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Lisbon – The Food: Amazing Alma and the masterpiece of 100 Maneiras

You’d be excused from assuming, from the deterioration which is widespread on Lisbon’s streets, the chipped ceramics and the cracking plaster, the plethora of graffiti and the deserted algae-covered fountains, that the Portuguese would be a little behind on the food front too. But like so much of the underlying spirit of Lisbon, when it comes to trends, to creativity, to meeting the fashion vibes that spread through the most sophisticated cities of Europe, Lisbon is certainly plugged in to the undercurrent of cool.

When it came to food during our five days in Lisbon, we simply didn’t have a bad meal. Whether it be the freshest of all sushi at the Restaurante Confraria Lx and simple squid with vegetables sat out on the cobbled streets of the Baixa, to simple pastels de nata in any random street cafe of your choice, we were met with consistently high standards of food, the freshest of ingredients and prices which were half what you would pay in some neighbouring Spanish cities, let alone the outrageous excesses of London and Paris.

Of our evening meals – the sushi at Confraria Lx, followed by an evening spent in the charming surrounds of the Restaurante Olivier (where a tasting menu for starter plus a main course was only around 35 euros), two meals were absolute standout exceptions, so good in fact that I couldn’t resist but take photos aplenty and devote to them an entire post all of their own.

Alma – Henrique Sa Pessoa – Calçada Marques de Abrantes, 92 Santos – Lisboa

The first of the two was at Alma, the restaurant of fresh-faced Portuguese celebrity chef (who spent some of his time training at the Park Lane Hotel in London’s Mayfair). The restaurant itself is very small and VERY white – the chairs, tables, walls together with a rather hypnotic white cloud swaying suspended from the ceiling are all similarly, clinically white. This doesn’t make for the cosiest of atmospheres, but mercifully, with low lighting and due to the restaurant’s sheer popularity, we certainly felt warm and very welcome.

The service was faultlessly efficient, speedy but not rushed, and with perfect english spoken by all. We even got to meet the celebrity chef himself when I complimented him on the quality of the food – that personal touch sets this restaurant apart – in English celebrity chef-owned restaurants, you’d be lucky to get the “celeb” cooking in the kitchen at all, let alone greeting his guests.

So talking of that food, well avoiding the tasting menu for one evening (we had been stuffing ourselves rather royally during the preceding days) we opted for a set menu with the usual choice of starter, main and dessert. But normal this dinner was not. The quality of the wines (we opted for the chef’s choice of matching wines), the bread, the stylisation of the food – all was exquisite.

So to start, after home made flat breads and a rosemary and garlic foccacia, I opted for a starter of strawberry gazpacho (such a good combination of the acidic vinegary base coupled with the roundness and sweetness of the strawberry) with a little filo parcel of goats cheese, while my partner went for squid and prawns sautéed in garlic and chilli, with a cherry tomato compote and a rocket and parmesan salad.

To follow, the stakes were upped. I had an exquisite duck which was perfectly seasoned and marinated in chinese spices and sesame seeds together with a sweetcorn salad and little shiitake mushrooms wrapped in… what were they wrapped in? Cabbage? I can’t remember. Nonetheless it was delicious! My partner meanwhile opted for a roast fillet of cod with a chick-pea purée, chickpea vinaigrette, and roasted potatoes – a faultless combination of Portuguese flavours with an elegant twist.

For dessert, we shared a combination of the creamiest but not at all heavy raspberry and lemongrass crème brûlée with a coconut tuile (thus combining French classic with tropicana bay to dreamy effect), and a plum crumble with a coconut ice cream. And as if we hadn’t indulged ourselves enough then, dinner was rounded off with petit fours of salted caramel fudge and little chocolate truffles.

