The beaten track

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 November, 2011, 12:00am


You don't see many obese people in Lisbon. The Portuguese capital sits on seven steep hills, which keep the pastry-loving locals slim and give them the cardiovascular capacity of mountain goats.

The city is a delightful, if underrated, destination. The salty setting, lofty topography and clanking trams are all reminiscent of San Francisco. Lisbon even has its own Golden Gate Bridge. Spanning the Tagus river, the brick-red Ponte 25 de Abril will have you checking the Global Positioning System on your mobile phone to confirm you're in Iberia, not California.

Exploring the City of Light is a breeze. Forgo the expensive double-decker tourist buses and head to the shopping district of Martim Moniz, terminus of the No28 tram. Regarded as national treasures, the vintage bumblebee-yellow streetcars follow a precipitous route that incorporates many of Lisbon's best-known sights and plenty of fascinating nooks and crannies that don't rate a mention in any guidebook.

Trams have been a feature of the city since 1873, when the first horse-drawn cars were introduced. 'Electricos' arrived in 1901 - two years before work on the tramline between Kennedy Town and Causeway Bay began in Hong Kong. These days, there are only five routes; a far cry from half a century ago, when passengers could choose from 24 lines.

No 28 is part public transport, part fairground ride. The rickety roller-coaster run can be completed in under an hour but the trick is to spend a day hopping on and off as you please. For one thing, it's almost impossible to take decent photographs from inside the moving vehicle, and besides, one of Lisbon's highlights is visiting the many miradouros, or lookout terraces, situated across the city.

The first stop of interest is Largo da Graca. Walk uphill from the Monastery of Sao Vicente de Fora and follow the aroma of freshly brewed coffee until you come to an open-air cafe with spectacular views, heart-starting espresso and a cabinet crammed with pasteis de nata, Lisbon's legendary egg custard tarts.

From Graca, hold on tight as the tram plunges down to the ancient Moorish quarter of Alfama, a loose translation of the Arabic al-hamma, or hot springs. Jump off and get lost among labyrinthine alleyways that were designed for donkey carts. If the salted-fish shop looks vaguely familiar, that's because it's where you were 15 minutes earlier.

The closely knit neighbourhood is the best place in which to track down a fado bar. The mournful soul music originated in local taverns two centuries ago and plenty of establishments play on their heritage by putting on tourist shows. Night owls and those seeking a more authentic experience should return to Alfama after midnight, when venues are packed with locals who like to get up and belt out a song or two. If late nights don't appeal, try to visit Lisbon in June, when smoky-voiced fadistas board trams to deliver impromptu performances.

Lisbon's prime attractions come thick and fast on the next stretch of the route. Electricos squeeze along narrow lanes, weaving within centimetres of parked cars, pedestrians and laundry billowing on balconies. Lean out of the window to get a better view and you might never lean back in again. Finally the road widens and No28 groans its way up to Miradouro das Portas do Sol, the postcard photographer's favourite viewpoint. Far below, higgledy-piggledy streets snake down to the deep blue of the Tagus while far above, the honey-hued ramparts of Castelo Sao Jorge offer vistas that extend into the heat-hazed hinterland.

The castle is perched on Lisbon's highest peak and, after traipsing all the way up, you deserve a reward. The custard tarts at the cafe are so creamy you almost expect former Hong Kong governor and pastry aficionado Chris Patten to be sitting at a nearby table.

Refuelled and re-energised, it's a 15-minute stroll down the cobbles to Lisbon's imposing cathedral; the oldest church in a city of churches. It was built by King Afonso Henriques after he drove the Moors out of Lisbon in 1147 and the interior is a collision of architectural styles, the result of numerous restorations.

Aim to reach the district of Baixa by mid-afternoon and pick any restaurant. A good lunch needn't cost more than Euro10 (HK$105). Take your cue from laid-back office workers around you and slow down. Order a plate of camarao piri piri (chilli and garlic prawns), savour a glass of vinho verde and plot the next leg of the itinerary.

Lisbon's neighbourhoods each have their own personality and in Baixa many of the streets are named after the tradesmen who once toiled there: besides Rua dos Correeiros ('saddlers road') there are thoroughfares named for sapateiros (cobblers), douradores (goldsmiths), prata (silversmiths) and fanqueiros (drapers).

Tram No 28 is at its most crowded as it rattles through busy Baixa and you'll need your wits about you. Sharp elbows guarantee a sliver of personal space and sharp eyes ensure pickpockets don't ruin an entire holiday in the few minutes it takes to get to Praca do Comercio.

For centuries, the praca (city square), with its triumphal arch, statues and shady arcades, was Lisbon's grand maritime gateway, where royalty and heads of state were welcomed with pomp and ceremony. Brakes hissing, we trundle towards the square and alight for the last time.

A five-minute walk west brings you to bustling Cais de Sodre railway station, which serves the popular seaside resorts of Estoril and Cascais. It's also the terminal for boats to the town of Cacilhas.

Few passengers get off when our ferry reaches its destination. Evidently we've all read the same guidebook that recommends sailing back towards Lisbon to photograph the panoramic skyline at sunset. The soft evening light transforms dazzling white buildings to a burnished gold and the terracotta rooftops of candy-coloured houses take on a rich saturated glow. What the guidebooks don't divulge is that the cafe at Cais de Sodre does an excellent cinnamon-dusted custard tart.

The last one. I can always walk it off tomorrow.

Getting there: Lufthansa ( flies from Hong Kong to Frankfurt, and from there to Lisbon. British Airways ( flies from Hong Kong to London, and from there to the Portuguese capital.