Sapphire, gold, emerald: the precious colours of Portugal, representing the ocean, the beaches and the countryside. Since I first visited the country at the Wild West of Europe, I have identified many more shades: the red earth of the Alentejo region, the faded creams and browns of the ancient heart of Porto and the Alfama district of Lisbon, and the silver of steel and glass reflecting the country’s acceleration into the future. This is Europe’s rainbow nation.
The traveller in the second decade of the 21st century can enumerate many blessings. The benediction I am keenest on is the way that air fares have fallen by an order of magnitude in the past generation. These days, when I can fly to Portugal in the time it takes you to read this magazine from cover to cover, I am reminded of our good fortune. Because, when I first ventured to the nation at the far end of Europe, I took the longest and most winding of roads.
The year was 1976. A newly democratic Portugal was reported to be blossoming and, as a student, I had plenty of time to check it out. Which was just as well, because my chosen route was an overnight ferry to Dunkirk, then one of the longest, least successful hitchhikes in human history, the entire length of France. When at last I reached the Spanish border, the much lower cost of transport meant I could afford to catch a train. By the time I reached the then-scruffy city of Lisbon, I was many days older and only slightly wiser.
Portugal amazed me with its ruggedness and refinement, its grandeur and grace. Since then, I have returned as often as I can, each time exploring a different facet of the nation that ticks along with Britain — sharing the same time zone – yet which remains alluringly individual.
The Portuguese capital has performed the near-miraculous trick of holding on to a rich, individual heritage while thriving with the possibilities of a new century as part of united Europe. The journey in from the capital’s airport takes you past the modern towers of power and beside grand 19th-century mansions to a centre that respects and celebrates the past. The seven hills of Lisbon are draped with faded façades that bestow the city with soul, and are punctuated with vistas to lift the spirits.
Walking is the best way to immerse yourself in this deliciously wayward capital — which happily brims with tile-clad cafés in which to recharge. January is a particularly good month to shake off the cobwebs of winter, but I have visited in all four seasons. In high summer, the city’s distinctive collection of transport comes into its own. The Santa Justa lift — a prototype Eiffel Tower, only with a purpose — propels you from the downtown area of Baixa to the heights of Bairro Alto, the high-altitude quarter that is now the retail and restaurant hub of the city despite the competing claims of the resurrected docklands. Alternatively you can take Europe’s greatest exercise in kinetic eccentricity, better known as tram 28. This handsome timber-and-iron streetcar, stained by time and traffic, sways up improbable gradients and squeezes through impossible gaps.
Lisbon is a capital of all the ages, for all ages, but as a city-break destination for couples unburdened by children, it is unparalleled. And perhaps that is the secret of Portugal: whatever your age and ambition, the country will take care of you.