100 Maneiras – R. Teixeira 35, 1200-459 Lisboa

But as far as feasts go, Alma was just the starter to the gastronomical banquet which ensued. Read more

Lisbon – Day Five: Bye Bye via the Baixa

Four full days in Lisbon was, it turned out, a convenient little break in which to comfortably and conveniently explore the best of the city’s four main regions: the hill of Bairro Alto, the hill of Alfama, out to Belém and back to the large avenidas of the Baixa, splaying upwards from the Tagus and outwards North of the city in a valley between the two hills. Although this was officially our fifth day in the city, the first, once we had arrived, was more of an evening of orientation. Today, with our suitcases packed, and the Lx Boutique Hotel left behind, the bulk of the day reminded available for discovery, with an evening flight giving us time for one last Lisbon hurrah. It was to the Baixa we headed, perhaps mercifully so, as after four previous days of trekking up what are, at times, the steep streets of Lisbon, the Baxia provided plenty of spacious, flat boulevards and squares for us to explore with comparative ease.

Chestnut seller

The Baixa region is far more typical of a southern European city. Built in the aftermath of Lisbon’s deadly 1755 earthquake in a grid-like layout which allowed for wide sweeping avenues and grand open squares, the Baixa really shows off Lisbon to the full. This is where you find the opulent fountains, the monuments, the old palaces and the new shopping districts which are to be expected of a capital city. Here the buildings are largely Neo-Classical, grander and better preserved. The streets bustle not just with tourists but with the working masses of the city. And although the sun was shining hard, the many shops lining the grand boulevards were packed with Christmas goodies, while on the roadsides, chestnuts were being roasted pouring plumes of smoke into the air and spreading a distinctive warming smell of Christmas all around.

We began the day in the Praça do Municipio, and more particularly the City Hall, where an incredibly interesting, and free of charge photography exhibition examined Lisbon’s significant role during WW2. As a neutral country and on the edge of Europe, Lisbon became a place of escape from the toils of Europe. It handled the exile of significant numbers of escaping Jewish refugees, but was also a place of espionage, spies and political deals, as both Germany and England fought to keep the favour of Salizar and in particular ensure supplies of the natural minerals which, once mined, could prove significant to the production of weaponry during the war. But despite all of this, Lisbon retained some element of normality during a time of European strife. For those lucky enough to have escaped the rest of warring Europe, Lisbon was a place of relative tranquility, albeit laced with suspicion, full of secret police and suffering more and more from food shortages as the war went on.

Back in the modern world, and turning from the photos of black and white to the vivid blues of a Portuguese sky, the deep “royal” yellow of the old palace surrounding the impressive Praça do Comércio, and the reds and yellows of the old trams passing through the square, we headed to this former site of the Portuguese royal palace before it became administrative offices of the Republican government following Portugal’s 1910 revolution. Open on one end of the square to the glittering River Tagus beyond, we determined the square to be a perfect location for a coffee, sitting down to do just that while basking in the sun for as long as possible before our later departure to colder climes.

After coffee, we crossed under the impressive triumphal arch to the north of the square, up the Ruo Augusta and into the shopping streets and the great squares beyond. The decay and detrioration of much of Lisbon was not so obvious here, as grandeur dominated and scale took over.

In the Praça Dom Pedro IV, two huge working fountains made a marked contrast to the fountains further North in the city, left to go green with disuse. The square is flanked on one side by the eye-catching Neo-Manueline face of the Rossio Station, complete with two Moorish-style horse-shoe arches and, sadly, a Starbucks. To the North, another grand square, the Praça dos Restauradores boasts a grand obelisk, adorned with sculptures paying homage to those who gave their life during the War of Restoration, while to the East, the Praça da Figuera is home to hundreds of pigeons and the imposing statue of King João I. Here you can quite clearly see Lisbon in its heyday, the grand European capital which was saviour to so many during WW2. You can sense the splendour of the past and see history and grandeur oozing from every building facade and lamp post. And unlike many other European capitals, the squares of Lisbon benefit from the rolling topography of its surroundings, so that in every grand boulevard and Praça, a backdrop of the Alfama and the Castelo de São Jorge, or a straight vista to the sparkling Tagus, provides the visitor with a multi-layered feast for the eyes. A landscape rich in its historical and architectural diversity.

