The most exciting new visitor attraction in Europe in 2012 opened in Lisbon in September.
The new Lisboa Story Centre is located in former government offices at Praça do Comércio where decades of bureaucratic fastidiousness obscured the fact that this was considered among the most majestic squares in the world when the city was rebuilt after the Great Earthquake of 1755, looking out meekly on the capricious Tagos.
The bureaucrats have moved out and there has been attempt to introduce a plaza culture to the sense of squandered grandeur. Street chairs from new restaurants spill on to the square, stalls selling the bitter ginjinha cherry liquor, with a statue of King Don José on horseback in the middle of it all, surveying the change with a stern eye.
The story centre is designed to shake up the local tourist scene – literally.
One of its features is a theatre where the earthquake effect is recreated, while a video shows re-enacted scenes of daily life on a panoramic wide screen, until eventually the walls begin to tumble and visitors get a three side video depiction of the monastery of Carmo collapsing on the inhabitants.
It is more Doomsday than Disney but it works. As in Belfast, disaster makes for a great visitor experience.
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The centre is a great starting point for a walking tour of the city, through Rue Augusta and the Baixa, with its wooden cage like structures, and Rossio square, best seen in the characteristic sunlight.
You can take a tram from there to the panoramic views over the city from of St Jorge Castle, Lisbon’s historical top hat. The two latest highlights here on the hilltop are some of the oldest and the newest, Catia David talks us through the prehistoric Moorish homesteads with their internal gardens, neatly excavated and recreated as they might have been in cantilevered whitewash that hangs over the precious original walls like an apparition, a modern cloud overhanging a prehistoric dream world.
They also offer a periscope tour of the city, where in a darkened room visitors watch a mirror reflection of the traffic moving all around the living-breathing city.
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Lisbon is an example of a city that used its Expo experience well. The decayed docklands, so long a repository of acres of abandoned military vehicles shipped home from the abandoned empire, was transformed into the new Parque das Nações for Expo 98.
Orient Station designed by Santiago Calatrava (of THAT Liffey bridge), a cable car that brings visitors an aerial view of the reborn wasteland which includes Europe’s second largest aquarium, housing 8000 animals and plants from 500 different species it was the largest at the time of Peter Chermayeff’s design. It sits on the Tagus inlet like an oversized life buoy, and signs will direct you through the five oceans, Antarctic third from the bottom on the right and mind-the-octopus.
After dark you don’t have to look far to find something else uniquely Portuguese. Lisbon celebrates its fado music, a musical tradition distilled for touristic purposes into something more like Stockton’s Wing than sean-nós.
In Clube de Fado our first encounter was tasteful and haunting, the taste of Cabo Verde soup made from potatoes, onion and olive oil and cabbage chourico washed down with the sounds of “Ay Mouraria” in our ears as we did a quick pub crawl of the streets around our hotel.
“Nostalgia is what is left when all is passed away,” they sang. And it makes sense over a litre of Bocks.
An amazing performance by Mafalda Taborda, who starts her recital by launching into Poema Deolinda Maria alongside stunning guitar work by Fernando Silva.
The city is currently staging a fado-based musical, Uma Noite em Casa de Amalia. Producer Filipe La Feria greets us to the theatre in a booming voice. We are the only tourists here. There are jokes in Portuguese interspaced with poems and rousing songs.
Our hotel is the LX boutique Hotel, perched noisily over one of the two best nightclubs in Lisbon, Music Box (the other is Lux), and within walking distance of everything worth seeing.
Our hostess Carmo Botelho starts the tour with a visit to the new Lisboa Story Centre and a cup of ginjinha, the local bitter cherry liquor, from a roadside stall.
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The palate deserves a visit to Confeitaria de Belém, where they make 20,000 pastries a followed by a gorgeous pastry covered in cinnamon and icing sugar. Miguel Clarinha tells us the secret Pasteis de Belém recipe is still cherished and preserved by members of his family. They haven’t told him the secret yet, which is worrying. What happens if one of them chokes on a cinnamon fleck?
A growing number of restaurants are offering real local food: such as grilled liver served up in restaurant Grania Velha. Tourists shun this sort of food, the owner Alcides Lopes tells us.
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A little bit of Ireland is to be found at Lumiar, forgotten and unknown, where you can take the route past the Sporting Lisbon stadium to see the relics of St Brigid.
Some disorientated Kildare crusader brought them here in 1587 and they have stayed here ever since.
The relics are in a small-undistinguished urn. Brigit does not have a nameplate or even a statue in her honour in the small suburban church.
It seems appropriate and wonderfully spiritual.
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Aer Lingus fly to Lisbon from Dublin eight times a week and from Cork twice a week
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