Monday, 26 October 2009

Lisbon 1 - Cityscapes

The absence of posts this last 10 days is because I have been away in Portugal – Lisbon to be exact. This was my first visit to the country and what a great capital city it is. Mid-October was a good time to go: fabulous weather, few apparent tourists, a city going about its business, quiet shops and galleries, and easy-to-use public transport.

Architecturally, much of the city feels reminiscent of central Paris: impressively wide boulevards planted with serious trees for shade from the heat, and lined with small gardens, fountains and benches. Where they have been restored, there are stone pavements with ornate decorations. Yes there is traffic but it seems so light compared with London – and it keeps moving: from the airport to my central hotel took just 16 minutes by taxi.

Off the main streets are smaller, tighter roads and closely packed alleyways. People live here, small businesses exist, families sit outside their doors, and tiny bars will sell you a glass of beer for just one euro. The city is built on seven hills, some surprisingly steep, which you can either climb on foot or use one of the quaint elevadores (funicular railways). Trams are still operated too, and not just for tourists. And of course the whole city is set on the side of the river Tejo (Tagus), which is central to its history and indeed to Portugal’s place in the discovery of other continents and expansion of its empire and economy.

There is everywhere a sense of a city which is aware of its heritage and charm, and trying hard to preserve it all, whilst probably not having all the necessary funding. This of course may be a blessing: unlimited pots of money have often led city fathers to tear down all the old and replace with new and charmless.

I was really taken with the beautiful colours used on building facades, and these are coupled with the extensive use of tiles. These aren’t occasional one-offs, or heritage buildings; they are everywhere, in their thousands, on every street. The tiles are sometimes simply strong plain colours, others may be elaborate floral designs, yet others will pictorially represent the business carried on within.

Elsewhere you can see some wonderful shop fronts, which I believe are originals, not reconstructions, and some wonderful old graphics and sign writing. Noticeable was the absence of street advertising, posters, flyers, neon signs, hoardings and all the other clutter we see in so many cities.

On the hill behind my hotel I found the newly restored terrace garden at Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcantara. From here there is a panoramic view across the centre of the city to St George’s castle. Also in these pretty gardens is a tiny wine bar – operated by architect Tomas Lima, assisted by Maria Allen with whom I spent a pleasant couple of hours on my last evening.

I have many more photographs of Lisbon Cityscapes here.

If you are looking for a break in a European city, only 2.5 hours flying time from London, I'd certainly recommend Lisbon. I've really enjoyed my time here.

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