of broad squares and narrow streets from the rooftop of the quaint Hotel Lisboa Plaza, tasty petiscos – Portugal’s version of tapas, in hand and head swimming pleasantly from a glass of strong, welcoming Madeira wine, it’s difficult to visualise the apocalyptic horror of it all.
But these splendid sun-baked avenidas, pracas and parques, broad avenues and squares with their intricate designs of white and black cobble underfoot, crisscrossed with miles upon miles of ‘electrico’ lines – trams to rival San Francisco – were the location of the deadliest earthquake in history.
In 1755, tens of thousands disappeared into the rubble of All Saints Day, then even more who fled to the open spaces of the docks were wiped away by the subsequent series of devastating tsunamis.
After fires engulfed what little remained and injury and disease took their turn, survivors set about constructing a completely new Lisbon, clearing rubble and razing miles of ruins within a year.
The result of that miraculous endeavor, once unrivalled in the world, now lays off across the rooftops in front of us, lost in the rising dusk down the palm tree shade of Avenida da Liberdade to the Baixa Pombaline, or Pombaline Downtown, as we polish off our impossibly delicious finger food.
They do love to eat in Portugal, a seemingly never-ending series of courses (so be careful not to fill up on the artisan-quality bread they often bring to start) and typical menus encompass the many cheeses and chorizos this country is famous for – but the seafood alone is worth the ticket price to get here.
Expect the kind of quality fare you’d only get in Ireland behind the doors of restaurants festooned with awards, where dinner for two would set you back a fortune before wine. In Lisbon, we were to learn, the tables creak with food and the wine is cheaper than chips.
On our night out we reluctantly leave behind our balmy rooftop garden bar to stroll down the nearby Avenida, skateboarders slipping by us as we cross for cocktails at our hotel’s sister, the majestic Heritage Av Liberdade, plush and modern but retaining a charming quality of retro chic with little touches like the city’s oldest tea shop still intact in its foyer, fragrant flower-petal and tea leaf cupboards still stocked.
This hotel, we hear, has been carefully refurbished around the antique, earthquake-proof, wooden frame of good old Marques de Pombala once again, who back in those early, post-disaster days, tested models of his buildings with troops who’d march on the spot, high on top, to simulate seismic shudders.
Now, stylish modern furniture, luxurious beds and Spartan, tiled bathrooms open out onto the building’s ornately railed balconies, outside of which the mild and summery scents of the evening streets are now filled with the promise of some of that fresh, delicious cooked seafood.
And you could do worse than begin any culinary exploration of Lisbon at Solar dos Presuntos on nearby Rua Portas de Santo Antão. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you how to find this buzzing eatery with its three lively floors above a window stuffed with shellfish, lobster and hanging haunches of presunto – the country’s melt-in-the-mouth, cured ham.
It may be a little pricier than the average for Lisbon – about €50 for three courses – but worth every cent for the experience. Here, all manner of typical Portuguese food flies by on platters balanced in the air in bunches by busy waiters, but we washed down more petiscos, bite-size helpings of cured meat, salad, fish and olives, with bottles of light, refreshing vinho verde, young wine from Portugal’s north and perfect for a summer evening’s drinking, before digging into Acorda de Mariscos – the risotto-like Lisbon dish of succulent rice and freshly-caught seafood.
Stepping back into the night, belts groaning, we can think of no better ‘digestif’ than a small glass of the local aguardente velha – or ‘old firewater’ – taking one of the nearby electricos up steep rails to enjoy it in a hilltop nook where we slipped in to hear heartrending ‘fado’ singers wail about fate and loss.
Next day, after a sound night’s sleep back at Hotel Lisboa Plaza – and there are few greater pleasures than waking up abroad, not recalling for a moment where you are, and stumbling over to pull open tall shutters to reveal the sunshine and smells of a continental city – we set off for a tour of some of that fiery history we’d heard so much about.
The Lisboa Story Centre doesn’t disappoint. Located on one side of the vast Terreiro do Paço by the banks of the Tagus, an entertaining self-guided tour with English-speaking headphones brings you through the genesis of the city, its many invaders and occupants, its role at the centre of an empire and its deadly destruction, then Phoenix-like resurrection. Bloody, brutal and brilliant.
Crossing the square to the tram stop afterward, we’re struck by a profound sense of place. Below our feet, we now realise, was once the Paço da Ribeira, the immense Ribeira Palace that crashed to the ground and was swallowed by monster waves that fateful day in 1755, burying thousands and frightening King Joseph I, who wasn’t even home that day, so badly that he spent much of the rest of his days living in a 100-room tent up in the hills for fear of being buried alive.
This city grows on you, is what I think to myself from the window of the electric tram as it trundles off like a little yellow toy along its tracks and we take in all class of city life at our leisure from the windows above those ringing rails for the next two hours.
Whether slap-up meals or real-life histories to rival Hollywood’s most epic end-of-world fantasies; music to raise the hair on your arms or wine and beer that’s going for a song – this is the only European city outside Paris I’ve had as much fun eating and exploring my way though in just a few short days.
‘Saúde, Lisboa!’ – ‘Cheers, Lisbon!’ We’ll be back for more, of that I have no doubt.
David traveled to Lisbon courtesy of Sunway, which offers two centre options to the Lisbon coast, with two nights in the Heritage Lisbon Hotel and five nights in the four-star Pestana Cascais Hotel from €879. Prices are per person and include flights, transfers, taxes, accommodation as stated and 20-Kilo checked bag. Fly to Lisbon from Cork and Dublin. For this and other great Sunway offers to over 70 destinations worldwide check out www.sunway.ie or phone Sunway 01-288 6828.