Lisbon: a motorcycle sidecar gives a fresh perspective

The rooftops of Lisbon at dusk
The rooftops of Lisbon at dusk
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When I lived in Lisbon, many years ago, I lived in great style. Not of my own making, but as an au pair to a lady from the Portuguese aristocracy who wanted someone to teach her grandchildren English for the summer.

The lady, was Madame Espirito Santo, and when I arrived in Portugal I discovered the family lived in Lisbon, Estoril and Evora too. Their fortune came from their bank, Banco Espirito Santo.

Artwork at the Four Seasons hotel, Lisbon

Artwork at the Four Seasons hotel, Lisbon

I wrote home to my parents saying that I was now working for Mrs Holy Ghost, and that the five young grandchildren were lovely (they had already been taught to say The Lord’s Prayer in English and this was recited every bedtime, because, apparently, God only spoke English). Portuguese, French and English were the languages spoken by the family and the majority of their guests because most of the Portuguese aristocracy were educated in British public schools and universities. But the early 1970s were a difficult time for Portugal. They had a right-wing dictator, Salazar, and unpopular wars in their colonies in Mozambique and Angola.

Given my early experience of the country it seems somehow apposite that on my return I stayed at the Four Seasons, a luxury hotel conceived by Salazar, who approached ten investors, including the Espirito Santo family, to fund it. It is still the number one hotel in the city, on the edge of the King Edward Park – named after our King Edward VII – and, as with all Four Seasons hotels, famed for its high standards, service, and huge flower arrangements, plus, here, a wonderful collection of Portuguese art.

The hotel suggested re-acquainting myself with the city via one of their exclusive tours in the sidecar of a motorbike ridden by a photographer-cum-guide. Now, it has never been one of my ambitions to travel in a sidecar, but I needed help with my photography and my husband was wildly keen. The guide, a charming man of certain years whose name I shall not give to protect the innocent, met us by the flower arrangement and conducted us to the motorbike. All of these are ex-military from Eastern Europe. Ours was in full camouflage and when I stowed my bag by my feet, I said “instead of my Kalashnikov, I suppose”. No, my husband pointed out that there was a machine-gun mounting on the front of the sidecar. Yikes!

Then came the fitting of crash helmets. Modern materials, but looking amazingly like tin helmets. I realised this would not be a good hair day, and when we took to the ancient cobbled streets of Lisbon, I also realised that these sidecars were not built for comfort.

Off we whizzed – guide riding with my husband as pillion, me very low to the ground – and I resisted the urge to shout “Wheee” as we followed the main boulevard of Lisbon, now like every other fashionable European city, with all the designer brands glimpsed through the trees lining the pavements. “How is Portugal doing?” I asked, and the answer, which was also given by other Lisbon residents we encountered, was “improving; gradually coming out of the recession, but no thanks to the politicians”. Nothing different there, then.

On to Belem, where you understand that the Portuguese are a nation of seafarers and explorers, for here is the Tower of Belem, the Monastery of the Jeronimos and the Monument of the Discoveries, raised in honour of Henry the Navigator in the shape of a ship’s prow and the symbol most often used for Lisbon.

This was all about conquering new worlds, but the old world of the 16th century monastery with its ornate Manueline architecture also features maritime sculptural themes. And as I remembered, the tranquillity of these beautiful cloisters was unchanged.

Then to the oldest part of Lisbon, the Alfama and the Castle of St George and lessons in history, for this is a city almost destroyed by earthquakes, and conquered and ruled by Romans, Germanic tribes, Moors, the Spanish, and even Napoleon. All of these influences were pointed out to us by our guide and then off, over more cobbles – I felt every one – to the city centre, where we learned of the revolutions, the first in 1910 overthrew the monarchy, the second in 1926, and the third, the Carnation Revolution in 1974, so called for its peaceful nature where the people placed carnations in the soldiers’ gun barrels.

Finally, back up to Chiado, and a lovely square, with two churches facing each other, the opera house and two poets. There is a bronze of Antonio Ribeiro on one side, and close to the A Brasileira Art Deco coffee bar where he spent most of his days, one of Fernando Pessoa. Both are lifesize and Pessoa’s is seated right by the pavement tables of A Brasileira, and being able to reach out and stroke his bronze arm was like taking coffee with the Scott Monument.

We had seen so much of the city, and learned so much from our guide. Alas my photography skills remained beyond his tutelage, but I had learned that whizzing around in a sidecar, even on a bright winter’s day, is cold, and that everywhere we went people waved and laughed, and some enquired where they could hire this tour. And whenever we dismounted we were surrounded by camera phones. A glimpse of the life of celebrity and paparazzi.

“We’re stars” said my husband. I glanced at our reflections in a shop window. Not so much Brad and Angelina, more Wallace and Gromit, but having a great time.

The Four Seasons has rooms at a best available rate for €390 (£336) per double room with breakfast.

The motorcycle package can be booked by anyone staying for a minimum of three nights (www.fourseasons.com)

easyJet flies from Edinburgh to Lisbon on Saturdays and Sundays from £47.98 return. (www.easyjet.com)