Both history and architecture collided to stunning effect in one of the last surprises of the trip. En route to the Rua de Santo Antão, famed for its fish restaurants, we passed through the Largo São Domingos, a little square sandwiched inbetween its grander neighbours, and, passing the fairly innocuous facade of São Domingo thought we may as well drop in. What we saw upon our entrance made me gasp out loud.

Unmentioned in my travel guide, and not at all obvious from the outside, the interior of this church made my heart miss a beat. Not because of the usual offerings of elaborate gilded beauty and over the top baroque decorations. Quite the opposite. Apparently (so I have learned subsequently), the church suffered a huge fire in 1954, with the result that its interior ornamentation, surface marbles, stone work – pretty much every embellishment was completely destroyed. Having never been renovated, but only the ceiling painted a terracotta orange, the church is utterly bare of all ornamentation, showing its raw and tender bruising and wounds with the dignity of a religious martyr; its statues now unrecognisable, its stone work covered in huge great cracks, holes and patches of damp and detritus. Where the sun streamed in through the southern windows and hit various aspects of the architectural damage, it looked like the church had been submerged for centuries under an ocean gloom, only recently recovered and showing the acid wounds of its salty submersion, or like the cobweb covered, partially decomposed wedding banquet of Dickens’ Miss Havisham. And this deeply inflicted damage was all the more obvious and painful because this church has not been left as ruins. Rather, as a fully used institution, the tidy pews and perfectly smooth ceiling mark a dramatic contrast to the wounds inflicted underneath. This was an unmissable experience, a moment of great epiphany and one which no visitor to Lisbon should miss.

So the day was proceeding fast, and all that really remained for us to do was to sit back, in the glaring autumn sunshine, and enjoy a perfect plate of squid and octapus and a few glasses of ice cold white wine, whiling away the remaining hours before the inevitable return journey began. Time to reflect on a grand tour through a compact but multifaceted city, from castles to rivers, and art museums to stunning churches; time to appreciate the wonderful Lx Boutique Hotel, the great food consumed, and the fantastic restaurants found to recommend and maybe return to one day; time to enjoy the heat of summer once more, before the start of a long frosty winter back in London.

Like the fall of autumn leaves on a windy November day, the scenes from that sun-drenched lunchtime are now dissipating away, as I sit here, returned to London, back in the darkness of a winter’s evening. Distracted by the work I must return to, the practicalities of ironing, and washing, and making myself food, my connection with my holiday grows weaker by the minute, as the warmth of the sun is forever shrouded in the weak light of November, and our shiny red cockerel is the sole remaining proximity to the spirited Portugal of our holiday’s brief acquaintance. But with this blog, my separation is tempered, my ties with Lisbon reforming as I reconnect through cyberspace and share my experiences with you all. Day five is over, but my memories have only just begun.

Still to come: Lisbon – the food, and many more photos. See you then.

Photographs and content © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lisbon – Day Three: The Prince of Belém

West of central Lisbon, in an area separated on the tourist map by a large swathe of un-chartered city (at least by the travel guides – presumably the neighbourhood is deemed unattractive to tourists) is the area of Belém. It’s quite a hassle to get to. You need to take a tram (or a taxi which actually, so we found, doesn’t cost all that much more) which, sadly, is not one of the rickety old pre-war types, but a modern sleeker affair (well I say sleek by way of comparison, but in fact most were covered with graffiti, their seats falling apart at the seams and the polythene sponge falling out). The tram journey we embarked upon was not altogether successful. The tram was rammed like the sardines for which Portugal is so famous, but the journey didn’t take us far. We got almost as far as the Ponte 25 de Abril before the tram stopped, without reason, and we were all unceremoniously ejected from the tram. Not knowing an alternative way to travel, and being literally shooed away by the driver of the equally packed tram behind, we set out on foot. This took us under the mightly Ponte 25 de Abril which literally towered above the streets of this Lisbon suburb. In fact it looked as though the various concrete plinths holding up the bridge were planted in people’s gardens, as the huge red metal form soared right above an entire residential district. It made for quite a paradoxical sight.

