Friday, June 17, 2011

Bargains galore in Lisbon

Good morning from beautiful Lisbon after a most wonderful sleep on my Hastens bed. It may be simply a psychological thing, but I certainly had the best sleep in weeks. Jet lag has kept waking me up at about 5 am, after going to bed at about 2 am. But today, when I opened my eyes and looked at the clock, it was past 730 AM -- a first in a very long time.


The last time I was here was about ten years ago, when I spent close to a month driving around Spain and Portugal, and I'd taken a car in Madrid, drove it all the way down south to Sevilla, Jerez and then even to Granada; and then back up and a sharp left into Portugal. After crossing the border, I drove straight into Lisbon.

The one thing that struck me then was that there was only a sign for a border between Spain and Portugal, and yet the driving styles were like night and day simply by crossing this border. I'd already been driving in Spain for about two weeks, you see, when I crossed into Portugal, so I was quite used to the Spanish driving style. And almost instantly after crossing the border, there was a noticeable disregard for traffic regulations and just a little bit more crazy driving compared to Spain. How interesting it was to see the difference that a few kilometers made.

Since I was on the road, I'd spent only four days in Lisbon and hadn't seen as much as I would have wanted. However, I remember taking a walk from my hotel all the way to the Bairro Alto neighborhood, and this lovely and ancient area full of colorful buildings and intricate details had made such an impression on me that I never forgot it.


So today I decided to revisit Bairro Alto and the adjoining Chiado district, which are widely regarded as the cultural heart of Lisbon, and the best place for nightlife, shopping and art galleries. It's full of bohemian neighborhoods with chic cafes, traditional restaurants and very interesting boutiques. This area, too, is so full of narrow streets winding up and down hills that it reminds me of San Francisco. It even has a tram, which is heaven-sent indeed as walking up and down these neighborhoods certainly involves a lot of huffing and puffing.


We walked around this area quite a bit, admiring the architectural details of the buildings and the old shops selling pastries, tobacco and jewelry that have been doing business for hundreds of years. Then, for lunch, we'd made reservations at Tavares Restaurant, a very formal gilt-laden Portugese restaurant that has been open since 1784. Yes, you read write. 1784.

Tavares is Portugal's oldest restaurant and easily its prettiest as well. It's roccoco-style dining room is covered in gold and mirrors, although in a very refined way. It reminded me of one of the rooms in Versailles, or the dining room of Madame de Pompadour, which was transported in one go by Lord Astor and installed at Cliveden in England. Cliveden was once a private home, but it's now a wonderful luxury hotel. Over the centuries, Portugal's movers and shakers have all dined here and celebrated milestones here. Today, Tavares has one Michelin star.


After getting used to Michelin-starred prices in France, Tavares struck us as an exceedingly good deal. They had a lunch set which offered four courses for 40 euros, and you could choose four courses from a list and construct your own meal. You could have four main courses or four dessert if you wished. Of course, the practical thing would be to have a starter, a fish dish, a meat dish and then dessert.

We had to look at the prices again to ensure we hadn't read wrong. It's not that cheap, of course; but in Paris, for example, 40 euros will get you one entree at a Michelin-starred restaurant if you're lucky. I've seen some menus where an entree cost 130 euros or more.

So we happily ordered our 40 euro four-course lunch and got a nice bottle of local rose to go with it, at an equally reasonable price.

For my fish dish, I chose an entree of baked bacalao which was served sitting on a bed of beans with a quail egg on top. It seemed rather strange to be eating fish with beans, but this dish worked very well as the saltiness of the bacalao was tempered by the blandness of the beans.

My meat dish was a really lovely chicken entree consisting of one piece of white meat and one piece of dark meat, sauteed to perfection and then fried so that the skin was crispy on top.

The other diners around us seemed equally happy as well. There was a large table of Portugese men who probably ordered a seven-course meal as plates upon plates of food just kept arriving at their table. They washed everything down with lots of wine, and then had the liqueur tray rolled in so that they could finish up with more alcohol.

So Portugal may be in a recession, but some locals seem still intent on living the good life. And Lisbon is certainly a steal right now compared to other European capitals. If you're looking to live it up on a little less than usual, this is certainly the place to go.


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