Just Back from Lisbon and the Alentejo

Fodor’s Art Director Fabrizio La Rocca recently set down his X-acto blade and took up his walking stick for an exhilarating journey to Lisbon, a magical and atmospheric city of medieval citadels, cobblestone streets, and extravagant bakeries.

Why Lisbon? I love the steep, Moorish alleyways of the Alfama district, the medieval São Jorge citadel, the restaurants and squares of the Baixa and Chiado, and the infinite patterns of painted tiles, mosaics, and cobblestones lining the city. I’ve always loved decadent, faded old cities, and I wanted to see Lisbon before its heralded “Renaissance” stripped its walls clean. The opportunity came when my sister, an avid collector of antiques, joined me on a five-day trip to Lisbon and the Alentejo.

What was your favorite part of the trip? Walking around this dusty and elegant old city, climbing up and down trams, wandering through antique stores, visiting bakeries. The city is rich with old-world objects that speak of far-away colonies and outdated “modern times.” As we browsed the antique shops of Rua São Bento and Rua Dom Pedro V, mostly everything was out of our league, but one can still find 5- to 20-euro azulejos — the hand-painted tiles that adorn buildings throughout Portugal.

What was your best find? A great room with a view, up high atop the Bairro Alto district, at the Pensão Londres. Room #411 has a view on the grand estuary of the river Tejo, and the hotel is in a great location — away from the club scene but minutes from everything. It’s also next to a splendid corner bakery, at the intersection of Rua Dom Pedro V and Rua da Rosa, decorated with 1920’s marbles and tiles painted with the symbols of the trade. Also nearby is the Pavilhão Chinês bar, a cabinet of curiosities covered with 19th- and 20th-century displays of kitsch artifacts and vintage collectibles (at n.89 of Rua Dom Pedro V).

What was essential during your trip? Stamina, to endure arduous climbs and perpendicular descents on the seven hills that make up Lisbon, and Alka-Seltzer to digest the traditional cuisine.

What was the best thing you ate or drank? Lisbon is a city of a thousand pastelarias (bakeries). The soul of the Portuguese sweet tooth is in these pastries, which have long been a tradition in the baking practices of Catholic convents. My mornings started with a couple of pasteis de nata (small, round, flaky tarts, filled with egg custard and topped with cinnamon), coffee, and freshly squeezed orange juice.

During the trip, bacalhau (dried salted cod fish) was omnipresent. In Portugal it’s an art form. It can be fried, stewed, baked, and broiled in hundreds of different recipes. I had the best version at Pap’Açorda, in the Bairro Alto, a trendy restaurant where the intelligentsia comes for dinner, and where traditional Portuguese food is served in a contemporary, pared-down setting.

What advice do you have for someone going to Lisbon? Rent a car for a weekend trip to the Alentejo region, Lisbon’s heartland, west of the city. It’s a two-hour drive to Evora and Estremoz on beautiful empty highways. You’ll soon arrive in a curiously empty land covered with cork trees and white-washed medieval towns. The arid landscape of the Alentejo, which often looks like an African savanna, is where Portugal’s farming culture resides, and still thrives. You’ll experience it in Estremoz, at the Saturday morning central market, where old farming equipment, cattle bells, leather goods, and goat hides are sold. Note that car rentals are inexpensive compared to other European countries.