The plan was to get away from it all for a bit solitude and relaxation. I’ve never been on holiday on my own before, but I figured it was the only way to get some writing done away from my twin vices of distraction and procrastination. Whisper it quietly, but I’m trying to complete a novel and I keep typing about twelve words and then getting sidetracked by the pub, or Sky Sports, or (on more than one occasion) Midsomer Murders.
So I stuck a metaphorical pin in a metaphorical map and came up with Lisbon. I wanted somewhere warm, I’ve never been to Portugal before, and frankly it’s all kicking off a bit in the Middle East - so I was running out of options. Lisbon sounds nice, I thought. Bit of culture, bit of history. Perfect. That was the theory, anyway.
But as I boarded the disturbingly pikey TAP Air flight 345, it became apparent that my timing had gone a little awry. The plane was packed with large men in football shirts who were jetting out to watch Rangers play in the Europa League and I was seated next to an enormous dreadlocked fan who sounded like the late Mike Read off Eastenders and looked like he had just come off a ten stretch for aggravated assault with a pool cue. In fairness to him, he was charming, and even let up on the chatter enough to allow me a good hour of solid scribbling on the flight.
In what was to become a recurring pattern of locals beguiling me with their broken English, my affable taxi driver handed me a beautifully illustrated city guide and gave me the whole Michael Palin bit as he whizzed me to the hotel. He finished off by passing me the address of a tip-top fish restaurant, and drove off with a flashed grin and handsome tip. It wasn’t until my return journey to the same airport some days later, during which a slightly po-faced driver got me there in five minutes and charged me a princely €5, that I realised the scamp had fleeced me by taking me round the houses. It was almost like I was back in London and requesting a destination south of the river. All that was missing was the cockney patter and the casual racism.
I had bottled the option of picking a boutique hotel, largely on the strength of my friend’s cautionary Lisbon tale. “It was an absolute delight,” he told me. “Quaint, reasonably priced, central – it wasn’t until the first night at around eleven that I realised it was on top of a bloody great knocking shop.” Radisson for me then.
Any hopes I had of avoiding the British hooligan element were swiftly suppressed when I noticed you could actually see the Sporting Lisbon stadium from the hotel, making it the venue of choice for great swathes of marauding fans – and, sure enough, waiting for me at reception there were several half-cut Scotsmen swigging Stella Artois and cracking on to the concierge. A cultural start.
Orientation now (as the Lonely Planet might put it), and for somebody with a cherished “D” grade at GCSE Geography and the map-reading skills of an illiterate baboon, I found Lisbon surprisingly easy to navigate. Head south far enough and you hit the dirty old river Tagus; to the east is the old town – a hillside crammed full of tumbledown, red-roofed houses and medieval history; to the west, a slicker sprawl of modern architecture and parks. Funnelling down to the bottom and out through the grand Praca do Comerco Gate is the Baixa – the key tourist centre - where the restaurateurs and barkeeps prowl the facades, attempting to lure you in with promises of fresh fish and cheap booze.
Happily, I was based to the north so the whole city was laid out before me on a grid - a bit like Manhattan Island minus the six dollar lager and propensity for terrorism. And the Metro is a dream of primary coloured efficiency. Hop on the Blue line (Azul) and you’re down into town. Change to the Yellow (Amarela) for Rato and the Marques de Pombal. Learning Portuguese the easy way…
I slipped into an easy routine of walking and sightseeing, custard tarts and coffee. And when the moment took me, I would stop at a beauty spot or hillside café, order a reasonably priced beer and write for a while, gazing out over the port at the yachts and the seagulls, amazed by the calmness of it all.
And there is much to see, all conveniently bundled within easy reach. In a few hours, I walked to the cool, gothic Se Cathedral, up to the imposing Castello de Sao Jorge, and over to the Western slopes, housing the university and Botanical Gardens – which cost me a whole Euro to get in and afforded me shady relief from the midday sun as I tackled Chapter 11. For the less mobile (or merely slothful) punter, the creaking trams and funiculars will spirit you up to the vistas.
