A few years ago when I read Pascal Mercier’s book, “Night Train to Lisbon,” I started to have nostalgic notions about going back to Portugal. I hadn’t been there since the late nineties when I had worked on an article on Port Wines in Oporto. When I finished the book, which brings the reader into a dark era of Portugal’s history when a socialist revolution was taking shape and the country was attempting to shed itself from the shackles of dictatorship, I recalled my first trip to Lisbon:
I was 11 years old and living in Madrid. One morning my father woke up with a wild idea – to spend the weekend in Lisbon, and we would drive the 500 kilometers or so in his Renault Dauphine. These were days before highways existed, it was 1959, and Salazar was still in control.
My first impression came around midnight when we arrived at the border and had to present passports to enter. The first words of Portuguese I heard sounded guttural and almost like a Slavic tongue. Helping my father navigate the narrow roads to Lisbon was a chore, few lights on the route to help guide the driver and only a white line in the center, which needed a paint job.
A few hours later, we made it to the city and were safely ensconced at the Hotel Tivoli on Lisbon’s Avenida Libertade.
Fast forward to 2018, and a few years older, I was sitting in my New York office, while the snow was piling up on the streets below and the temperatures continued to plummet, I began to conjure up images of warmer climes.
My magnet had always been the Mediterranean and specifically Southern Europe, and I began to seek a cost-effective option that would get me back to my once upon a time home base of Nice. Naturally, the traditional carriers like BA and Air France would come to mind, however, their costs were too high to afford, and they did not offer competitive one-way fares to my destination. Enter, Air Portugal. When I checked their website I could not believe my eyes, one way to Nice via Lisbon at less than $300 – that was more like it.
Exploring further, I discovered that Air Portugal was offering 1-5 night stopovers in either Lisbon or Porto at no extra charge. To make the offer even more attractive, the airline would throw in a selection of discounted hotels, tours, and restaurants to boot. This was a no brainer, and here was my winter break.
My only apprehension were my previous experiences on TAP, recollecting a very structured and state-run airline. This was back in the 80s. Now we were in 2018, and I heard that under the leadership of its new CEO, Fernando Pinto, that image was long gone and the airline had garnered many awards.
A week later, I was having a late afternoon tea, easing myself in to Europe, at Audrey’s café, part of the charming Santiago de Alfama Hotel in Lisbon’s old quarter, when I happened to stumble across the owner Manel. Colorful character and raconteur, Manel and his wife were instrumental in the décor and ambiance of the hotel and are now renovating an adjacent building known as Palacio de Santiago, which will add to the charm as well as rooms to the hotel. While touring the new “site,” Manel made sure I was aware that on this particular street, Rua Santiago, “globalization” was financed, and Christopher Columbus was married. A perfect hotel for the curious traveler. Beautiful views over the old Alfama district from its position high up over the city are exceptional as are those to the Pantheon and the Sao Vincente Monastery.
Two days later, I headed back to the airport after a thoroughly enjoyable Lisbon “fix” and boarded my Air Portugal connecting flight to Nice.
I can’t think of a better way to get over jet lag.