Woo hoo, Castelo Branco is not even a memory and we are on the uncrowded auto via to Lisbon, driving south into bright blue skies past hills of yellow and purple polka dots, the gorse and the heather vibrant in the sun.
Actually Castelo Branco was a daymare, still evident on our car tyres and by way of exorcising that demon here's the story:
Our sat nav is at the best of times a bit vague, denies places exist or has a hissy fit and recalculates just when you need it to be certain. Unsuspectingly as we arrive we follow it's bidding and quickly find our selves in narrow streets with instructions to turn right. Fine if you car is a scooter. Then it takes us up a a very steep and cobbled hill to a dead end. Jean very capably reverses back down and later we are obliged to make the impossible 90 degree turn somewhat up hill. Aside from needing to make a 42 point turn the types aren't happy on the cobbles and we add wheel spin and going nowhere to our joy. Eventually Tony lays under the car and Jean gets the necessary traction. We turn on google and try again. There that's out of our system. Oh and in case you forgot the hotel and the town was crap.... but no matter -
We are meeting our friends Clare and Stuart, who are flying over in their own 747. Clare never travels light and Stuart doesn't like back seat pilots so this is their solution.
This is not true. What is true is that it is exciting to meet up and we are looking forward to Lisboa, a city we have only seen for half a day previously. We're staying in a cute 'boutique' hotel - the quotes necessary to demonstrate our ironic distaste of the trend, naturally we had wanted to stay in a unmodernised shepherd hut on a lonely Serra and wee discretely into mountain streams, remembering to wash upstream.
Instead we settle for charming rooms at the top end of the main and expensive shopping boulevard Liberdad and a 10th floor terrace bar with views to the impossibility wide estuary of the river Tagus. It's there we catch up with C and S already into beer and fizzy wine.
Our touring routine has developed so that the first afternoon of arrival we mooch with no plan other than to see what we will see. And for 5 miles we wander, noting where we will return, making our way slowly to the waters edge to Praça do Comércio a large square where musicians, beggars, people 'statues', an azure sky and plenty of tourists like us mark this as the ground zero from which the town radiates.
Lisbon stands on the Tagus estuary, the largest in Western Europe and looks more lake a giant lake than river and has the longest bridge in Europe, the Vasco de Gamma bridge at a total of at 10.7 miles in length. It averages 265 days of sunshine and after a surprisingly cold Spain we are counting on being warm. Lisbon like many places has districts formed by its history and often its immigrant populations. It was pretty much destroyed by a massive earthquake and tsunami in 1755. Stuart tells us that like Rome the city is built on seven hills and there is certainly no shortage of steepness, and often when you think you are at ground level you cross a bridge with another road beneath.
The hop on and hop off system in Lisbon is the best we have seen. Often in other cities the routes are few and the areas visited only the very central parts. Here there are 6 or more bus routes visiting even outlying areas as well various trams and funiculars we can use. The trams are original early 19th century, some English made and we are surprised to see the word Sheffield in the rail track points system. The trams go up the hills with apparent ease, and would go down them extremely quickly were it not for the skills of the driver applying additional breaks. The locals have learnt to finely judge where they can park without being side-swiped by very heavy trams.
We spend pretty much the whole day on the buses, sometimes circumnavigating spacious squares, sometimes in winding streets and then way out of the centre to the site of Expo 98 where many interestingly designed towers and facilities still remain including the Gare do Oriente a fantastic lattice roofed gothic influenced station by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Back in the centre Lisbon has a spacious feel in its newer parts, the architecture a familiar story and part of the wonderful thrust of Art Nouveau style that spread across much of mainland Europe and even across the Atlantic in the early 20th century. What is always fascinating is the local variation. Like wine the terroir defines the exact detail - the curvaceous lines of Paris and the more geometric lines of Vienna and Glasgow. In Spain and Portugal it is more restrained but effortlessly combines with the stone and metal building methods already developed in the industrial expansion of the mid 19th century. The city has many cobbled streets - or calcada portuguesa, and come in many mosaic patterns, painstakingly laid down by hand. The only downside is they are treacherously slippy and often laid on uneven beds.
Perhaps conscious of its literally shaky past the city is fairly low rise. It's not as grand as Madrid, and all the better for it, preferring squares and plazas with grand statues to status bragging monumental buildings. The older area spared the earthquake have their winding narrow streets and Lisbon like Portugal in general is just a little run down in places, a consequence of its long history of doing less well like Greece under the Union.
Stuart is the master of the maps, and Jean no slouch in the HQ department so Clare and Tony follow the tour leaders hither and thither happy to be organised. It has to be said though the quest for artisan coffee brings more than the reward of good coffee and milk pouring skills. These cafes are always off the beaten track and it's thanks to the efforts to find them we see parts of the cities other wise so easy to overlook. As luck would have it, the walk Stuart wants to make, coincides with where the coffee is that Jean wants to drink. We meander our way through the Barrio Alto area to our destination and are suddenly in a different city. It is calm, lower and oozing that charm you get when the best bits of gentrification transform a neighbourhood. Even now, whether or not it actually happened we can hear the jazz slipping lazily from the cafes and players in the park.
Portugal is famous of course for its Fado, a folk music that can be sentimental or satirical, comic or sad. Jean and Tony have been fans for years, in particular liking Mariza who sounds very much like the most famous Fadoist Amália Rodriguez. We take in a performance at something of a tourist trap but have excellent if expensive food, or not if the music is factored in. Later we see a theatre doing an Amália show and to the tunes of ABBA we recreate our own Fado and demonstrate our inner cultural philistine selves.
Portugal's language is very curious to hear, lots and lots of 'sh', and in fact sounds Eastern European, even Russian quite often. Sometimes in written form it is close to Spanish but there the similarity ends. And so does our weekend in Lisbon, we four have no socks left, all have been walked off and we take our final dinner together in a real tourist drag where countless waiters try to lure the customers in. Clare finds no fizzy wine despite the waiters promise and the food barely passes muster, so we grab ice cream from a cafe and take port on our roof top terrace
But this isn't the end of the fabulous four's adventures - we are due to meet in a weeks time in Bordeaux. Gluttons for punishment the four of us....