At the acclaimed Gulbenkian Museum, I had a brunch of spinach tart in the deserted café, on a pristine deck overlooking a babbling brook and willow trees swaying gently in the breeze, before strolling round the extraordinary exhibits – Egyptian artefacts, Ming vases, original Monets all gazing out longingly as if lamenting: “where the bloody hell is everyone? Don’t you get it? I’m a work of art, thanks very much!” I know it was off-season, but there was literally nobody there – imagine having the entire Tate Modern to yourself and then cartwheeling down the South Bank while a lone, dolorous security guard picks at his fingernails on a nearby bench. That’s how Portugal rolls.
I spent my evenings alternating between rustic local fare and adequate room service as I wrestled with my muse. I concede I may have ballsed-up and ordered unwisely on my two dalliances with authentic cuisine. On the first night, they almost certainly saw me coming, and quickly ascertained (correctly) that I would be a sucker for a white port aperitif and as much pork product as they could throw at me. By the time my fish grill arrived - vast tender chunks of sea bass and salted cod – I was already stuffed to the gills on smoked sausage.
On the Saturday night, I pushed the boat out a bit more and coughed up €20 on a dish of Chef’s Special curried shrimps and was a mite disappointed when they looked like they could conceivably have been sourced from Streatham Iceland and drowned in chip shop curry sauce. No matter. I washed it down with a carafe of excellent local red and a front row view of the entertainment: A couple of sinister looking guitarists and a lady singer that reminded me of Rene’s missus off ‘Allo ‘Allo.
On my final day I took the fast tram out to Belem – the port where the famous adventurers set sail to distant lands in the fifteenth century. Henry the Navigator and Vasco de Gama emerge as the recurring heroes of their time – at least the inference is they would easily be able to kick the shit out of Walter Raleigh.
De Gama is exposed as something of a cruel bastard with a predilection for murdering pilgrims, which perhaps explains why he has to sit at Henry’s shoulder in the extraordinary Padrao dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) – an elaborate and showy edifice shaped like a boat stretching out over the bay that left me left me breathless with admiration at the craftsmanship of the engraving – until I realised it was built in 1940. Kind of took the edge off a bit.
And I might have enjoyed the inevitably deserted maritime museum a bit more had I not been whooping and hollering and fist-pumping the air as my Blackberry revealed West Ham had beaten Liverpool back in Blighty. There were some boats in there though. Definitely some boats. Oh, and a figurehead of Vasco looking tough. And some maps and stuff.
Belem is also famous for making the best custard tarts in the world. The Pasteis de Belem has the slavering tourists literally queuing round the block for the faintest whiff of cinnamon. But much as I love spending my afternoons jostling with enormous women from Vermont, I was happy to take my coffee and pastry at a less celebrated establishment over the road, and watch them bicker and squabble from afar. It’s just a custard tart, at the end of the day…
Indeed, Belem is where the tourist trail is most evident – busloads of Japanese with Nikons round their necks and a hankering for statues and audioguides. The rest of Lisbon is not really like that at all. No queues, no behemoth Americans with socks and sandals and fanny packs. Just cool, grimy alleyways with uneven paving and vast open parks and squares where lolling students read Voltaire and hobos gabble at the wind.
A couple of times I serendipitously timed it so that I was up high in the Bairro Alto when the sun slipped behind the Western hills and bathed the Baixa in a crimson glow, and I have rarely seen a city so beautiful. As for the inspiration, I blinked and found I had churned out 15,000 words of new material – not bad considering the previous month had yielded little more than a tortuous rewrite of a stubborn section of chapter eight during which my protagonist goes to the pub and chats up a girl on the train.
In summary (and with wanting to get too Adrian Mole about it), the whole experience was kind of profound.
Obrigado pelas memórias.