Do you know of the five best neighbourhoods in Lisbon?

Exploring Lisbon’s best areas…

An unmistakable Mediterranean-ism and a wild Atlantic coast! Europe’s westernmost country literally has the best of both worlds. Voyage-driven history, staggering landscapes, Moorish roots, and a unique culture that changed the face of its colonies for posterity. Certainly a destination to redefine your vision of the continent. So give in to the pull of Portugal. Submit to the lure of Lisbon. With my rundown of the top five most atmospheric neighbourhoods in the capital.

Baixa: Dressed to impress

Baixa in Central Lisbon makes a powerful statement with its wide tree-lined avenues and rows of elegant neo-classical mansions adorned in intricate tile-work. Portuguese statues in spacious squares stand as proud symbols of victory. Stares guaranteed all along its most important grand boulevard, Avenida da Liberdade, mimicking the Parisian Champs Elysees. Perfect curtain-raiser to the grid-like Lower Town, the first example of urban planning in Europe and hub of all action in the capital.

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Quintessential curiosities: Flashback to the times of executions, bull fights and royal proclamations in Lisbon’s Town Square, Rossio. It is still a much-loved public space with its baroque fountain, black-white Calcada floor design and iconic art deco Café Nicola. No shortage of sights in the area, from the Elevador de Santa Justa, to streets named after traditional crafts (Rua da Prata or Silversmiths’ Street and Rua dos Sapateiros or Cobblers’ Street) to the main shopping drag, Rue Augusta, ending in the large Placa Commercio. Waterfront, wind and wonder whisk into a delightful froth, in the mellow light of the evening. Amplified by the cheerful yellow buildings of the large square buzzing with tourist activity.

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Eye-candy alert: Don’t forget to look down at the white, polished limestone square patchwork pavements, shiny and slippery with millions of footsteps over the centuries. Dozens of black-and-white wavy or geometric patterns, completely unlike each other. Never-ending amazement!

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Chiado: Trendy chic

The aura of quiet sophistication envelops you with the first few steps into Chiado’s wide streets. Slip into your prima-donna avatar and match up to the the harmony of mansions on both sides. Steal glances at theaters, browse in classy boutiques, linger in artefact galleries, gape at jewellery stores and stare at design houses…follow the mandate, forget the map. Stop by statues of literary greats like Fernando Pessoa, Luis de Camões, and Eça de Queiroz and listen to their wordless accounts. Because even a 20th-century fire couldn’t burn away Lisbon’s intellectual heart.

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Quintessential curiosities: Prowl around the ruins of Convento do Carmo, an old Gothic convent, and famous icon of Lisbon. Think about Chiado’s survival instinct at the São Roque Church…standing strong even after the 1755 quake. Order genuine Brazilian coffee at ‘A Brasileira’, the most historical café of them all (circa 1905) or marvel at the interiors of the city’s oldest restaurant, Tavares Restaurant (from 1784), as you savour shrimps in herb sauce.

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Eye-candy alert: And while you’re still wondering if lineage is the unwritten code of conduct in Chiado, stumble upon the world’s oldest bookstore, Livraria Bertrand. No cobweb corners or dusty piles here, despite being in business for 300 years. 95% books are Portuguese, but why should that stop you from gloating at the shelves?

 

Bairro Alto: Bohemian rhapsody

The original bohemian haunt of artists and writers in Portugal’s capital has a vibe unlike any other. Traditional tile-decorated buildings and graffiti-ridden façades, shabby-chic shops, steep, tram-lined streets of Bairro Alto (High Town). Quiet and calm of the day morphs into vibrant nightlife with the many international restaurants, lively bistros and crowded bars sprinkled all over the area.

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Quintessential curiosities: Igreja de Santa Catarina is a gilded baroque wonder dating 17th-century with lovely stucco rococo ceiling and delicately sculpted figures of St Catherine, St Paul and St Anthony. Spend some time absorbing in the peace and prettiness from the pews. Later, melt into the night with a bar-hop in Rua Diário de Notícias, the neighborhood’s central street. The protocol, as part of the neighborhood’s trademark image, is to stand outside with a drink in hand. Bottoms up? Time to move to the next bar.