Having walked past the bridge, and with Belém still some distance away, we were lucky enough to coincide with the arrival of another, much emptier tram as it approached a bus stop. We were away. And we even got a seat, albeit no longer cushioned by the long disintegrated polythene padding that once sat upon it.

In no time we had arrived at Belém. Situated at the mouth of the River Tagus, where the river opens out into the vast Atlantic Ocean and the end of continental Europe, the region is inextricably linked with Portugal’s golden age of travel and discovery. As a result, the area has sprung up with a surprising wealth of monuments, churches and gardens despite its distance from central Lisbon, and is consequently a must of the tourist trail. Amongst those many monuments is the more contemporary and yet no less striking Monument to the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos). Standing prominently on the Belém waterfront, the immense angular monument was built in the 1960s to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator and features likenesses of many of Portugal’s great Discoverers, including Vasco de Gama and Pedro Alvares Cabral (the discoverer of Brazil). Having been commissioned by the Salazar regime, it’s not surprising that it is quite blatantly arrogant in its prominence and unapologetic  historical propaganda, and it has something of a look of a communist monument about it. Still, there’s no denying its impact, nor the splendour of its location, overhanging the Tagus against a backdrop of the 25 de Abril bridge.

Bolstered by the good weather, and having gawped to our satisfaction at the Discoveries monument, we headed on a pleasant river-side stroll, stopping off at an Ibiza-esk all white chic waterfront bar for a requisite morning coffee and a touch of sun-inspired abandon. Next on the agenda though was the Torre de Belém, a little fortress emerging straight out of the sandy beach like a child’s sandcastle, but with all of the strength of the war machine and guardian of the city which was its design and purpose. For a fortress, the tower was surprisingly elegant in its intricate stone work and heavily adorned terrace, whose balustrades and battlements were of such varying shapes and sizes that they reminded me of the chimneyed rooftop of Gaudi’s Casa Mila in Barcelona.

Up a very steep and very narrow winding staircase, with regular stops as tourists attempted to squeeze past each other with unfortunate proximity (there was sadly no one-way system – these castles weren’t built for tourists, after all) we eventually made it to the top terrace. Ahh, up there with the sun on my face and the brisk ocean wind ruffling my hair, with a view across the Atlantic, sweeping down towards central Lisbon and the vibrant red suspension bridge beyond, I felt like the Prince of Belém, guardian of the city, King of the Castle.

But of course all dreams must come to an end. I was, after all, being butted in the back by the large cameras of the bustle of overzealous tourists nearby, each one leaning over the battlements attempting to capture the best view of Lisbon and the Monument of Discoveries in the foreground. Time to leave, and back along the river, where a luncheon at Portugalia, a traditional affair, ensued, but with a picture perfect view of the Monument and a face full of sun. One can’t moan.

Belém is like a tourist paradise. There’s so much to see and do, and with light fading fast, we did not repose unduly. For the soaring towers and the elaborately crafted Mosterio dos Jerónimos awaited, a vast monastery complex which also benefited from the riches brought back to Portugal during the Age of Discovery, and rather appropriately hosting the burial place of one of the greatest discoverers of them all, Vasco de Gama. The Nave and the Portal of the large adjoining church were undoubtedly stunning, but my favourite area was the sun-soaked tranquility of the stone-wrought cloisters, engraved with a multitude of carved creatures and plants, geometric patterns and soaring gothic arches. Also there was the cute little lion-shaped fountain (dried up, like many of Lisbon’s water features), heraldic animal of St Jerome.

Almost ready to drop, but with one place more to go. The Museu Colecção Berardo Arte Moderna e Contemporânea is another cruicial stop on Lisbon’s art trail, an impressive collection of art from the business mogul and collector José Manuel Rodrigues Berardo which boasts some 1000 works and provides a rich compendium of a century of modern and contemporary art including Picasso, Dali, Warhol, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, Jeff Koons and, to my great pleasure, a huge swinging mobile by Calder. The gallery could easily compete with the almost unconquerable Tate Modern, not least because in guiding visitors through a chronologically curated ordering of modern art, it presented all visitors with a visually interactive education of the multifaceted changes which rocked the world of contemporary aesthetics.

