Getting Under the Skin of a City

A trip to Lisbon allows Trevor Pickett to reflect on how differing countries interpret architectural design 

A true break for me is visiting a city where one can get away and soak up local culture and unique art references to gain a greater appreciation of the overall ambience. Vernacular, architectural style and local fayre all contribute to a fresh perspective. There is so much to do in London, it’s a freshner just to get away and think slightly differently. When I travel, I reflect on how different countries and cultures interpret architectural design to their own local style so there is an evolution over the centuries. Looking back to the temple of Vespa one sees domes, pillars and pilasters rise from that simple structure in Rome – it influenced the capital, St Paul’s Cathedral, Panthéon and many other buildings work from that reference. Art movements seem to evolve more quickly over decades and it is evident northern and southern take a slightly different approach, each appropriate to their climates. Lisbon is now emerging as ‘the happening’ European city and in addition to all its other attractions the fair weather reminds me that summer is almost here. 

I am totally spoilt, in that I am staying with a friend in the centre of Lisbon – Bairro Alto on Rua de Alecrirm. I am reminded of Chelsea as I knew it 30 years ago. He lives in a historic, impressive palacio which is now divided into apartments. Staying with friends, I feel one gets under the skin of a city and its culture. I am granted the access of local lifestyle, able to get out and explore the town in an authentic way yet through different eyes. Arriving late on Sunday night I was greeted with a mezza of delicious Portuguese canapes, with much chatting and eating, making for a late night. I woke up (hardly) at the crack of dawn and took my time gazing out of my window which overlooks the square of Rua do Alecrirm. I noticed the extension of the Bairro Alto hotel which is taking shape as a great boutique for an evening drink.

Lisbon still has a plethora of small independent shops that specialise in a singular product such as hats, gloves or cheese. My hosts very proudly served me coffee from the local shop called a carioca. The coffee had a delicious aroma and an exquisite blend that is certainly particular, absolutely no need for sugar or milk! I am only slightly annoyed I did not visit it or had one such shop around the corner of my flat as it is a true treasure, and I fear it could be another victim that may be swallowed up by the chains. We are lucky that at home, although many have been lost in Soho, there are the survivors – not just created in a design studio with faux authenticity rolled out to in airports, railway stations and shopping malls.

My friend in real estate gives me the unique opportunity to visit a series of old palacio, many pre-restoration and pre-market. One that I viewed with him had a traditional steep vaulted ceiling into the roof space which gave height to the rooms. These now have a preservation order that is particular to Lisbon house of the pre-earthquake period. We found ourselves in the Alfama District, near Hotel Santa Clara. It was an opportunity to see this beautiful hotel that has grace, space and a slow pace. One simply felt cool, calm and collected in fifty shades of white and wooden floors. The bathroom has solid stone basins and baths to match the oblong tiles that have deep ripples illuminated beautifully. With magnificent views of the sea, it is the oasis that one is looking for on a short break. There are only six rooms so it is also perfect for a small party. The only danger is that one might arrive and not leave ones’ room for the whole stay!

The contemporary fish restaurant See Me in Barrio Alto has a cornucopia of local fayre with a huge iced counter and an extensive choice – so much so that it can phase one with the depth of selection from the depths of the sea!

The Museu do Azulejo is hardly a hidden treasure – it is a comprehensive encyclopaedia of the history of tiles with the ultimate example being in the Portuguese style, leading the art genre at the turn of the 18th century. Quite exquisite in variety of various traditional and decorative designs, the tiles draw inspiration from northern Africa. Rich in colour the tiles feature amazing detail within this genre of art.

Enjoying little tourist moments like a stroll through St Marks Square in Venice or a break in one of the cafes, it is refreshing to soak up the architectural beauty while enjoying a glass of wine and surveying the surroundings. Praca do Comericio (built after the earthquake) is a large square which on one side looks out to the sea, whereas in the centre of the opposite side is a triumphant arch, the impressive Co Da Rue Augusta having scale majesty adorned with magnificent figures.

A short walk is The National Museum of Contemporary Art. It is fascinating to see how different European countries interpret art movements and I am always drawn to the 20th century. There are some iconic examples of Portuguese art of the last century at the museum, which is located at Rua Serpa Pinto, 4  Rua Capelo.

After a stroll down Rua Garrett (one of the shopping drags in Barrio Alto) many shops have traditional facades, at the end of the rua one must hang a left on Rua do Carmo for the perfect ice cream at Santini. With a feel of 1950s beach glamour, the parlour is flooded by nostalgic images on the walls, with sharp chic clean lines and red and white stripped décor. It is worth noting the ice cream is every bit as delightful as the ambience. riddle_stop 2

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