Nostalgia for past art glory suffuses even Lisbon’s Ritz
Saudade. On my last evening in Lisbon I felt it like the tide that streams into the Tagus River. The Oxford Dictionary defines saudade — woefully inadequately — as "a feeling of longing, melancholy or nostalgia".
I was standing by an empty pool in the Jardim Torel, under a pink, cloud-speckled sky, alone save for one or two passersby. Lisbon’s hills rippled out beyond the balustrades: a jumble of tiles, concrete, stone and glass — as close and elusive as the recent past.
I spotted the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz in the distance where my sojourn in the city began. When it opened in 1959, it was the city’s first grand hotel, built with the lavish, enthusiastic support of Portugal’s then dictator, António de Oliveira Salazar. Almost 60 years later, it still has no equal.
There are many reasons to love this hotel: the impeccably gracious service; the snatches of piano playing at tea time; the elegant, spacious rooms overlooking Eduardo VII Park.
The rooftop running track has sweeping city vistas that shift with each stride. The lap pool and spa in the basement are dimly lit and lush. The waffles and buttermilk pancakes are gobsmackingly yummy — my two favourites from the bountiful array of breakfast options you can enjoy either in the grand, high-ceilinged restaurant or the cosy, clubby Ritz Bar.
The hotel is an extraordinarily rich trove of mid-century Portuguese art. Myths, symbolism and everyday moments find bold, often colourful expression in tapestries, sculptures, paintings and friezes throughout the building. Although it’s hard to miss the three Centaurus-inspired works by José Sobral de Almada-Negreiros that dominate the lounge, it’s also worth seeking out the appositely titled Four Seasons by Sarah Afonso on the mezzanine. And you absolutely must sneak into the ballroom to admire the delicate, glowing hues of Arnaldo de Almeida’s Bambús.
Suitably inspired, I continued my arts exploring beyond the hotel. The Calouste Gulbenkian Museum’s Founder’s Collection features a staggering more than 6,000 pieces, ranging from ancient Greek and Egyptian antiquities to 18-century French decorative arts.
Its Modern Collection is housed in a gallery that draws abundant natural light through staggered glass windows. More than 1,200 works are arranged chronologically, offering insights into the moments and movements that have shaped Portugal from the late 19th century to the present — and how its artists have responded to and interpreted them.
In Belem in the west of the city the Monument to the Discoveries soars: a vainglorious, slabbish stone celebration of colonial misadventures, erected in 1960 even as Portugal’s grip on its empire was weakening.
A short walk away is the Museu Coleção Berardo, which offers an exquisitely rich crash course in the major movements of modern and contemporary art. From Dadaism and Abstract Expressionism to British Pop Art and beyond, it’s all here.
Afterwards, I fortified myself with two pastel de nata from the bustling Pastéis de Belém, which has been making them since 1837 using a recipe from the nearby Jerónimos Monastery.
I visited the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology. Comprised of a refurbished former power station and a new, fabulously sleek, free-standing gallery, it houses a changing mix of exhibitions, mostly featuring contemporary artists.
Up next was the LX Factory, a self-consciously hip and slightly underwhelming precinct of restaurants, design stores and studios. I headed back in time at the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. If you like ornate gold-and silverware and very old art, you’ll love it. The constipated expressions on medieval canvases weren’t really my cup of tea, though I was transfixed by the trippy Triptych of the Temptation of St Anthony by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.
Onwards, eastwards and into the future: to Chiado, a smart shopping neighbourhood that’s also home to the National Museum of Contemporary Art.
Formerly a monastery, its building has been skillfully reinvented as a warren of exhibition spaces varying in scale.
After three wonderful nights at the Four Seasons, I moved to equally lovely, but very different, digs: The Lisboans, a set of self-catering apartments. I entered my dream apartment: a smattering of antiques and art set against white walls; tall French windows framing views of the street; sleek mid-century inspired furniture, including a marble-topped dining table.
The Lisboans is poised between the grand Baixa and quaint Alfama neighbourhoods. I wandered through the golden rain-slicked alleyways of the latter where mournful serenades leaked out of the open doors of Fado restaurants.
I entered Tagus bar, listening to a bossa nova jam session followed by a Cape Verdean singer strumming his guitar — two reminders of the strong cultural links Portugal maintains with its former colonies. I drank peppermint tea at the comfy, lounge-like Pois Café and a solitary Super Bock beer at a humble, tiled taberna.
The Lisboans left orange juice and fresh bread outside my door in the morning: that was a wonderful touch.
In Baixa, I fell in love with Burel’s sturdy but timelessly stylish woollen satchels, blankets and cushions (woven and manufactured in a mountainous village). For more Made in Portugal delights, A Vida Portuguesa offered everything from sardines and ceramics to stationery and candles.
Near Rossio station, I found glove and hat shops that have been plying their trade for decades. I stopped at A Ginghina, a hole-in-the-wall serving cherry liqueur, swotting off offers of cocaine and hashish from a scraggly looking punter as I sipped the pleasantly warming and surprisingly tart drink.
Dinner was at Restaurante Palácio. This beerhall-cum-dining room is the real deal: garish lighting, harried service, vast local families and steaming trays stacked with some of the city’s most delicious seafood.
Ours featured percebes (a kind of eerie-looking barnacle), clams, garlic-soaked prawns and sweet and fleshy spider crab — all washed down with vinho verde (a slightly fizzy green wine). The night ended at another palace: the astonishingly opulent Palácio Chiado. I nursed an exceptionally made negroni in its gin bar — one of several quaffing and dining spaces in the building — admiring the frescoes, sculptures and soaring, vaulted ceiling above.
I raised my glass. Lisbon, you’re hard to beat.
Matthews was a guest of the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz and The Lisboans.