Sunday, April 20, 2008

Lisbon's Sexy Vibe

Lisbon's vibe of decaying grandeur makes it unintentionally sexy and smolderingly atmospheric. Eccentrically cool in a Grey Gardens "descended from aristocracy but fallen on hard times" type of chic, I can't get enough of the rusted ironwork balconies or weathered shutters. American stores like Anthropologie are always trying to manufacture the distressed look but it lacks a certain authenticity. Needless to say, Lisbon is muito cool since it's all leggy girls smoking cigarettes in outdoor cafes, antique stores packed floor to ceiling with funky art, and beer bars that keep it real with a combo of sophisticates and grizzled, unseemly drunks for patrons. New York City's East Village would kill for Lisbon's edginess. Oh and did I mention the crumbling castles or late night boites leaking Fado music into the evening air? But ladies, just a word of advice given the ancient street sitch - leave the Manolo slingbacks at home. From personal experience I can vouch for the fact that: Drinks + Cobblestones + Heels = Disaster.

When you visit you'll want to spend the morning walking through a romantic wormhole to the past in a neighborhood known as Alfama. The oldest and most atmospheric quarter of Lisbon, it resembles a Portuguese Norman Rockwell painting come to life: children kick soccer balls down dusty streets, neighbors yell across balconies and women in aprons string laundry up on clotheslines. It is in Alfama that Matt and I stop into a café of questionable provenance whose presence is announced by no open door, no official looking sign, but rather - a piece of paper taped outside that merely reads “vinho verde” in black marker. Intrigued, we enter this dimly lit haunt and enjoy our sweet, carbonated white wine while chatting with the owner about soccer and politics in a mélange of English, broken Spanish and charade-like hand gestures. The menu, another piece of paper taped to the wall features six choices - all of them fresh fish.

Nearby we visit Castelo de Sao Jorge, a sixth century castle full of high towers and ancient ramparts. After touring the grounds we tram it down to Solar do Vinho do Porto. Offering more than 200 varieties of Port, this specialty bar is housed inside a converted mansion and makes a great, if expensive, starting point from which to sample Portugal's famous fortified wine.

Dodging an afternoon rainstorm we take haven inside A Brasileria, a bohemian cafe serving custard tarts, coffee and a whole lot of atmosphere. But having heard rumors about Lisbon's legendary Ginjinha (local cherry brandy) we head around the corner for a taste. Rumor has it that the cherries placed in your glass contain lethal amounts of alcohol - sadly, ours come sans fruit but the brandy itself packs a punch. For dinner we repair to Cafe Martinho da Arcada in the Baixa district. Founded in 1782 it retains the honor of being the oldest cafe in Lisbon as well as a former literary haunt. Jacketed waiters serve rustically prepared cuisine - shrimp simmered in garlic, crispy herb roasted potatoes, fresh fish and steak wrapped in aged ham that all hit the right notes at our last official port of call.