Rich in the ordinary

Stuart Forster finds Lisbon's everyday treasures are as appealing as ever, despite the nation's economic straits.

Despite all the talk about the Portuguese economy being in crisis, the evidence is hard to find on the cobbled footpaths and squares of Lisbon. The azure sky is cloudless, the thermometer shows 28 degrees and Lisboetas are enjoying the sun.

Even the shabbier facades of the city look charming in Lisbon's light, whose brightness and warmth makes exploring with a camera pleasurable. Long hours of sunshine, the shimmering water of the broad River Tagus, the reflective quality of traditional azulejo tiles on many buildings and pastel yellow and pink paint on others combine to create a luminosity that might well be unique.

The peeling paint on facades at the edge of the historic Alfama district has little to do with economic difficulties. Some of these houses and shops have been abandoned for years. Washing hangs from lines strung on wrought-iron balconies, giving the street a distinct sense of southern Europeanness. My camera clicks. Does photographing this scene of ordinary domesticity capture a little of Lisbon's soul? I wonder if exploring the backstreets is more telling than viewing the tourist sites of castles and cathedrals.

How can travellers understand a new city? I put the question to Bruno Gomes, the founder of We Hate Tourism Tours, which offers an alternative approach to the city. "People need to leave all the lists behind," the 33-year-old says emphatically in fluent English. "If you want to experience a city, you really have to do a reset when you arrive in the city and experience it by yourself or, even better, with a friend. If you go on a sightseeing bus or something and look at the churches and the monuments, you can buy a DVD and watch it in a room."

Gomes was born and raised in Lisbon and describes himself as "alfacinha de gema" - a "lettuce to the yolk", or local to the core, because Lisboetas are known informally as "lettuces" in Portuguese. He began his business four years ago after running well-received tours for friends. "We are not trying to show just how beautiful Lisbon is but how it really is," he says. "To be honest, I'm not so interested in telling you about all the churches in Lisbon. I'm more interested in telling what Lisbon is about; what people are doing in front of the churches."

We explore the city in an open-topped UMM, a jeep-like Portuguese all-terrain vehicle, which has a carpet of artificial grass. Gomes drives us to the towering statue of the Marquis of Pombal, explaining his importance in shaping the city following the Great Earthquake of 1755, joking about how the Portuguese tend to be emotional rather than rational, unlike this great reformer and "man of reason". Driving through Alfama, Gomes waves at elderly women on the street, telling us how he loves the district for its village-like feel. Throughout the tour, Gomes is just as happy discussing football and politics as history. "We are the way we are but thankfully people have been enjoying that," he says.

The three-hour tour is a good introduction to Lisbon and the mindset of one of its residents, and leaves me time later in the day to follow Gomes's advice. I start at the Praca do Comercio, the expansive public square that fronts the river Tagus. Before the city was destroyed in 1755, this was the site of a royal palace and it became the symbolic centre of the reconstructed city. A statue of the Marquis of Pombal, the man who drove those rebuilding efforts, stands on the right side of the grand arch leading to Rua Augusta and into the downtown Baixa district.

How might the marquis have responded to the problems facing his country today? Portugal was one of the first nations in the eurozone to seek aid for its debt problems. In May last year, a €78 billion bailout package was secured from the European Union and International Monetary Fund. Purse strings have been tightened and, in recent months, public-sector employees have had their wages cut by about 20 per cent.

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Inevitably, some Portuguese resent the decisions of their country's politicians, while others hope austerity measures are already working, though the economy is likely to need years of careful control. Even so, money has been found to renovate paving around the Praca do Comercio to improve wheelchair accessibility and access to trams, a project that was completed last month. A new coach museum is nearing completion in the Belem district. "Crisis? What crisis?" graffiti asks pointedly on a fence surrounding the latter.

Also last month, a new museum opened in quarters once occupied by the Ministry of Finance on the Praca do Comrcio. The words "Ministerio das Financas" can still be seen on the frame over the door; the building is now occupied by the Museu da Cerveja, or Beer Museum, which tells the story of brewing in Portugal and exhibits artefacts from breweries in Portuguese-speaking countries.

The ground floor of the museum has a bar and restaurant that still serves patrons in the square. From a table under an umbrella, I order a beer and pastel de bacalhau, a popular cod-based snack much like a cold fishcake. Eating out is still affordable in Lisbon and much better value than in most cities in western Europe, despite the 10 per cent increase in value-added tax in January on food served in restaurants.

Even though Lisboetas are eating out less frequently, restaurants and bars are still busy at weekends. For years the bar-lined lanes of the Bairro Alto district have been the place where Lisboetas party. The area around the Cais do Sodre station and ferry terminal was once a notorious hang-out for sailors and prostitutes. In recent months, however, bars have opened and the area is increasingly popular. In the early hours, people stand socialising and drinking on the pedestrianised Rua Nova do Carvalho, just a couple of blocks from the Tagus waterfront.

I head to Sol e Pesca (meaning sun and fish, at 44 Rua Nova do Carvalho), a bar that opened two years ago in a long-abandoned space once occupied by a fishing-tackle shop. With a beer in hand - the default size in Lisbon is a 200-millilitre measure known as an imperial (not all bars serve the 400-millilitre caneca) - I'm surrounded by fishing rods and tackle displayed around the walls, lending a relaxed ambience. The bar is popular with the thirtysomething crowd.

My next drink is at the Pensao Amor, meaning love hotel or "house of love", at 36 Rua Nova do Carvalho, whose stairwell is decorated by burlesque murals hinting at the trade that once dominated the streets of this part of town. Inside, it is all low lights, plush seats and laughter. My glass is empty and I'm faced with a dilemma: should I stay out like a local or turn in so I'm fresh for sightseeing tomorrow? What would Gomes say?

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Emirates began flights from Dubai to Lisbon this month. It has a fare to Lisbon from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2090 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr), then to Lisbon (8hr 45min); see emirates.com. This fare allows you to fly back from another European city.

Touring there

We Hate Tourism Tours runs informative city tours with an informal feel. A three-hour King of the Hills tour costs €35 ($42); see wehatetourismtours.com.

Museu da Cerveja is open from noon to 8pm (until 10pm on Friday and Saturday), entry €3.50, address Terreiro do Paco, Ala Nascente 62-65. See museudacerveja.pt.

Staying there

The five-star boutique Bairro Alto Hotel is well located near Largo do Camoes, at the junction of the Bairro Alto and Chiado districts. Double rooms with breakfast cost €270 a night; see bairroaltohotel.com.

The four-star Tivoli Oriente, close to the Park of Nations, has double rooms from €90; see tivolihotels.com.

More information

See visitlisboa.com.

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