A city of ups and downs

Lisbon might be keen on jocks and knickers but Andrew Taylor finds out what's really underneath.

We've barely munched through our first plate of pasteis de nata and already I've earned a disapproving look from my travelling companion. "I'm not sure I want to see that," Denise says, pausing between Portuguese tarts. A quick check of my fly reveals no indecent exposure to the passers-by in the Praca Dom Pedro IV, which despite its monumental size is free of monuments commemorating Portugal's fascist past.

As the capital of a former colonial superpower, Lisbon wears its past with pride, courtesy of the European Union paying for a lick of paint and scrubbing off of pigeon poo.

Lisbon also prides itself on the standard of its jocks and knickers.

The Praca, indeed the entire city, has almost as many underwear shops as statues of past kings and seafaring explorers, all wearing impressive codpieces. Clearly, the Portuguese did not conquer half the world in threadbare long johns and matronly gussets.

Brandishing my travel guide like a soapbox preacher, I continue my attempt to convert Denise to the cause of touradas a antiga portuguesa, which roughly translates as bull-annoying: "It says here they're not killed like in Spain."

Denise looks at me with disdain: "Not in front of us."

The bullfight is not due to begin until 10pm - an early start by Mediterranean standards - so we defer further debate for another round of pasteis de nata and a stroll around the flat Baixa district. We quickly make further deductions about Portugal:

a) The national tipple, port, is not popular judging by the thick layer of dust in the liquor shop's window;

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b) full of sh's and sibilant consonants, Portuguese sounds like Spanish slurred by a drunken eastern European ... or two drunk Australians; and

c) with the wisdom that can only come during happy hour, Denise declares: "I think Portuguese men are better-looking than Spanish."

And I seem to be appealing to Lisbon's drug dealers, who zero in on me hissing: "Hashish?"

Cobblestones, bum-wrenching hills and persistent hash dealers soon drive us towards a tram stop.

As with underwear, public transport can reveal much about a city; in Lisbon's case, it is cheap, built for comfort yet stylish and handled by exceptionally fit drivers.

The No. 28 is more of a rollercoaster than a tram route and certainly a lot more hair-raising than the line between Sydney's Central and Lilyfield.

The tram ride begins innocently enough, picking up nonnas laden with shopping bags before beginning its gradual climb through the twisting alleys of Alfama and Graca, throwing sparks as it negotiates hairpin bends and inches past apartment balconies and parked cars.

Despite my travel guide's ridiculous claim, the sorrowful sounds of fado do not fill the cobblestone lanes of this working-class district.

But the sounds of TV soaps, squabbling kids and gossiping grandmas filter through the tram's open windows as we wait for a car to move off the tracks. And just as we tire of peering into apartment windows, the tram crests a hill and an awesome view of the harbour and Castelo de Sao Jorge unfolds.

The tram then resumes its breakneck journey through the streets before depositing us back in Baixa.

The sun has barely set and it's hours before locals would contemplate dinner. But Lisbon's chefs seem happy to turn on their deep fryers early for hungry tourists who cannot wait until midnight.

Up a thigh-burning steep hill, which has its own little tram, the Bairro Alto is a tangle of narrow alleys filled with cafes, bars and restaurants.

Never afraid of a bargain, Denise quickly tracks down a bar serving €0.60 beers, battery acid masquerading as red wine and salty bacalhau to keep her drinking until she is won over to the bullfighting cause.

The 100 or so protesters yelling, blowing whistles and waving placards against animal cruelty outside the elegant 19th-century Campo Pequeno, Lisbon's main bullfighting arena, seem to share Denise's doubts as we queue for tickets.

Our €15 ($23) buys us another thigh-burning climb to the nosebleeds, where we find seats among middle-aged men dressed in synthetic suits and sunburnt women not afraid to stretch their vocal cords.

However, the action in the arena is more Mardi Gras than macho as the picador trots around the red dirt ring to the sound of a brass band while waiting for the bull to emerge.

The cavaleiro, or horse rider, wears sequins and impossibly tight high-waisted britches, his horse looking similarly like it has just raided a drag queen's wardrobe.

