On the morning of November 1755, Lisbon was struck by one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. It measured between 8.5 and 9.0 on the Richter scale, split the city centre with fissures 16 feet wide, and killed perhaps 40,000 people (out of a population of 200,000). Shocked survivors gathered by the docks on the River Tagus which had turned to a giant mud-flat, littered with wreckage, as the sea mysteriously retreated. Many of these were killed by the tsunami that engulfed the downtown area 40 minutes later.
Still, every cloud has a silver lining. It means that Lisbon is a more perfect weekend destination than perhaps any other European capital: almost all the major architectural sites you might otherwise have had to see from its 15th century golden era as the world’s preeminent seafaring, exploring and gold mining nation have been obliterated. So all that is left to do is stroll, relax and pig out on endless Pastel de Nata custard cakes.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I highly recommend themonastery, which somehow survived the quake. It was built in the 16th century, richly funded by a royal tax on the proceeds of trade in Africa and the Orient, in a delicate, ornate and very beautiful architectural style called Manueline (after the king who founded it). You should definitely wander round the cloisters – check out the treasury of gold and jewelled artefacts in the attached museum, if you can be bothered to queue- and also pop into the chapel so you can tick the tomb of Vasco Da Gama off your bucket list.
This is all in the pleasant waterside district of Belem, where you should definitely spend at least half a day, taking in the original pastel de nata bakery – Pasteis de Belem – and also the wonderfully strange Belem Tower which sits squatly at the mouth of the Tagus. It looks like something a child might have designed, or an amateur architect who hadn’t been schooled in the classical rules. I particularly like the hippos and other exotic creatures on the side, and the various nautical motifs – chains, anchors and so on. This tower would have been one of the last sights so many sailors saw before embarking on their epic voyages of discovery.
And that’s your sightseeing done, pretty much. There’s other stuff – the aquarium (Europe’s biggest), the Gulbenkian museum, the zoo – but nothing that’s going to make you feel guilty if you don’t see it. The only other essential, I’d say, is the castle, and only then for a bracing walk up the steep hill, rewarded by the spectacular view from the ramparts over the city. Wow, it must have been an amazing place to watch that tsunami.
So now that leaves you well over half your long weekend free to do very little. Lisbon is perfect for this. We spent a lot of our time just chilling by the pool of our hotel, a former 16th century palace called The One Palácio da Anunciada whose central location made it very easy to dip in and out of culture/foodie excursions/cafe trips according to our whim.
By we, I mean myself and the Fawn, whose very big birthday it was. Because I’m an utterly crap husband, I’d been quite incapable of finding her a decent present, but I thought a boutique hotel, with massage, lots of nice food and a bit of sun would just about get me off the hook. And so they all did.
What we both loved about Lisbon, apart from the absence of culture-pressure, was its easy-going friendliness. Nobody was trying to rip you off; every restaurant you went to was at least good-enough, and often much better than that, like the place not far from my hotel where I had some of the best grilled octopus I’d ever eaten. Just as well really, because it could also be the last octopus I’ll ever eat: not long afterwards I watched a TV documentary which revealed that octopuses are just about the most intelligent creatures on the planet after humans with emotions and moods and clever thoughts and everything. Ah well.
One more tip: make sure to get yourself a Lisboa card, which will get you in to all the main attractions without having to wait in maddening clues. And that’s it. You’re set. Go!
The One Palácio da Anunciada is housed in a 16th century palace in Lisbon; Room rates start at €220. For more information and reservations please visit www.hotelstheone.com.