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  • Writer's pictureDebra Bokur

Lisbon, Portugal: City of Discovery

Lisbon reveals itself in a tangle of lovely layers. Cool creams, warm golden yellows and russety, tile-reds mingle in complex patterns, with streets veining inward and outward from a collection of grand plazas and small squares. A closer view exposes enchanting details: colorful azulejo tiles embellishing the sides of buildings and framing doorways and windows; ornamental fountains and leafy parks; and an amalgamation of architectural designs that span centuries.

My maternal grandfather and his family came from this place, and I’ve been fortunate to have traveled here before. This time, my husband James is with me. Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world, and he’s been looking forward to exploring the museums and historic sights. Understandably, he’s a bit confused when I steer him away from the monuments along the riverfront in the Belem district, and directly into a small street where one of my favorite bakeries is located. I’m anxious to share the city’s multitude of celebrated addresses, but at the moment, I’m on a mission—and unlikely to be dissuaded from my search for Portuguese pastry.

“Ascending from the banks of the Tagus River, Lisbon’s ancient roots run deep.”

One of my enduring obsessions involves Lisbon’s Pastéis de Belém, delicate custard tarts best enjoyed warm, with a liberal dusting of cinnamon. Inexorably tied to the city’s history, the tarts were sold by monks as a means of financial survival following the social and political upheaval that took place in 1820. While the tarts can be found in nearly every café, one of the very best places to indulge is at Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, where they’ve been produced since 1937 with a still-secret recipe that turns out upwards of 10,000 luscious pastries each day.

It’s crowded as usual, with a mix of locals and throngs of tourists on day excursions from the cruise ships docked in the harbor. Still slightly mystified by my insistence on elbowing my way to one of the large, tiled rooms in the back, James follows to one of the small tables. He has no Portuguese blood, so I forgive him his hesitation and order on his behalf, shaking cinnamon over the puckered custard surfaces—and watching with satisfaction as he takes his first bite, his face registering absolute understanding. This, I explain, is history at its delicious best.

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