If bulls had a sense of humour, this one would be cracking up at the sight of its antagonisers.

Instead, the noise of the crowd and the bad dress sense of the cavaleiro provokes the poor creature until it tries to prod the horse with horns that have had their pointy ends sawn off and wrapped in leather.

The teasing eventually stops when the cavaleiro thrusts a brightly coloured barbed dart into the bull's neck. A flag unfurls, the crowd cheers, the brass band strikes up a tune.

This happens again and again. The bull is in trouble as it bleeds and stumbles into the dirt. But not half as much trouble as I am in - my assurance to Denise about the animal's wellbeing is looking like a load of crap.

This bullfighting caper is quickly degenerating into bullying as nine forcados (bull wrestlers) leap into the arena as the crowd begins to clap in unison. Their ringleader dons a silly hat, puffs out his chest like a rooster and begins goose-stepping towards the bull, which eventually charges at him.

Silly-hat man jumps between the bull's horns grabbing its neck, while his fellow tormentors rush forward to stop the bull flinging its human goitre away.

Stopped in its tracks, all that remains is for everyone to lap up the crowd's cheers, except for one forcado who holds on to the bull's tail as it chases after him. Round one to the humans.

The next bull fares even worse, eventually having a hissy fit and refusing to leave the ring. However, its dignity is somewhat restored when its successor headbutts and tramples one of its two-legged tormentors. The crowd gasps, Denise cheers and a stretcher is called.

Yet, like an Italian football player, the forcado makes a miraculous recovery to play chicken with the bull. The bull can take no more and neither can Denise.

Coffee from a cafe ran by John Malkovich's identical twin lifts her mood the next morning. It promptly hits the ground after an hour of not realising that the museum we've been walking past is actually the train station we've been searching for.

Light eventually dawns and we find our train to Sintra, which chews up 40 minutes of scenery - ugly high-rise suburbs and dusty treeless hills - before depositing us in a Brothers Grimm fairytale of pine-covered hills, pastel-coloured chalets and turreted castles.

Sintra was allegedly a cool mountainous escape for Portuguese royalty but Denise and I are schvitzing like pigs on a spit by the time we pant up yet another steep hill to the entrance of the Palacio Nacional de Pena.

It's supposed to be Portugal's answer to Buckingham Palace or the Palace of Versailles and is a bizarre confection of onion domes, Moorish gates and stone snakes slithering across pastel pink and lemon towers.

Inside, it's a riot of nude nymph murals, overstuffed rickety furniture and chandeliers that wouldn't pass an OHS inspection. Still hot and bothered, Denise is not impressed: "If this is the best Portugal's got, then they're really f---ed."

Salty codfish balls restore some of her good humour but it takes an overripe caipirinha mixed by Farrah Fawcett's long-lost sister in a lesbian bar in the Bairro Alto to fully restore Denise's faith in Portugal.

The alleys of the Bairro Alto slowly fill as we pickle ourselves; hunger eventually catches up with us close to midnight.

It's the early shift at the tapas bar and our lovely Mexican waitress quickly opens up after Denise shares her appreciation of Portuguese manhood, minus bullfighters, drug dealers and the royalty's interior decorators.

So how do you catch one, she asks.

"I've been here three months and I'm still wondering that," the waitress tells us.

Despite a chilly dip in the Atlantic beaches of Cascais (frigid even in summer) and more boozing in the Bairro, Denise never did find an answer to that question.

GETTING THERE

Various airlines fly to Lisbon from London, including EasyJet, Royal Air Maroc and TAAG Angola Airlines. The Portuguese national airline, TAP, ended up having the cheapest available flight from London.

WHERE TO STAY

The Suisso Atlantico Hotel (Rua da Gloria 3), is close to the Praca Dos Restauradores, Estacao do Rossio (train station) and the tram that sidles up to the bars and bistros of Bairro Alto. For €59 ($90) a night, we scored a clean, comfortable room with a double bed, air-con and en suite. The room was dark but quiet. Rooms with street views are often noisy.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See visitportugal.com.

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