Lisbon: The City of Custard

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April 3rd 2013
Published: December 19th 2014
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Never has so much custard been consumed on such a brief trip; during 5 days in Lisbon we consumed our body weight. We ate it three meals a day, sometimes a little more, in all different forms. We sampled the national custard tart, pastel de nata at every opportunity and never had one that wasn't delicious, in fact we rarely just had one. Supermarket custard will never be adequate again thanks to the deliciously subtle differences of custard dishes throughout Lisbon.

If the Portuguese had stopped at custard we may have been okay, but the food and drink on offer in Lisbon is impossible not to appreciate. Every meal had us trying different delicacies in such a variety of venues, from local takeaway bars to fado restaurants. It was lucky our hotel was slightly outside of the city centre and up a rather steep hill so that we were forced to get some exercise. We were with our frequent travel companions Keith and Kristie, who thankfully have an appreciation of good custard too and Kristie is as keen a collector of pots as I am. We have developed a tradition of travelling with them over Easter and previous years have seen us in Cornwall, Iceland and the Cotswolds.

Arriving on a damp Saturday evening, we decided to walk into Bairro Alto to find some dinner. We stumbled across a little tapas bar, El Gordo in the cobbled back streets. It immediately raised our expectations of Portuguese dining with brilliant food, tasty Sangria, dark Portuguese beers, Port and a mouth watering range of custard desserts. During dessert an Easter procession passed by the bar in ritual solemnity, bringing a surreal feeling to our first evening in Lisbon.

The following morning the skies had cleared over the terracotta roofs of the city. After a breakfast of pastel de natas in the lanes around our hotel we strolled through the streets of Bairro Alto making our way towards the centre of the city, stopping at view points to admire the views over to the castle and the sea. The location of Lisbon, set across a series of hills, means that stunning vistas are plentiful. And the vibrancy of the city is at once in contrast with the old world buildings and the terracotta tiles and the cobbled alleys.

We walked down the path of one of Lisbon's elevadors, elevador do Gloria to the streets of Chiado and Baixa. We took the lift up the latticework metal tower of the Elevador do Santa Justa for another view over the city before having beers and lunch (no custard) by the harbour. A tram ride took us up to the Castelo do Sao Jorge. We strolled through the castle grounds admiring yet more views over the city and watching the peacocks lounging and preening in the trees and on the castle walls. Our first pottery purchases were made just outside the castle walls in a lovely little store with an enthusiastic, bespectacled owner. He took the time to explain that the traditional blue and white jug I was purchasing was made in the south of Portugal, near the Spanish border, and showed me pictures of the sister and brother team who had made it in action.

From the castle we made our way into the Alfama, a quiet residential area, getting lost in its labyrinthine streets, enjoying the quiet after the hustle around the castle, before stopping for vinho verde ('green wine', a young slightly effervescent Portuguese wine) in a cellar bar. The day was finished with a meal in a fado restaurant. Fado, literally 'fate' is often described as Portuguese blues, and our meal was accompanied by the melancholy vocals of two female and one male fado singers.

Our second full day in Lisbon was so wet that exploring the town had become an unappealing prospect so we headed to the Oceanario instead. Lisbon's oceanarium is one of Europe's largest and has enough exhibitions to kill a few hours. We weren't the only people avoiding the weather, and the queue to get inside curled around the building so that we were queuing in the weather we had come to avoid. Once we managed to get out of the rain, we enjoyed the thousands of fish and as we drip-dried, we circled around the enormous central tank. As we coiled around we got lower and lower, and deeper and deeper into the calming depths of the ocean. The evening saw the clouds abate and it was clear enough to venture out for a meal and we headed back to Bairro Alto which was quickly becoming our favourite place to dine in Lisbon.

The last few days in Lisbon were spent around the Belem area and in the areas around Baixa. We visited the tourist sites in Belem, the Padrao dos Descobrimentos which is a monument to the explorers and the Moorish Torre de Belem which is a favoured image representing Lisbon. A few hours were spent in the cloisters and the church of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an impressive example of European gothic architecture and a relaxing place to spend some time alone with your thoughts if you can avoid the crowds..

And of course we ate custard, amongst other things. Notable food consumed included pastel del natas from the famous Antiga Confeitaria de Belem which has been serving these delicious custard desserts since 1837, chicken from Bom Jardim, Rei dos Frangos, and a pork sandwich from Bifanas deservedly recommended by Anthony Bourdain.

Lisbon has more to see and more custard to eat than can be fully experienced in five days. It's vibrant street life and the variety of the city's different areas mean you could spend days watching people, discovering hidden places and enjoying everything that this wonderful city has to offer. The custard, beauty and diversity will surely bring us back here in the future.

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20th December 2014

We've done a lot of travel but have not made it to Portugal yet. I hate to admit I didn't know one of the specialties in Lisbon was custard. It might have made me go there sooner if I'd known. You've lured us in with talk of beautiful pottery, photos of fantastic peacocks, scenic rooftops and closed the deal with cobbled streets near El Gordo. That stop is now on our list. Thanks for a wonderful blog.

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