What is it with salt cod? The locals in Lisbon, Portugal’s undulating capital, can’t get enough of it. It’s said they have a different recipe of ‘bacalhau’ for every day of the year – including leap years.
“Coming to Lisbon and not eating bacalhau is like going to Rome and not seeing the Pope,” says my guide Carmo, from the Portuguese Tourist Office, as a waiter deposits a steaming plate of salt cod served with mashed potatoes, asparagus and red wine sauce in front of me.
It’s my third day in Lisbon and I’d secretly been hoping for a steak, but alas Carmo is determined that I try as many different variations of the national dish as possible. Yesterday, I’d eaten ‘caldo de bacalhau’ (cod soup) for lunch. Dinner was ‘bacalhau com todos’ – salt cod with the works, boiled spuds, eggs, cabbage, beans, olive oil and pepper. The day before, I’d munched my way through codfish lasagne for lunch before sitting down to a dinner of cod pastry balls (pasteis de bacalhau) followed by ‘bacalhau à Gomes de Sá’, an omelette-like dish of fish fried along with finely sliced potatoes.
“Dessert is about the only time you can’t eat bacalhau,” reckons Carmo, and with relief I see she’s right, as my waiter brings out a fat slice of fish-free cheesecake.
As unappetising as some of these might sound, Portugal’s endless variety of salt cod dishes are actually delicious.
And don’t worry if you feel too stuffed full of food to explore the capital. Lisbon is covered by a network of trams that wind through the narrow, hilly, cobblestone streets. The network is 115 years old and the original carriages are still in use – and packed full of locals. All you have to do is jump aboard the number 28 for the most charming way to see the sights.
Start in the Mouraria (Moorish Quarter) and soak up the variety of Lisbon’s most multicultural neighbourhood, packed with African stalls, Brazilian restaurants, Indian shops and Chinese businesses.
Here, it’s easy to see why Lisbon is described as the Rio of the Mediterranean, and hard to conceive that until 1974 Portugal was ruled by a dictator.
Hop off the 28 at the St Vincent de Fora monastery, check out the flea market and then wander down the cobblestone capillaries and terraced gardens to Alfama, the traditional heart and soul of Lisbon. Climb the ramparts of St George’s Castle, then head for Graça, the workers’ district, and Chiado, the intellectual hub, littered with colleges
You’ll also come to the Bairro Alto but save this for after dark – it buzzes with colourful pubs, funky clubs and bohemian late-night shopping on the trendy Rua do Norte and surrounding streets, as well as eateries where you can see a Fado performance (soulful Portuguese folk music).
Baixa, or the downtown area, has streets named after saints to prevent a repeat of the tsunami that decimated the area in 1755. It’s the place for shopping, roasted chestnuts and a stop at a pub for a Super Bock, the national beer.
Then, when the tummy starts rumbling, sit down at one of dozens of restaurants and order your favourite variety of, yep, you guessed it – bacalhau.
Trevor Paddenburg travelled to Lisbon with the Portuguese National Tourist Office www.visitportugal.com) and TAP Portugal (www.flytap.com).