One of our first travel writing commissions, back in 2004, was to write a mini guide for Tenerife’s capital city, Santa Cruz. We didn’t know the city at all and spent a few days wandering what seemed an immense urban jungle, trying to get a feel for the place whilst notching up reams of information for the magazine article. It was overwhelming.
We did discover quite a few interesting things about Santa Cruz. However, the most valuable lesson we learned was there are no shortcuts when it comes to getting to know a city, big town, or anywhere new. We didn’t do a very good job of that commission. What we wrote might have fooled anyone who didn’t know Santa Cruz, but anyone who did would have spotted immediately we were unfamiliar with the place.
Over the years we got to know Santa Cruz very well. As we did an interesting thing happened, the city shrank. Places which once seemed to take an eternity to get to suddenly were close at hand. By the time we wrote city routes for our Real Tenerife guides we were able to trim away all the fat; guiding others to favourite spots without any of the pointless wandering we had initially done.
Meeting up with a friend from Manchester for an afternoon and evening in Lisbon recently, the realisation dawned that in the last two years Lisbon had also shrivelled in size.
On our first visit in 2014, Portugal’s capital was a sprawling metropolis. We exhausted ourselves pounding its beautifully cobbled avenues and alleyways, ticking off the big attractions as well as smaller, quirkier ones which appealed to our particular travel preferences. On our next visit in 2017 we had a blueprint to follow and update, Inntravel’s Lisbon city guide. We also had access to invaluable insights courtesy of friends from Alentejo who had an apartment in Lisbon’s Mouraria district. Since then we’ve flirted with the city on numerous occasions, staying in various bairros, each with contrasting personalities. We don’t know the city well enough to consider ourselves experts, but we do have a pretty decent knowledge of it.
Thanks to tips from friends combined with our own legwork we now know things like where there are food markets which aren’t as rammed as Time Out; which avenues look resplendent when jacaranda trees are in bloom; where to watch the sunset in a grungy setting whilst local musicians jam (not everyone’s scene); areas to find designer clothes as well as the best mainstream shopping centres; the locations of labyrinthine bookstores, and which streets are liveliest during the Sardine Festival. We’ve also built up a list of favourite venues for lunch and dinner; restaurants where you don’t get served mediocre food at elevated prices.
Over that time Lisbon has become considerably smaller, subsequently getting around is a lot easier and faster than it once was. With limited time in which to show our friend a few tasty Lisbon snippets, knowing how to get from A to B concisely was invaluable.
Lisbon’s Metro system is a cheap and easy way to travel around the city, but we also use some metro stations to move around whilst keeping dry on the rare occasions it’s raining. For example, after pointing out the iconic statue of Fernando Pessoa outside Cafe A Brasileira in Bairro Alto, the steep escalators of the Baixa-Chiado Metro station descend to another river-level exit at Baixa. Lisbon’s cobbles are lovely, but on wet days steep streets can be lethal to negotiate.
In other parts of the city, public elevators in anonymous buildings transport locals, and those who know of their existence, to lofty hilltops (a tip from our Mourario friends), cutting out muscle crunching ascents. Tackling steep streets is unavoidable in Lisbon, but there are ways to keep these to a minimum.
Our friend had already enjoyed a couple of days exploring Lisbon, and had ticked off some of the city’s main attractions, so we decided to show him a few of the little things which interested us, starting with the sobering 1506 Memorial, a reminder of what intolerance can lead to. In this case it was the massacre of thousands of Jewish citizens. Nearby is the burnt church, the Igreja de São Domingos, where the acrid aroma of the fire which gutted it in 1959 still seems to linger. To counter the sombreness of these two, we popped into a hole in the wall ginjinha bar, downing a sweet and sticky shot of Lisbon’s famous cherry liqueur.
Popping through the easy-to-miss entrance to Casa do Alentejo is akin to falling down the rabbit hole. A humble doorway from the street gives no clue to the building’s palatial interior and Moorish styled courtyard. There’s a tavern on the ground floor whilst the first floor boasts a couple of grand restaurants. As we vociferously admired the artistry in one of them, we were shushed by a sextet of snoozing septuagenarians who apparently viewed the restaurant’s vestibule area as their makeshift bedroom.
When our friend admired a postcard featuring a flamboyant fado scene, we took him to see the real thing, accessed through a crumbling archway which most might ignore as it seems to lead to unattractively messy, graffiti-scrawled steps. And so our afternoon unfolded, wandering Lisbon’s fascinating streets purposefully, yet in leisurely fashion.
At night we ate at Chapitâ à Mesa, an eclectic place – art community/bar/cafe/restaurant/live music venue – where voodoo dolls of unpopular politicians welcome you before you descend to an eclectic series of dining areas that make me think of Cirque du Soleil. We ate great food accompanied by panoramic city views and, at one point, soulful sounds from an Angolan singer who was performing in the bar later. He was escorted by a brace of female clowns. That’s Chapitâ à Mesa.
We spent an easy, relaxing and immensely enjoyable afternoon and evening with our friend. We’d done and seen a lot, but it didn’t feel like we’d expended a lot of energy in the process. Cities are like great friends, the more you get to know them the more comfortable you feel in their company.
But, as we discovered all those years ago in Santa Cruz, there are no shortcuts to becoming best friends with a city.