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Eye-candy alert: Go vista hunting in the narrow downhill alley-ways and create  your own mind-map of the Lisbon’s raw appeal. And when you’re seeking iconic, venture to two of my fave spots with magical views of Sao Jorge Castle…Calçada do Duque street and Miradouro De Sao Pedro de Alcantara. Gasp. Breathe. Repeat.

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Belem: Back in time

Pretend to be a sardine-in-a-can on the Tram 500 from Figuera Square to Belem. Lisbon’s most historical neighbourhood, located at the mouth of the River Tagus was the point from where Portugal’s celebrity explorers launched their famous Voyages of Discoveries.

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Quintessential curiosities: 15th-century Jeronimos Monastery, one of the most important monuments in Lisbon and Unesco World Heritage, built by King D. Manuel I, with gold loot from Portuguese discoveries, is worth a couple of hours of gawping for its Manueline architectural details…spires, gargoyles, vaulted corridors,  cloisters, azulejo murals, massive cathedral and Vasco da Gama’s tomb. Soak in as deep as you can. Get inspired by the adventurous spirit of the real travellers of yesterday at the Monument of Discovery. Twirl uninhibited on the glorious Calcada-tile world compass and map, marking places they found. Take a windswept walk to the 16-century Tower of Belem, which was once an island in the river, when Tagus reached Jeronimos Monastery. Enjoy views of the bridge and harbour before heading back.

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Eye-candy alert: Join the queues under the blue canopies of the legendary Pasties de Belem to experience the original 1837 recipe of Pasties da Nata, the iconic olden-yellow tartlet filled with deliciously rich, creamy, baked egg custard. This is food heaven for the taste, aromas and sights of delicious goodies filling the fast-emptying counters. Remember to find the azulejo tiled-wall on the inside parlour. 

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Alfama: Gritty glam

Ride the Tram 15 to Puerto Sol and set foot into the city’s oldest core, Alfama (from Arabic ‘Al-hamma’ or ‘hot baths’). Inhabited by fishing folk in the days of yore,  and neighbourhood of the underprivileged till today, Alfama’s grunge factor is hard to ignore.

Quintessential curiosities: Head to the medieval Castle of São Jorge, the royal residence until the early 16th century to admire remnants of the Moorish city walls, and various terraces (Miradouros) for glorious birds-eye views. Stop by the Lisbon Cathedral (12th–14th centuries), the oldest of the city before trace out hidden delights in the narrow streets that meander off in different directions. There’s even a Jewish Quarter to tempt you along the way. The obligatory? Reservations for a Fado dinner. Recommendations? Clube de Fado. Melancholic music to feed your soul, while your tastebuds feed on typical Bacalhau a braz in an intimate setting. And shhh.. no talking, please.

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Eye-candy alert: Alfama’s labyrinth of narrow streets and small squares is replete with endless photo-opportunities. White-washed old houses, twisty and crooked flights of steps, unexpected views, modest churches and leftovers of ancient structures to amaze you. Crying babies, snoozing cats, chatting women, quirky street art and shoes drying outside doors to capture your heart. Intruding into personal spaces was never so rewarding.

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And when you wave goodbye to the ‘City of the Seven Hills’, you will know…one visit was not enough.

 

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Exploring Lisbon's best areas #portugal #lisbon #alfama #bairro alto #baixa #belem #chiado

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Soak in the splendour of the Royal Palace of Madrid

Inside Madrid’s Royal Palace…

You turn a final corner and there it is in front of you…the grand 18th-century Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace of Madrid). Protecting the largest royal palace in Western Europe is an elegant, gilded decorative iron fencing in bold black and gold, offsetting the purist white of the magnificent structure beyond.

Polished gilt-tipped arrows gleam on the main gates and the emblem of royal arms communicate to you wordlessly. You tread on the greys and creams of the vast courtyard of the Plaza de la Armeriàa, never dropping your gaze from the architectural delight of granite from the Sierra de Guadarrama and white Colmenar stone. The commanding square-shaped facade of the four-floor high palace is studded proportionately with small square windows. Graceful galleries, Ionic columns and Doric pilasters add to the symmetry, while white stone statues of Spanish kings poised gracefully on the roof balustrade, complete the picture.

