Thursday, November 19, 2009

Two good cafes in Lisbon

LISBON - One of the joys of traveling in European cities is savoring European cafe life. In continental Europe, cafes supply food and drink, of course, but not only that. They are great people-watching places, often have engaging ambience and in a number of ways serve to give a traveler the flavor of the place he is visiting.

I found a goodly number of good cafes during my visit to Lisbon on my round-the-world trip. Two, in particular, stay with me in memory.

The wonderfully named Caffe Ritual, in the Rossio train station, in the historic city center, is one. I enjoyed a macaroon and a small cup of strong espresso there for just 2 euros and 70 cents, while rail commuters streamed by on their way to work. I say wonderfully named, as having a coffee and a bite in a place like this is nothing if not ritualistic.

The white exterior walls of Rossio station are beautifully detailed with 19th century decorative touches; two horseshoe-shaped archways at street level comprise the largest entryways and are trimmed a little incongruously with bruised-purple paint. Inside, the station has been completely retooled and modernized. Upstairs, on the second level, there are automated ticket kiosks and staffed ticket booths for passengers, along with buzzy newsstands, flower shops and the aforementioned Caffe Ritual, which occupies a hole-in-the-wall space close by the automatic ticket-taking machines where passengers board their trains. There must be a hundred cafes in Lisbon just as good, but not many can boast such an entertaining location.

Another cafe I liked is Suica, located on the main Rossio plaza, downtown, with its gorgeous fountain, dignified 1840s National Theatre and wavy charcoal-grey and white paving stones. Caffe Nicola, on the opposite side of the plaza, is much prettier to look at, with big wall paintings and an Art Deco interior, but Suica, while utterly lacking in the decor department, is cheaper and relaxed. While there, I had the best sardines I have ever tasted, grilled and served in an open-face sandwich with pickled vegetables. Before I left Barcelona, workers at my hotel smiled when I told them where I was going. One said, "Ah, Lisboa! Portugal has the best fish." Judging from the freshness and grill-toasted crunch of the sardines I savored in Lisbon, he wasn't kidding.

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