AS any Sharpe fan will know, and hopefully most of the rest of us, too, Portugal is Britain’s oldest ally. Visiting Lisbon, I was reminded of the link between the countries by one iconic image: the bright red pillar box.
Lisbon’s post boxes are the old British Victorian design, given a local makeover with a ‘Correio’ stamp instead of our regal ciphers, and a glass-fronted dial to show the next time of collection.
They also bear a number and, after noting this, the latent trainspotter in me couldn’t resist looking out for No.1.
I always enjoy wandering any city and Lisbon meets the criteria of a great one; there is something interesting around almost every corner. Even the pavements themselves, decorated in painstaking patterns, repay scrutiny, while the tiles on so many facades are also unique to each.
Cafés abound, so taking a break to enjoy a nata – Portugal’s famous custard tart – and a strong coffee while watching the world go by is a national pastime.
Box No.3 was in the Bairro Alto, the high part of the city that survived the great earthquake of 1755 and is now a fascinating maze of quiet, cobbled streets that burst into life at night. Once famed for its fado (the sad songs of homesickness of a seafaring nation), you’re now just as likely to hear rap or techno music blasting from an opening door.
Accents from every part of the world – US, English, German, Russian – fill the air as revellers drink on corners at 1am. It made sense that elusive No.1 would be in this part of Lisbon but I couldn’t find it.
Spread out below the Bairro Alto is the Baixa, the heart of the city, where the broad Avenida da Liberdade links with the seafront. A number of trams make their way down by circuitous routes, or you can drop steeply in the tramcars of Elevador da Glória, or Elevador da Bica.
Alternatively, there is the unique lift, Elevador da Gloria, whose brass control lever shows it, too, was made in Londres.
A few steps from its foot, I found Box No.2. Nearby is the office of GoCars, which offers GPS tours of the city for those who prefer motorised transport to my aimless wandering.
The bright yellow two-seaters brought out child-like openness in all who saw them. Every time I stopped, someone engaged me in conversation – happily, English or Portenol (half Spanish, half-Portuguese) is widely understood.
The scooter-based three-wheelers fit in tiny spaces, can use bus lanes and even have access to areas closed to normal traffic. The GPS – a radio in the dash – is sophisticated. Pass a point of interest and a voice tells you its story. If the story is a long one, it will suggest a safe place to pull over and listen (‘near the bus stop, under the tree’).
There are suggested routes on my map but deviating from them doesn’t throw the GPS. Having your own transport allows you to cover more ground and some of Lisbon’s greatest attractions are a few kilometres from the centre.
At Belém, there is the awesome Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, built to celebrate Vasco Da Gama’s successful return from the first voyage to India.
The fascinating Maritime Museum reminds you yet again of the links between our two seafaring, empire-building nations. On the way to Belém there is also the Museum of the Orient, much smaller but packed with priceless exotic treasures.
Out at the Parque das Nações, site of Expo 98, the Oceanarium is the world’s second biggest, while the park itself has cafés, restaurants, and the massive Vasco da Gama mall.
At any point, of course, you can park up your GoCar to visit a museum or take a coffee. Tour aimlessly, trusting to chance, or follow an itinerary religiously, it’s up to you. Neat. But I never did find that No.1 post box.
I have to mention I was targeted three times in one day by (unsuccessful and non-violent) pickpockets in Lisbon. There was little police presence – suggesting a lack of official concern – but the body language on trams and buses (hugging bags and wary looks) show locals are very aware of the problem. You should be too.
GoCar Tours – www.gocartours.com