Henry Moore

The Museum of Modern Art

Calder Mobile

Quite exhausted, we were in no mood for the tram. Leaving a sunset-softened Monument of Discoveries behind us, we rushed off along the riverfront in a taxi which cost us only 20 centimos more than the tram, and refreshed by the comparative convenience of the journey were much buoyed to find opposite our hotel a bar of utterly indulgent romantic boudoir-resembling beauty. Draped with lavish scarlet damask wallpaper, and crammed full with gilt-framed mirrors, chandeliers and art nouveau lighting of every size and variety, statuettes, an amplitude of armchairs, flickering candles and all species of paraphernalia straight out of the Versailles court,  this bar (appropriate called the Pensão Amorlooked more like a Moulin Rouge brothel, but was so excessively indulgent that as I sat there drinking tea, and then (inevitably) port, I began to redesign my entire hallway in my head to emulate it.

The lavish darkness of the Love Pensão

Can things get any better than this? Well they did at dinner – a feast fit for the Prince of Belém himself, in the restaurant of celebrity chef Henrique Sa Pessoa – AlmaBut let me lavish praise no further – that exquisite dinner needs a post all of its own. Until then… Let Lisbon sleep, and our feet recover in time for Day 4 of our own age of discoveries.

Photographs and content © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lisbon – Day Two: The Ages of the Sea

The super-soft bedding of the Lx Boutique Hotel made getting up difficult, even though one 90 degree tilt upwards would reveal a picture-postcard view across the city of Lisbon, over the Tagus towards the San-Francisco inspired scarlet-red suspension bridge, the Ponte 25 de Abril and the Rio inspired giant statute of Jesus puncturing the landscape beyond. Having made the leap of faith and breathed in the yellow-hued light of this bright new city, energy levels were replenished by a nourishing breakfast, back in the Japanese restaurant of the night before (which happens to double up as the hotel’s breakfast room) but (perhaps mercifully?) was not Japanese-themed for the morning shift. Rather a few pastries (but a decided lack of the Portuguese speciality pastel de nata) later and we were on our feet, making the climb up the steeply undulating streets of the Bairro Alto (high quarter), the cobbled and bustling shopping district atop one of Lisbon’s two central hills.

Cristo-Rei, seen from our room

And once the mist has cleared

The Lisbon of the morning is a different place to the Lisbon of night. By day, the city gains a vibrancy all of its own, as rickety old pre-war yellow and red trams rumble along the endless grid of tram lines crisscrossing the cobbled streets, making that characteristic metallic screech at every bend and corner, locals hang out at little cafe kiosks catching up on the often miserable news, shop keepers linger out on the pavement trying to drum up trade (which, they tell us, is limited) and workers and visitors alike bustle about with energy, but not stress.

We joined that popular bustle, heading around the Bairro and taking in the very juxtaposed landscape, from the bright red walls of the Teatro da Trindade and the intricately pained tiled facades of many a house and shopfront, to the decadent art deco exterior of the Tavares restaurant and the eery skeletal arches of the Igreja do Carmo, once a Carmelite church and one of the largest in Lisbon, but now, as a half collapsed shell, a poignant reminder of the earthquake which destroyed so much of the city in 1755. Delicate details were all around these streets for the drinking – I loved the statue of Eça de Quieros by Teixeira Lopes, showing a novelist inspired by a scantily veiled muse, and the street lamps whose ironwork features the ship which is today the emblem of Lisbon, a boat which, so legend dictates, carried the remains of the martyred St Vincent safely to Lisbon protected by ravens.