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Clearly, Bernini’s sketches for the construction of the Louvre in Paris inspired the design…a few degrees less opulent, but an exquisite tribute, nonetheless! 3,000 ornately decorated rooms, 870 windows, 240 balconies, 44 sets of stairs, 110 doors, and a floor space of 1.5 million square feet. We all see the immaculate perfection and take it for granted, never thinking of the tireless effort that goes in to keep it that way.

No chance for a glimpse of Prince Felipe, the reigning monarch of Spain, waving at cheering crowds from his balcony…he and his Royal Family prefer the modest seclusion of the Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. Unlike his ancestors, who had their fill of the sumptuous interiors from 1765 to 1931. In fact, the site goes way back in history…here, at the highest point of the city, the Moors had established the 10th-century Alcázar overlooking the Manzanares river (Al-Magrit or source of water). Manzanares…the source of Madrid itself!

The long walk in the summer heat is exhausting, and the ticket queues are long. But your tiredness melts away the moment you step inside the entrance doors. Ahead is an imposing, double staircase designed by Sabatini…one flight of steps for the king and one for the queen, dare you presume? You stare up at the high, vaulted ceiling adorned by an 18th century fresco by Corrado Giaquinto, “The Triumph of Religion and the Church”, as you ascend the 70-odd steps to the main floor. Light streams in through circular glass windows above, enhancing the flowery gold-braided borders and soft colours of the gigantic rectangular fresco. You feel like nobility…alighted from a carriage and being escorted upstairs to attend a grand dinner, in the presence of His Majesty. Hold your head up snootily, put on your haughtiest expression. From the top landing, survey the tourists standing below. Your are Queen, albeit for a few moments. Did each of the 900,000 visitors ascending this sweeping stairway every year feel the same?…you muse, shaking yourself out of your reverie.

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The ornate late-baroque style of Italian architects is evident in the impressive hallways and the luxurious state rooms. Wander through salons overflowing with art treasures, antique furniture and lush tapestries. There’s gilt and bronze sculptures, chandeliers, rococo decoratives, jewelled clocks, delicate porcelain, damask, mosaics, stucco and frescos by Tiépolo, Velázquez, Goya, Giordano and Mengs. An unending, proud display of riches and power! Some rooms are large enough to house a tennis court! Here are my four favourite stops inside the Royal Palace of Madrid.

1. Throne Room: Unashamed luxury at its best. Velvet-draped walls weaving an unbelievable story of intricacy. An elaborate Rococco ceiling fresco, a tribute to the old monarchy and glories of Olympus. Massive mirrors from the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja and rock crystal chandeliers from Venice screaming grandeur. A gold-coated ceremonial throne with four Roman bronze lions fitted at its steps…its opulence heightened by the fact that it is no longer a utilitarian piece of furniture for the king and queen.

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2. Gala Dining Room: Made for a royal wedding back in 1879, now the venue for stunning state ceremonies and formal receptions. Entrancing with its fabulous Chinese vases in the window recesses and glorious chandeliers. An elaborate ceiling fresco depicting Christopher Columbus down on his knees, presenting exotic souvenirs to the royal couple, Ferdinand and Isabel. And the highlight…the glossy dining table, which can seat 140 people along its bowling-lane length. Two chairs, reserved for the king and queen, slightly higher than the rest…the first and second among equals.

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3. Private apartments: Pure extravagance is the word for the private apartments of the palace’s first resident, Charles III. The dressing room, the Gasparini Room, overflowing with mosaics and rococo stuccoes, art treasures and antiques, chandeliers, paintings and hand-embroidered wallpaper with real gold and silver embroidery climbing up the walls to the ceiling’s plaster-sculpture of a canopy. The small but gorgeous Porcelain Room, covered entirely in porcelain relief walls. And the collection of antique musical instruments by Antonio Stradivari including two violins, two cellos, and a viola (‘The Spanish Quartet’) valued at more than 100 million euros.

