Wall-to-wall culture

The walls of Lisbon's derelict buildings have been turned over to street artists. Rachel Dixon surveys the results.

Lisbon is an elegant city of pastel buildings with terracotta roofs on steep streets. So it's a shock to see a 12-metre burglar bursting out of one of them.

I'm taking a taxi to the city's Bairro Alto. Looming out of the dark on Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo is a huge building. Where the windows should have been, there is starry night sky and an immense black figure making his escape. I get such a fleeting glance as we speed past that I wonder whether I've imagined it.

Retracing the route next day, I find a cluster of grand but derelict buildings. Artists had been let loose on their crumbling walls and boarded windows. As well as the four-storey burglar, there is a figure drinking from planet Earth with a straw, a giant crocodile and some sinister bird-like creatures. The scale is breathtaking and the gaudy colours incongruous but brilliant in the street.

This vast collection of graffiti art is the work of the Crono Project (cronolisboa.org), which is commissioning artists to transform neglected buildings in the business district, instead of abandoning Lisbon's crumbling heritage to the developers. The project began in June and is expected to conclude in July with an exhibition.

Street art has long been a part of Lisbon's culture. Until the 18th century, there was a tradition of all-white buildings. After the earthquake of 1755, richer areas began to incorporate colour and tiles into walls and footpaths. Following the democratic revolution in 1974, the amount of graffiti increased. Now, tags and scribbles cover the pretty streets.

Graffiti is either the scourge of the city or part of what makes it unique, depending on your viewpoint. Even if you dislike the disfiguring of an ancient capital, it is possible to distinguish between meaningless scrawls and impressive pieces of urban art.

Lisbon's city council has begun to make this distinction as part of an urban-renewal drive, making (largely futile) clean-up efforts but also talking to aficionados, making abandoned buildings available to artists and realising that good-quality street art can be an asset.

I decide to make graffiti-spotting the purpose of my break and set off to see what treasures I can find. Boutiques around the Rua da Rosa are decorated with graffiti instead of paintings. Galleries have murals painted on their brick walls. Every surface - a billboard, a street sign - seems to display a face, an animal, or a stencilled message. One slogan that stands out is ''Eat the rich'', a sign of the economically troubled times.

Near the castle in the Mouraria district, a maze of mediaeval alleyways, is street art with a difference. Rather than paint, Scottish artist Camilla Watson (camillawatsonphotography.net) uses photography. Tribute is a series of portraits of residents, printed on the walls of the Beco das Farinhas, where they live. Her exhibits have proved popular and will remain in place indefinitely.

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Next I head to the Galeria de Arte Urbana (gau-lisboa.blogspot.com), which is on Calcada da Gloria and was set up by the council to give street artists a legal place to operate. Many have taken up the invitation, covering the specially erected boards with fantastical creations - one reminds me of Picasso's Guernica. Others have called for real walls to be authorised for graffiti.

In Amoreiras I visit the Hall of Fame, Lisbon's biggest and oldest stretch of mural. Some 1990s paintings are still there - practically prehistoric in graffiti terms - but Lisbon's street art is no longer just found on the streets. Like Banksy, many Portuguese graffiti artists have begun to exhibit in galleries.

The Vera Cortes art agency (veracortes.com), hidden away near the Praca do Comercio, is hosting an exhibition by Underdogs (under-dogs.net), a collective of some of the country's top street artists. Chief among them is Vhils, aka Alexandre Farto, who began by tagging trains and now, at just 23, is feted in galleries around the world. He is known for his portraits, which are often created in abandoned buildings from materials he finds there. In the Underdogs exhibition, Vhils chiselled a face out of the plaster itself. To see his work on the street, go to Fabrica Braco de Prata, an old munitions factory in the Marvila district.

Other galleries in Lisbon are also embracing urban art. Some are small, quirky venues such as Yellow Pants (yellowpantsgallery.com) but others are mainstream galleries showing graffiti for the first time.

The Berardo Collection (berardocollection.com) in Belem is a major museum of modern art that last year hosted work by Os Gemeos (The Twins), graffiti artist brothers from Brazil. I hop on the bus to the Belem Cultural Centre to view the contemporary Portuguese art in its permanent collection, as well as pieces by Picasso, Miro and Warhol. Belem has a host of other sights, from the Jeronimos Monastery and the Tower of Belem to the Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, which is said to serve the best custard tarts in Lisbon.

Art appreciation is tiring when you have to explore an entire city. Luckily there are plenty of arty hang-outs when you need a break. The Chiado district is a good place to start. We have salad and sandwiches at Mar Adentro (Rua do Alecrim 35), a gay bar by night and one of the few places that serve food all day. At night, the Bairro Alto is always lively. We stumble across Imperio dos Sentidos (imperiodossentidos.com.pt/) on our first night. It's one of the best places we dine at, with a mix of Portuguese and international dishes, and art on the walls. I share some black pudding from Guarda and then have the ubiquitous but delicious feijoada (bean stew) with cuttlefish and prawns.

For wine tasting, try Alfaia Garrafeira (garrafeiraalfaia.com; not to be confused with Alfaia restaurant, its more touristy older brother), a tiny wine bar and shop serving mountain cheese, pata negra ham and other delicacies. The Bairro Alto has dozens of bars, from the traditional to the high camp and fashionable, such as Heidi (heidibar.com), a ''Swiss concept bar''. For cocktails, head to Cinco Lounge (cincolounge.com) in the Principe Real. Run by a Briton, it's a bit too smart to be ''street'' but it has a nice mix of trendy locals and knowledgeable tourists.

The beauty of street art is you can see it without being confined to a gallery. Even a bar crawl can double as an urban art trail. Just watch out for giant burglars.

Swiss Airlines has a fare to Lisbon for about $2180 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax, flying Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong (9hr), then to Zurich (13hr), then Lisbon (3hr). This fare allows you to use a number of partner airlines to Asia and to fly back from another European city.

- Guardian News & Media

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