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City of explorers recovers its glorious past

Costa Rica

This hilly city on the sea is the most westerly in Europe, one of the best value in the Eurozone, and the sunniest. Its clanking, hillclimbing trams are straight out of San Francisco. Lisbon has been transformed since it emerged from under the dowdy clamp of dictatorship in the 1980s, with bright new galleries, sparkling nightlife and some of the coziest city centre hotels around. I called in to check out Lonely Planet’s choice as one of its ten cities in the world to visit in 2009. This is my list.

Call of the sea

Portugal has pulled out of its distant empire, but the splendid maritime history
is all around. In 2008 Lisbon''s new Museum of the Orient opened,
celebrating the Portuguese presence in the Far East, in furniture and textiles,
paintings and ceramics, and the gods of Asia. It’s a colourful parade
through Chinese screens, Japanese armour, and ritual masks from Timor. Nearby is the epicentre of Portugal''s maritime glory, the Discovers'' Statue,
thrusting heroically out towards the Atlantic. Three floors up I felt the
tug of adventure on the breeze off the ocean. From here the endlessly
questing Magellan and Vasco da Gama sailed in puny tubs to seek distant
lands and fabulous riches. A map in the flagstones charts their advances, sped
on their way by puffing cherubs.
Then visit the excellent Oceanrio (aquarium).

Ticket to ride

You can go anywhere, and do (almost) anything with the Lisboa Card – buy it
at the airport, and other places. 3 days – 32 Eu, . It
gives free rides up and down the seven hills, on the marvelously antique Santa
Justa Elevator, and that ancient piece of clanking enchantment, the 28 tram
up to St George''s Castle. Tram drivers are masters of the tight squeeze,
bending back their wing mirrors to inch past parked cars on the hill streets.
You don’t pay at 26 museums and historic buildings – don’t miss the National
Museum of Ancient Art, the lavish Mosteiro dos Jeronimos from Portugal''s
Golden Age, and the Fado Museum.
And trains are free out to Cascais, resort of the royals and well-heeled down
the years. You could use it as a base, travelling into Lisbon. Sintra, with its
dreamy castles and palaces, is another free train trip.

Wonder wander

Wander Lisbon’s mazy, narrow ways on polished cobble pavements. Tiles
(azulejos) decorate everything, from palace walls to park seats. Look out from
the seven hills, over the wide River Tagus and up to the massive 25 de Abril
Bridge. Stop at the huge choice of small independent cafes, where the coffee
is Crunch-bustingly cheap. In Belem look for the bakery Pastéis de Belém for
the exquisite custard and egg tart Pasteis de Nata.
Remarkable old shops still trade as if they’re still in the 1930s. Best of all is
Conserveira de Lisboa (Rua dos Bacalhoeiros), an 80 year emporium of tinned
fish on wooden shelves. Lisbon does new, too. Its clothes shops compete
with the smartest in Europe, eg Ana Salazar in Rua do Carmo.
In the evening catch authentic Fado, Portugal’s unique bittersweet lament, in
Clube de Fado, Parreirinha de Alfama or Senhor Vinho.

Star art

I had a few moments, eye to eye, with Judy Garland, a startling vision in vivid
red lipstick and turquoise eyeshadow. Andy Warhol''s second most famous
subject after Marilyn Monroe, and Roy Lichtenstein’s happy “Interior with
Restful Paintings”, are just two reasons to visit Lisbon’s Berardo Museum,
which opened in 2007. Foreign galleries had their eyes on this great collection
of late 20th and early 21st century art of Europe and the USA – works by Dali,
Magritte, Miró, Bacon, Jackson Pollock - amassed by José Berardo,
the ''Portuguese Saatchi”. Wisely the government stopped that particular
transfer, providing space in Belem Cultural Center.

The city’s other great private collection is the
Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. Gulbenkian, “Mr 5%”, was one of the pioneering
oilmen in the Middle East.

Sipping news

This city has come far since this exchange, in a certain 1942 film.
Renault: “The plane to Lisbon. You would like to be on it?” Rick: “Why? What''s
in Lisbon?”
Rick would have approved of Chafariz do Vinho, a cellar wine bar at the end of
Lisbon’s aqueduct. It’s the perfect place to tag on to a walk in the Botanicals
Gardens, and a visit to the adjoining Water Museum. Between 6pm and 8.30pm
they serve their taster menu with a selection of really good wines by the
glass. Current menu includes dates with bacon au gratin, and carpaccio of
smoked duck maigret with Cumberland sauce.
They do tapas too. It’s all very educational. How about tasting 100 years of
port? Try a medley of four vintages, aged 10, 20, 30 and 40 years.

Heritage Hols

One good outcome of those dreary mid-20th-century years of dictatorship
was the preservation of so many buildings in old Lisbon. Now they’re being
turned into distinctive boutique hotels.
Many people’s top choice is Heritage Hotels’ Heritage Av Liberdade. Coolly
elegant, with restored original tiles, wooden shutters and antique furniture, it
won a national prize for best hotel in a restored building last year (2008). Or
you could stay in a castle. Solar Do Castelo sits within the walls of St.
George''s Castle, with its own courtyard and garden, and “Medieval
contemporary” furniture. And free wireless. Other hotels in the group, all of
them in old houses and small historic buildings, include As Janelas Verdes
Hotel, Britania Hotel and Lisboa Plaza.www.heritage.pt/
Credit crunch permitting, another batch of old city buildings will shortly be
turned into small hotels.

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