Trans-Iberian Express

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Image of Tivoli Carvoeiro Hotel on coast
Portugal’s suddenly become a very hip millennial destination – but it’s the heritage, culture and food which it’s always had which are its biggest draws
‘we explored the coastal footpaths and Carvoeira itself, a cute little seaside town with a tidy beach and bustling main square’

If Instagram’s to be believed – and it’s very rarely let us down in the past – then Lisbon’s followed Budapest, Copenhagen and Krakow as the achingly hip European city break destination de nos jours. You can see the appeal – it’s got bucketloads of heritage, the food’s top notch, and as a city it’s almost entirely made of coastline.

The very swish Tivoli Avenida Liberdade Lisboa is only about 20 minutes from the airport, but it’s right in the downtown area of the city on a broad boulevard a short walk from Rossio Square. Up in the sky bar on the top floor, you get a proper view of the way Lisbon’s seven hills mean each quarter has retained its own character, as well as the basin which was completely flattened in 1755 by an earthquake. It would have registered nine on the Richter scale, we’re told, and started a massive fire too. Then, because these things come in threes, a tsunami hit the city too. It destroyed 80 percent of the buildings and killed two thirds of the inhabitants. These are atypically morose thoughts to have in a sky bar, but there they are.

The architectural critic Ian Nairn’s favourite thing about Newcastle was what he called its ‘polyphonic’ sense; the contrasting styles, eras and attitudes of the buildings which make up any city are juxtaposed against and elevated by each other. Dean Street’s a good example: the Georgian finery, the vaulting Victorian railway bridge, the pre-Medieval street structure. Away from the basin, which is pretty much entirely in the slouchily elegant 18th century townhouse style, Lisbon has the same charm, its buildings piling on top of each other to show all the city’s influences at once.

You get a real sense of it while haring around the city’s seven hills in a tuk tuk, which is a lot less cramped and queuing-centric than a trip on the tourist-packed number 28 tram. Tuk tuks are so much a part of the fabric of the city now that you can buy souvenir fridge magnets in their likeness, and they’re a great way to pack in a density of elementary sight-seeing in one morning. We stop by the staggeringly richly decorated 18th century Estrela Basilica, then we zoom through the very cool Bairro Alto quarter, with its late, late bars, boutiques and narrow, atmospheric streets onto which the parties spill at night. The Moorish influence is everywhere, not least in the painted tiles which cover many of the buildings. We buzz past more sights – the National Pantheon, which took 300 years to finish; Silves Cathedral, the Moorish mosque which was converted after the Reconquista; bars playing fado, the liltingly sad national folk music; viewpoints across the city and the river – and then head for lunch.

They’re big on seafood in Portugal. Like, really big. The first night’s onslaught of great prawns and a flawless lemon sole at dinner in the hotel turned out to be just an entrée. The octopus we have for lunch is fantastic, and wandering around afterwards, I find that the Portuguese equivalent of M&M World is themed around sardines, and features literally hundreds of tins of sardines with a different year and a fact about it printed on it. The one I picked up had a fun tidbit about the Arab Spring. 

We headed up the Rua Augusta Arch after lunch, where the views across Comercio Square and the Rio Tejo are pretty remarkable. You can see the Cristo Rei across the river from here, the only monument I’ve come across dedicated to not being involved in the Second World War.

Dinner was at the Olivier Avenida next door to the hotel, and as it was opening night, chef Olivier da Costa pulled out all the stops in his playful way: there were fish tacos repurposed into what looked like little ice creams, a fried quail’s egg on a squat dais of spiced chicken sausage, and a flat-out brilliant veal carpaccio. When I say he pulled out all the stops, I mean he offered to drive us to his bar about 200 metres away, and kept offering until eventually he asked if we’d like to just take the car ourselves. I declined, on the basis that I’d had a bottle and a half of wine, and that I’d have been attempting to drive a Ferrari.

After a walking tour around some of the oldest shops in the city – a coffee shop and patisserie founded in 1829 which specialises in those amazing Portuguese custard tarts was a highlight – we set off south to another Tivoli property, the Carvoeiro Algarve Resort. On arrival you can see the sea framed as if through a letterbox from the cool, white cube of a foyer, but to get the best view of the sheltered cove you’ve got to go to the sky bar – Tivoli do very good sky bars – or chill on your own veranda. 

Sharper readers will have deduced that this is in the Algarve, nestled in along the coast of sea caves which are favourites of whoever it is who put together the stock screensavers you get with a new laptop. They’re even better if you take a boat trip around them, especially with a slightly devil-may-care captain who can take you into the tiny caves-within-caves full of bats and the deafening, echoing rumble of the sea heaving into the rock. 

After a super-traditional Algarve lunch of cataplana – a species of seafood broth cooked in a sort of double-cloche contraption – we explored the coastal footpaths and Carvoeira itself, a cute little seaside town with a tidy beach and bustling main square, before heading for dinner at EMO Restaurant at Anantara Vilamoura, a golf resort. It’s a really high-grade place: over seven wine-matched courses, we get plates like suckling pig samosa with orange mayonnaise, a teriyaki scallop with seaweed (the wine pairing for this one, the sommelier informed us, was ‘not consensual’, which was a bit disconcerting), monkfish fillet with pea and truffle purée and a stellar bit of Wagyu beef served with a shard of petrified bacon.

Between Lisbon and the Algarve, you’ve got the two ways that Portugal’s framed as a destination: the former hip and ripe for a faux-candid flaneur shot in the back streets; the latter a place to potter about and bask in the ripening sun. The truth is less binary; a shared reverence for heritage and an unhurried vibe inform both.

Nightly rates at Tivoli Avenida Liberdade start from €195 for a Superior double room on a B&B basis. Nightly rates at Tivoli Carvoeiro start from €230 in a Deluxe Room on a B&B basis. Monarch operates year round flights to Lisbon from Birmingham, London Gatwick and Manchester airports with fares, including taxes, from £42 one way (£75 return), and to Faro from Birmingham, Leeds Bradford, London Gatwick, London Luton and Manchester airports with fares, including taxes, starting from £43 one way (£76 return). For further information or to book Monarch flights and  Monarch Holidays please visit www.monarch.co.uk

Published in: February 2018

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