Absolutely Mama samples two very different sides of Portugal – the bustling capital Lisbon and the family-friendly Algarve
Words: Helen Baron
Portugal seems to be on everyone’s lips of late. Ruinously impacted by the global economic crash of 2008, the country has bounced back, embracing its industrial heritage liberal spirit to reinvent itself as a haven for entrepreneurialism in Europe.
It has also made a virtue of one of the most negative consequences of its recession, plummeting property values, by selling itself abroad not as economically unstable, but as an affordable place to set up shop (and home). The results are impressive, with Portugal’s manufacturing base now one of the most dynamic in the Western world and its capital city, Lisbon, a desirable destination for hip creative types priced out of their native cities. In the words of one friend, a digital creative at a global fashion brand, ‘Everyone I know is moving to Lisbon or talking about moving to Lisbon. It’s the new Berlin – and it’s sunny.’ I’m not quite ready to make that leap myself, but I did think it was worth seeing what all the fuss was about – and what better way than a short break that would take in two of the country’s most celebrated destinations: Lisbon itself and then the sweeping southern beaches of the Algarve.
The plan was to divide our time between two hotels owned by the fast-rising Memmo group: the Memmo Alfama, a pint-sized boutique hotel perched on a hill in the ancient heart of the capital, and the Memmo Baleeira, a mid-sized, modern beach hotel overlooking a tiny fishing harbour on the Algarve. We would drive between the two, a day-long, 328km road trip down through the centre of the country, and hopefully get a better idea of what Portugal is about on the way.
Our first stop was Lisbon, Europe’s westernmost city and its oldest. We travelled in September, when the intense heat of summer has begun to subside, but we were still greeted by golden light glinting on the Atlantic and weather finer than any we’d seen in Britain for months.
The Memmo Alfama does boutique very well indeed, with a sleekly minimal design that’s all picture windows and sinuously curving white walls. The interiors are softly lamplit and the space – which is inevitably in short supply in such a location, amid the jumble of buildings on one of the well-preserved city’s seven hills – is cleverly utilized to give an impression of quiet intimacy. Our room, while dinky, was stylishly appointed, and the communal spaces – such as the rooftop pool, tiered sun terraces and chic bar-cum-breakfast room – offered a perfect base from which to explore the mini metropolis at our doorstep.
In these globalised, overwhelmingly homogenized days, Lisbon’s great strength lies in its comparatively small size. The city has scale and variety enough to please the dedicated urbanite but hasn’t had to compromise its singular identity – most of the shops, restaurants and businesses that throng its buzzing centre are independent, and many of these are actually worth your time and money. The city is certainly gastronomically blessed: among other gems, we snacked at hipster coffee shops Fábrica and Wish, lunched at Darwin’s Café and dined at the Independente, a trendy hotel in the Bairro Alto district. Everywhere we went, service was friendly and relaxed, the food inventive, authentic and hugely enjoyable. One warning, however: it’s probably not the greatest city to visit if one or more of your little ones is stroller-bound: the steep hills and plentiful cobbles would be pretty punishing.
Our two days in Lisbon passed too quickly. Our journey south, towards the Algarve, took us through the heart of Portugal, and we were amazed at the sense of space and solitude awaiting us in the rolling grasslands. The countryside is beautiful – in a spare, golden way. By the time we reached our next destination, we were discussing the possibility of living in Lisbon after all.
The Memmo Baleeira is distinct from its city sibling in terms of both size and style, with the latter’s air of cosmopolitan exclusivity replaced by a more fun, family-friendly vibe. The beaches of the Algarve (and Baleeira in particular, a resort known for its surfing) also attract a different type of clientele.
The hotel’s carefully maintained lawns, delightful swimming pool and cheerful, welcoming restaurant made us wish we’d brought our toddler with us, instead of leaving her with her grandparents.
Days at the Baleeira can be as full or empty as you like – for us, the lure of watersports and walks along the rugged shore were easily counterbalanced by the amenities of the hotel itself: we stretched out, sunbathed, read books for the first time in what seemed like aeons… in short, we relaxed. Sagres itself is cute, slightly crumbly, brilliantly beachy, and a great place to unwind after a couple of active days in the city.
Once again we found ourselves packing our bags too soon, this time for the flight home – but at least now we know what the hipsters were talking about. On this evidence, Portugal looks set to be on the ‘most desirable’ list for a long time to come.
Rates start at 137€ a night for Memmo Alfama and 85€ a night (including breakfast) for Memmo Baleeira.