American author Philip Graham has written this post for GoLisbon, sharing his off-the-beaten-path discoveries in Chiado, one of Lisbon’s most visited neighborhoods. His book “The Moon Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon” (a collection of essays narrating the year he lived in Lisbon with his family) is on sale now.
Lisbon, as I’ve said many times to friends and family, will surprise you. Perhaps the best example is that, even in Chiado, one of the most heavily touristed areas in the city, you can still take a short walk a bit off the beaten path that will be filled with pleasant surprises.
Yes, Chiado’s Café a Brasileira, with its outdoor stand of umbrella-ed tables where you can sip and be seen by passing fellow travelers, is a worthy stop. The high-end shops down Rua Garrett deserve window—as well as actual shopping. And there’s nearly always some unusual street performance underway at the Praça Luís de Camões.
But if you’re inclined to make a brief escape from the gravitational pull of the usual tourist attraction, simply walk south from the Largo do Chiado, down the Rua do Alecrim. You’re just a block away from the lovely Largo do Barão de Quintella, a tiny green park centered around the dark marble statue celebrating one of Portugal’s greatest writers, the novelist Eça de Queiroz. He stands (fully clothed) beside the figure of a half naked woman, her arms spread in supplication. She’s meant to represent Truth, and at the base of this statue is a quote from Queiroz, the one that inspired the sculptor:
“Sobre a nudez forte de verdade
A manto diaphano da fantasia,”
which roughly translates into English as:
“Over the hard nakedness of truth
Lies a gauzy veil of fantasy.”
That’s as pithy a description of most people’s daily reality as can be found in literature, and it’s worth pausing to contemplate. You can continue your contemplations as you then make your way to the southeast corner of the park and walk across the street to Sant’anna (95-97 Rua do Alecrim), an excellent shop specializing in Portuguese azulejos. These are traditional colorful tiles, an art form that was originally influenced by the abstract patterned tiles of the Moors, who ruled over much of Portugal in the Middle Ages. The Portuguese versions, however, go much more for representation, the patterns featuring leaves, flowers, fruit, etc. You can also find pottery and dishes at the shop, though the tiles are the main attraction.
But be careful what you buy. Over ten years ago my wife and I purchased a couple boxes of azulejos from Sant’anna, and that initial purchase of about $150 turned into the basis of a very expensive—but satisfying—kitchen renovation.
Other azulejos tell a story, each square tile forming a small part of a larger illustrated drama: battle scenes, depictions of daily life from other centuries, religious miracles, all designed to be displayed in one’s home or on an exterior wall. One might say that Portuguese azulejos were one of the earliest forms of popular graphic art.
Once you’ve explored enough in Sant’anna, simply walk one block east, along the southern edge of the Largo do Barão de Quintella, and you’ll be in sight of BdMania (Rua das Flores, 71), a small shop where you can find another, more contemporary kind of graphic art; this place is stacked with all manner of graphic novels, comics, Japanese manga, you name it. Are you a fan of steam punk? This is the place for you. Each table is packed with an amazing range of merchandise. I once bought for my wife there a French graphic novel about a traveling band of klezmer musicians.
After your extended stint of exploring in these two shops, perhaps it’s time to think about lunch. Keep walking south on the Rua das Flores, in the direction of the Tejo river. You’re looking for Restaurant a Carvoaria (Rua das Flores, 6), but don’t look for a sign, there isn’t one. There isn’t a menu posted outside, either. Just look for the street number—6—and there you are, standing in front of what looks like a hole in the wall. Literally. Just a darkened open doorway beckons you to a not entirely welcoming darkened space. Have no fear, though—take a few steps inside, let your eyes adjust, and then head for the stairs on your left. You’ll enter a much better lit but still cavernous space, chock-a-block with long tables filled with Portuguese business people and workers enjoying their mid-day meal in a restaurant that only serves lunch, within a two-hour window, from noon to a little after 2 o’clock. The food in Carvoaria is simple but satisfying. Go for the seafood, though the chicken dishes are just as succulent. Y’know, the rack of pork is fine too. The house red wine, served in ceramic jars, goes down smoothly—be careful, it will creep up on you. The entire atmosphere is of a happy, noisy family.
But don’t order a dessert or coffee. Save that final course for your last stop on this little tour, the nearby pastelaria Quatro Estações (Praça de São Paulo 17). Simply continue walking south on Rua das Flores, make your first right, onto Rua de São Paulo, and then take your first left. There you’ll find Quatro Estações, located in the middle of the block at the eastern end of the Praça de São Paulo.
Make sure you grab a table near the window facing the praça—from there you’ll have a lovely view of the Church of São Paulo on the other side of the praça. I suggest this pastelaria not because the offerings of dessert or caffeinated beverages or freshly squeezed orange juice is better than any other of the myriad such pastelerias in Lisbon (though they are quite good here); instead I recommend it because of the clientele. The owners are a Brazilian couple that has created in their establishment a welcoming air to all and sundry, and the place is often swinging with an unusual cast of characters. I relaxed there several times during a year I spent in Lisbon, and while lingering over an espresso or the spongy goodness of a bolo de arroz, I could take in the informal rotating house entertainment of a pair of gypsies reading patrons’ palms for hints of the future, ancient veterans selling raffle tickets, and local characters who’d invented their own language or who imagined themselves powerful political figures. Strangers air-kiss other strangers, and for all the odd moments, the pastelaria maintains a mellow, happy mood. This is a real neighborhood gathering place, and as far from a den of tourists as you can get in downtown Lisbon.
Oh, right beside Quatros Estações is a dental clinic, but I doubt you’ll be eating that many sweets at the pastelaria.