4. Armoury Room: Displays over 2000 pieces of weapons and armoury worn by the royal families since the 13th century. Life size statues in ceremonial armour taking you back to the centuries when knights wooed ladies with tournaments and macho contests. A rewind into yesterday…when the powerful reign of Spain was at the height of its glory. A lifestyle that is long gone, leaving behind stories as fresh and absorbing as ever. A fitting end to a palace trail.

If its a Wednesday, witness the Changing of the Guard. Then head for the wonderful green trails of the palace gardens, Campo del Moro, if you have the energy. Else, move on towards the square on the west. The European aura of the Plaza de Oriente is unmistakable…an imposing re-creation of Felipe IV on horseback and a Royal Theatre, flowerbeds packed with box hedges, cypress, yew and magnolia of small size, and rows of limestone statues of Spanish kings bounding the gardens.

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Madrid has the largest population of trees of any major European metropolitan city…large parks, small parks, pretty parks, majestic parks…lots of parks. People are resting, children playing. It is a sanctuary. The roads are relatively emptier now and smaller stores are closed…is the national siesta time a reality, you wonder. Plonk down on the grass for a brief shut-eye. Its tradition. When in Spain, do as the Spaniards do!

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Inside Madrid’s Royal Palace #royalpalace #spain #madrid #history

Five peaceful spots in Cesky Krumlov that you need to see

Cesky Krumlov, the offbeat way

Gawking over the iconic sights in a fairytale town like Cesky Krumlov is a given. Who can escape the attraction of the dreamiest of settings…medieval castle overlooking a time-warped, red-roof huddle of houses, and a gushing river wrapping it like a satiny ribbon. But there’s another Cesky Krumlov, hidden, and off-the-beaten path. Tempting you to wander into nooks where few others are venturing. All you need is your incorrigible curiosity to lead the way. The rewards? Unanticipated discoveries. Here are my favourite five solitude-filled spots to swoon over, in the cutest town of the Czech Republic.

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Have you been to the fascinating fairytale town of Cesky Krumlov?

Cesky Krumlov, the iconic way…

Imagine green-yellow hues of the pastoral countryside of southern Czech Republic. Leading to an enchanting cobbled town cozily hidden within gently sloping hills. And a towering castle straight out of a Bohemian fairytale. Cynic or romantic…Český Krumlov can lure anyone into an endearing 16th-century time warp.

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How these lucky places can make your wishes come true

Seven lucky landmarks in Europe…

Shooting stars, wood knocks, horseshoes, wishing wells, finger crossings, wishbones, tooth fairies…everyone can count at least one happy, hope-inducing, harmless superstition that they have always believed in. The fascination for lucky charms is eternal and crowds will continue to gather at places where wishes are said to come true. So, queue up and call out to good fortune at these seven marked spots…whether for faith or for fun. Who knows, you may just strike gold, lucky devil!

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My first impressions of the lovely French city of Lyon

Lyon, France’s second city, is my first choice…

Taking a train from Provence through the peaceful countryside into the bustling train station of Gare de Lyon Part Dieu can be a jolt of sorts. There’s a buzz in the country’s second-largest metropolitan area, home to over 1.6 million people…and you can feel it even as you hail a cab. At 7.30, people are already on the roads, driving to work, waiting at bus stops, opening their boulangeries and coffee shops. The laid back, relaxed atmosphere of Southern France is behind you…this is city life, busy and bustling…after all, you’re closer to Paris. Ready up to discover the country’s gastronomic capital.

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Dwell on the delights of beautiful Barri Gotic in Barcelona

Simple charms of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic…

There’s a different Barcelona behind Las Ramblas and you wouldn’t believe it until you stride a few feet down a side street into the city’s old Gothic Quarter, Barri Gòtic. This vast area stretching between Las Ramblas and Via Laetana is where Romans had developed their early settlement in 133 BC. Remnants of the fortifications they built to protect their city can still be found. A slice of ‘Barcino’ still exists in ‘Barcelona’. Devote a day to dwell on its delights.

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