19 October 2015

Lisbon Day 2: Belém It on the Boogie

My Lisbon curse struck again on Sunday morning but this time I was ready to fight back. It had rained heavily overnight, but by the time I'd had breakfast, the sun was out again. I wanted to visit the suburb of Belém while the weather was nice and before the crowds arrived, so I walked down to Praça do Comercio to pick up the 15E tram. Google suggested that these trams ran every ten minutes or so, but the display indicated that the next one was in 80 minutes. I then realised that there were no buses, trams or cars on the streets at all. I wondered if it was a result of the torrential rain, but I soon realised that there was a marathon taking place.

The sun was shining, creating some gorgeous reflections in the puddles in Praça do Comercio, and I didn't want to miss the best of the weather so I decided to walk to Belém. It is about 4.5 miles if you follow the bike and running path along the waterfront. It's a pleasant route, for the most part, although some parts are more industrial than others. You also get some really nice views of the Ponte 25 de Abril. Yesterday, I could even see its red hue, which made it resemble the Golden Gate Bridge even more closely.

It took me just over an hour to power-walk to the Torre de Belém, after a brief false start at the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (the monument you reach just before you get to the tower). As I arrived, I started to feel a few drops of rain, but although the sunshine faded slightly, the rain did hold off for the time being. The tower itself (€6) was built in the 16th century, initially as a strategic defence, although it went on to hold several other functions, including as a prison and a customs house. You can climb all the way to the top of the tower, where you will be rewarded of great views over the river and Ponte 25 de Abril. You can also visit some of the low-ceilinged prison cells in the basement.

Next stop on my Belém tour was to Pastéis de Belém, a family-run bakery, which has been making the best custard tarts in Lisbon for almost two centuries. I was particularly amused that the listed pastéis de Belém prices were for one (€1.05), six or 50! After I had tried one, still warm from the oven and dusted with cinnamon, I could see why! Sinful, but very nice indeed. There are plenty of seats if you would like to eat in, but I went to sit in the nearby park, where there was also a little flea market.

The 500-year-old Mosteiro dos Jerónimos is located very close to Pastéis de Belém. There is often a big queue to get in, so it's worth picking up a pastel de Belém to keep you going while you wait. It costs €10 to get into monastery (the church is free), although you can get various Belém combo tickets and it, like the tower, is free if you have a Lisbon Card. Note: my guidebook said both attractions were free on Sunday mornings, but it's only the first Sunday of the month. The monastery is extremely well-preserved and literally breath-taking when you first glimpse the cloisters, even if you arrive much too late to beat the crowds. I spent a happy hour wandering through the site — there's also a good exhibition explaining the history of the monastery.

A friend of mine had recommended that I visit LX Factory, a food/shopping/art space located about halfway between Belém and central Lisbon, just under the Ponte 25 de Abril. As its name suggests, LX Factory is a former factory that has been converted into individual shops, restaurants, cafés and galleries, and it's a really cool space. I had already eaten, but there was a great choice of foodie spots, offering everything from gourmet burgers and sushi to brunch; Praça looked like a particularly nice place for a relaxed brunch.

I stopped for coffee at Wish after noticing that their menu included V60 and Chemex options. I sheltered from the rain and enjoyed a pourover (€5.50) in the whimsical surroundings. Wish also has a little shop, selling a well-curated selection of design products and gifts. On Sundays, there is also a huge vintage market in one of the warehouses, which is worth a browse.

I decided that the weather was probably good enough to risk another attempt to get into the Castelo São Jorge, so I caught the tram to Comercio do Praça and then made the short climb up the hill. If you are walking to the castle, do go up past the cathedral rather than climbing up the steps by Martim Moniz; the latter route is much longer, steeper and more complicated. The castle (€6.50 with a Lisbon Card) was open — hooray! — and I hurried on in. The rain had stopped but the views from the forecourt over the city and river weren't as pretty as on Saturday. The castle and its grounds sprawl across the hilltop — you can visit the Moorish remains and the more recent (relatively) Portuguese ramparts.

At many of the sights I've visited in Lisbon, there isn't a suggested route, which means you come up against various dead ends and have to retrace your steps, although it's quite nice to explore on your own. You can walk along most of the ramparts and, on a nice day, there are 360 views across the city. I had almost finished my visit when the heavens opened again and I had to seek shelter until the rain had died down enough for me to descend into the city.

My first choice for dinner on Saturday night was Pharmacia, the pharmacy-themed restaurant located in the Museu da Farmácia, but they were fully booked so I reserved a table for last night instead. First, though, I stopped by another Lisbon institution: A Ginjinha, a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bar near Rossio serving shots of ginjinha (cherry liqueur) for €1.40.

At Pharmacia, I selected the Ibuprofeno from the drug-themed cocktail list, which combined cachaça with licor beirão (not quite sure what this was but it gave the drink a liquorice or maybe aniseed taste) and lemon juice. It was very good. I couldn't choose among the wealth of tapas selections, so I went for the tasting menu, which included a soup short, three assorted starters, a fish course, a meat course and three assorted puddings. Not bad for €33! Everything was beautifully presented and included a lot of regional and national flavours. My favourite dish was the cod with sweet potato crisps, scrambled egg, and red pepper and coriander sauces, but the pulled pork croquette was also delicious. The menu was a surprise (I pre-registered my dislike of mushrooms), and the only thing I didn't like was the goat's cheesecake in the pudding assortment, but in all honesty, I was full by then anyway. It's a cool, quirky restaurant with great-value food and friendly service.

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