An unforgettable sojourn: Lovely Lisbon

Portugal in general and Lisbon in particular is full of visual, culinary and oenophile treats. No surprise Portugal was named number one country destination in Condé Nast Traveler 2021 Readers’ Choice Awards. Happily, Lisbon remains an excellent urban value especially in relation to other European capitals. It’s also a walkable city with history, art and great coffee at every turn so I was thrilled to be returning to Lisbon for in late October.

The bed

Perched on a hill above Parque Eduardo VII, the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz Lisbon is an excellent choice for those seeking classic elegance in a central location with all expected bell and whistle amenities. The Modernist structure originally built as Hotel Ritz in 1959 and twice since fully renovated, carefully retains its sense of place and thoughtfully pays homage to its cultural heritage through its vast art collection.

The public areas boast several enormous, stunning Portalegre tapestries by Modernist J. Almada Negreiros, and Carlos Calvet oil paintings. Several other artists are represented in various mediums, including exquisite sculptures and murals. My favorite, Estrela Faria’s ‘Lisbon’s Seven Hills’ had me transfixed. The hotel’s interior walls is a modern art Mecca and you will want to savor it.

Renovated rooms decorated in refined Art Deco design are spacious and have large terraces. A 65-inch flat screen television, large work desk area and comfortable lounger grace guestrooms. The most perfect slumber is assured by the Four Seasons bedding for which it is renowned.

The well thought out coffee/bar area is set in the room’s foyer with a door completely closing off this space from the guestroom. Caffeine addicts will rejoice since the ability to make a morning elixir – Nespresso of course – without disturbing a spouse’s slumber or work is a hotel room design that deserves an award for promoting marital bliss. Roomy bathrooms further aid in marital harmony with separate stand-alone vanities, large soaking bathtub, free-standing showers and Bulgari amenities.

The hotel’s state-of-the-art, top-floor fitness center with floor-to-ceiling windows allows an expansive, panoramic view like few others in Lisbon. Outside there’s a 400-meter Daliesque-shaped jogging track. The sun rises late in Autumn, about 7:30, so as I jogged my daily three miles, the ball of fire slowly emerged on the horizon. With the wide arms of the Christo Rei statue and the red April 25th Bridge – a compact cousin of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – hovering in the distance, it provided for an otherworldly, ethereal, joyful experience.

The fitness center, indoor pool heated to 84 degrees and outdoor pool heated to 80 degrees means that travelers have at least the theoretical opportunity to work off some of those great Portuguese meals, wines and desserts.

The meals

Da Prata 52 restaurant, located a stone’s throw from Lisbon’s landmark Se Cathedral with its 17th century blue tile baptismal room, has a tiny exterior sign, just 12 tables and a small bar. Comforting, traditional dishes are served with modern twists. Try the tender black pork cheeks in red wine, codfish ‘a braz’ with olive tapenade and grilled octopus. Their house wines and Sangria will have you speaking Portuguese in no time. Closed Wednesdays.

Not to be confused with A Praça Restaurant in Alacantara’s LX Factory. A series of gentrified fabric warehouses, LX is now repurposed with Uber cool design shops, galleries and quirky shops sandwiched in between trendy bars and eateries. At A Praça try the smoked sausage, octopus carpaccio and baked goat cheese. At Praça da Figueira near the National Theater are several outdoor kiosks where you can have a lovely al fresco lunch or snacks and watch Portuguese life unfold. Equally important there are several Sangria stands to complete this outdoor pleasure.

The Portuguese are rather obsessed with pastries and coffee and for good reason. Indeed, most social discourse occurs with pasteis de nata – Portugal’s signature egg custard pastry – and espresso or café com leite. Lisbonites are no exception and happily there’s a bakery on nearly every corner, sometimes two, with large windows enticing even the most strident of carb-avoiders. Try it at several different bakeries. Each will be your absolute favorite.

One of the most creatively innovative dining experiences I’ve ever had was at Four Season’s Cura Restaurant under the direction of the supremely talented Chef Pedro Pena Bastos. Opting for the Origens 13-course artisanal seasonal menu paired with wines carefully selected by the charming and informative Sommelier, Mário Marques, it was a marvelously memorable evening.

It wasn’t just that the Minhota – Angus beef – the seafood chawanmushi or the rayfish were off-the-charts delicious, they were, but the presentation’s refined artistic beauty, such as the raz-al-hanout amuse bouche sitting atop gold-painted chickpeas that added to imaginative sensitivities and culinary delight. It wasn’t just that the paired wines were perfect, they were, and not a single pour overpowered the assigned course but added immeasurably to enhancing the dining experience.

An added benefit to the inviting seating area was the open concept kitchen where the chef and dream team could be viewed using the finest micro implements resembling those used in the most delicate neurosurgery in preparation of a truly remarkable, unforgettable culinary journey.

The finds

There is no shortage of excellent museums in Lisbon – over 60 – but one certainly not to be missed is the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. Of Armenian descent, Gulbenkian was born in 1869 in what today is Istanbul. Educated in England he became a British citizen, but also lived in Egypt, spent years in France, then passed most of World War II in Portugal where he remained until his 1955 death. He was an influential oil magnate, a vast art collector and a generous philanthropist who became known as “Monsieur Five Percent,” reflecting the share Gulbenkian collected on each oil transaction.

Most notable in Gulbenkian’s Permanent Collection are the massive and gorgeous Qing Dynasty vases, a room devoted to Lalique and intricate European furnishings that would make even Napoleon and Josephine turn green with envy. There is also a wonderful garden with several sculptures and plenty of ducks milling about. Closed Tuesdays.

For something different, using 1940’s technology and 750 cc’s, take a motorcycle sidecar tour to see some of Lisbon’s iconic sights including historical Belém in Lisbon’s west. Here at the Tower, Palace and Monastery of Jeronimos, one can gorge on Manueline architecture – the merger of Moorish, Renaissance and Gothic styles. Make sure and save time to aimlessly stroll the wide Avenida da Liberdade, Lisbon’s own Champs-Elysées. That almost all international luxury brands are present on this street is actually its least interesting part (except that oddly, next door to the Gucci store is the Communist Party Headquarters). There are beautiful mosaics and plenty of cafés for great people watching.

An excellent day trip from central Lisbon is Sintra. Once Portuguese royalty’s summer retreat, if you only have one day, select two or three Sintra sites to explore. At Pena National Palace you’ll be bowled over by the magnificent mid-19th century Moorish-influenced royal residence. The main structure’s exterior possesses ochre-hued archways, pimento-colored towers and intricate tile-covered walls. Inside, ornate fixtures, including eclectic, turbaned-wearing statuary light fixtures, European furnishings and a massive, equipped kitchen, all reflect a grandiose, bygone era. At Sintra’s Regaleira Estate, you can walk amid emerald-green gardens and encounter unusual stone wells, fountains and other mind-bogglingly unique structures. Built in the early 1900s by the unabashedly unconventional Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, an entomologist and bibliophile, he was as an understatement, creative. From Regaleira it is a 10-minute stroll downhill to Sintra’s charming town center.

The lessons learned

Travelers, including repeat visitors, will continue to be amazed by the kindness, hospitality and generosity of Lisbonites. Grand boulevards, excellent museums and a plethora of sites, both historic and new, are sure to make for a blissful visit. It is also easy to fall deeply in love with the holy matrimony of excellent Portuguese food and wines. Getting later divorced from all those calories? Not so much. However, the acquisition of every single Portuguese bakery ounce will be well worth the later intense cohabitation with one’s treadmill. Até a próxima vez.

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