Pastel de nata

While the Bairro Alto could no doubt have amused us all day, our central aim was dedicated to art. North of the city, close to the  sprawling Parque Eduardo VII is the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, which houses the vast art collection of Armenian oil magnate, Calouste Gulbenkian and which was bequeathed to the city by the multi-millionaire in the 1960s. The museum comprises a surprisingly rich collection, boasting Picasso, Manet, Turner, Gainsborough and Constable amongst its prized exhibited artists, and including a truly beautiful collection of Lalique glassware by the art nouveau genius René Lalique. This hat pin (below) depicting a dragon fly morphed into the elegant female figure of the belle époque was just stunning. Meanwhile, for the more modern works including Robert Delaunay and José de Almada Negreiros, you only have to head across a very tranquil park to explore this extension of the same collection, all housed within a super-cool iconically 60s designed gallery which also provides visitors with a welcome retro little cafe and those famous pastel de nata which must feature on every self-respecting Portuguese menu.

Lalique’s jewellery

But for a museum which just keeps on giving, the real highlight from the Gulbenkian foundation, for me, was the temporary exhibition, The Ages of the Sea, which runs from 26 October 2012-27 January 2013. Containing some 109 paintings brought together from across the world, the show, which is supported by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, is based on an historical survey of the visual representation of the Sea and seeks to identify the major themes which led to its extensive and recurrent depiction in Western Painting. Across themes split into six sections – myths, power, labour, shipwrecks, the ephemeral and the quest for infinity, the collection was not short of big names, including Van Goyen, Lorrain, Turner, Constable, Friedrich, Courbet, Boudin, Manet, Monet, Signac, Fattori, Sorolla, Klee, De Chirico, Hopper. The result was an exhibition which literally exuded the salty-sweet freshness of the sea, the bright feeling of freedom when one stands on the edge of a vast sunny coastline, the feeling of trepidation when met with an ocean stirred up by the forces of weather, wind and rain, and the feeling of awe when the land ends and only a vast watery mass spreads from the beach to the very edges of the horizon. Walking around the exhibit was like looking through a hundred windows on the coast from all over the world. It was like taking a hundred holidays all at once, a hundred walks along a beachside promenade, a hundred embraces of the ocean’s advances.

Of the many masterpieces on show, it was the fresher, more modern works which caught my eye. In particular I adored Luís Noronha da Costa’s From Subnaturalism to Supernaturalism, which in close up was such a simple work – one layer of semi-transparent paint over another – but stepping away revealed a peaceful seascape at sunset; I loved too Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso’s  The Sloop, an unusual take on a ship wreck in a stormy sea; and I was captivated by the unusual coastal scene painted by Edward Hopper, better known for being the painter of introspective loners in cafes.

Luís Noronha da Costa, From Subnaturalism to Supernaturalism (Cold Painting), 1988

Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, The Sloop, 1914

Edward Hopper, Square Rock, 1914

But perhaps the greatest picture of them all was the real landscape of Lisbon with which we ended our day. Heading back down to the centre, through the impressive expanse of the Praça dos Restauradores (albeit littered as it is with drug sellers who approached us 8 times) and up the steep slope of the Calçada da Gloria (up which a popular tourist tram climbs slowly at fairly regular intervals) we were greeted with the greatest of all rewards for our exhausting trek up hill – in the Miradouro de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, we found a little fountained square which presented such a stunning vista across the Baixa and over to the Castelo de Sao Jorge that it was worth a thousand paintings.

So what way to end this day packed full of such new discovery that we felt like Vasco da Gama himself? Why, two glasses of that other Portuguese speciality of course – Port – which we enjoyed in the elegant surroundings of the Solar do Vinho do Porto, a Port bar with some 200 ports on the menu, set within a grand 18th century mansion. We went for the tried and tested method of selecting port by the names which most prominently jumped out at us – and it worked a treat. Our first choice, a 10 year old tawny port was delicate on the palate and golden in colour, while a vintage ruby to follow was dark, deep and rich. No wonder then that one port led to another, and then a deliciously decadent dinner followed in the Restaurante Olivier just down the road, with a 10-course tasting menu as a starter and another bottle of the good stuff. I could get used to this.

Photographs and wording © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Lisbon – Day One: Decadence and Decay

The time had come to escape the freezing London cold; the dark afternoons and the desolate faces; the post-winter desperation of the human races; coughing and sneezing spread between packed commuters on the tube; time to head south for the sun, for warmth, for good food. Swapping London for that other great European ‘L’, we abandoned the swift descent into winter and gathering approach to Christmas. We have come to the land of rich tawny-deep port wine, the ceramic cockerel and the vibrant yellow tram; where life is a little slower and architecture decadent and tired. We’ve come to Lisbon, the rolling, rambling hilly maze of streets which adjoins the grand Tagus river and sits at the heart and soul of Portugal as its capital.

As a regular to the Spanish side of the Iberian peninsular, there is something familiar about Portugal, which I now visit for the first time, but also something tangibly different. Wafts of garlic, of almonds and the thick smoke of strong cigarettes fills the air as it does in neighbouring Spain. However here there is something altogether more hardened, more real; you look into the faces of the Portuguese and you can read a thousand tales, of toil and struggle, of monotony and difficulty; you feast upon the pungent flavours of the food, noting the strong, crudity of the elements, the untempered brilliance of the colours, and the sharp contrasts of the flavours. In Lisbon, the Portuguese do not so much fiesta by night – rather, walking the streets of Lisbon at night, as we did shortly upon our arrival, we felt there was something close to menace in the air – something unsettling and almost unforgiving or discordant echoing off the cracked decaying buildings and shady streets.

Lisbon’s streets are littered with photographic inspiration…

I could not help but notice on our arrival a resilient attitude and a robust confidence, as though the country, which stands on the edge of Europe has hardened itself to the battering forces of the Atlantic ocean spread all along its Western coast. Portugal’s struggles are not just geographical however. The well-known financial woes of the country are tangible all around its capital. We were immediately struck by the huge number of empty properties right in the centre of town. Huge decadent palaces, abandoned to disrepair; once gloriously colourful tiles chipped at the corners or missing great sequences; elegant iron balconies left to rust, and plaster, paint and concrete cracking and falling apart; many of the buildings are covered with graffiti, and some have been left to the elements to such an extent that grasses and moses have started growing over the walls and in between great cracks growing deeper every day.

This is the Lisbon of today, a city of fading grandeur, whose geographical location and undulating topography provides a breathtaking backdrop to a European city which was once, clearly, a city of exceptional elegance and architectural glamour, but which in time has been left to slowly deteriorate and wither, a once pert fresh rose left to stagnate in the brown waters of a once crystal clear vase. But for all this, Lisbon has lost very little of its beauty. In its fading glory, it is a withering beauty, a tired duchess whose wrinkles grow deeper everyday, but whose innate elegance is lost on no one. The bigger the cracks, the more excited I became – for my camera, this decay is like a gold mine of sparkling inspiration, and Lisbon lets set to provide plenty of that.

Lisbon’s glamour is not all faded…

But for all the sadness, the financial misfortunes and the architectural deterioration, Lisbon is a city with a strong undercurrent of creativity and panache. We found this immediately in the guise of our hotel – the Lx Boutique Hotel, which exudes boutique sophistication from each of its photograph-covered, wallpaper lined walls. Our bedroom, with views over the Tagus, oozes Parisian chic, with oversized frames, velvet armchairs and wall stickers emulating contemporary baroque. Meanwhile our bathroom is a glass prism, stood, self-contained to one side of the room, complete with handy blinds set within the glass for the purposes of a little privacy. Meanwhile, conveniently located adjacent to the hotel is the Restaurante Confraria Lx where we headed for sushi and where, feasting upon a plate of some 34 sushi pieces, we ate sashimi  so fresh that the fish almost melted away on our tongues and evaporated like a cloud.

The Lx Boutique Hotel

Our bathroom cube

The hotel’s reception

Day One in Lisbon is over, but already we have discovered the best of two worlds – decadence combined with contemporary style. Looks like Lisbon has vintage chic done to a tee.

More tomorrow! But in the meantime, here are my photos of the deterioration visible on many of Lisbon’s streets, from graffitied walls and filled in windows of empty houses, to marble monuments left to turn a slimy shade of green – yet through it all there is beauty and character – the great contradiction of decadence and decay.

Photographs and content © Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.