Australian reconnaissance

There are lots of uphills, downhills and around the corners in Lisbon. And this afternoon I took on the cobbles with a special Australian-flavoured destination in mind. But as I am so enjoying in this delightful city, there is so much to see and breathe in along the way, wherever you are going.

Now I can’t give it all away right now, other than to say I went uphill, downhill and around the corner and met a friendly, humble young Aussie, Reuben from Canberra, who with his family is doing something very special in Portugal’s capital. If you want to know more, then please read on.

But first I needed to start this afternoon’s Australian reconnaissance mission on Rue Garrett. My map starting point is a small up-market shopping mall in Chiado, the city’s most elegant and trendy neighbourhood, marked by international brands, bookstores and pricey restaurants. I can’t tell you much about the mall as I’ve been avoiding shops, crowds as much as possible on this holiday, particularly when I can take on both at any local Melbourne shopping centre. It’s also why I haven’t lined up for an hour or two to board the famous Yellow 28 tram, as good a sight as it is on the capital’s winding streets.

The 28 is so Lisbon and yes, I’ve taken a number of tram snaps. I’m a big fan of public transport but this is a tourist tram.  After a long queue to ride, passengers are squashed in like sardines – a very appropriate Lisbon image – to circuit around some of the city’s main attractions. Thanks to a creative local travel blogger I was able to walk most of the tram route today on foot with his suggested itinerary and brief online commentary.

As you start the climb on Rue Garrett there’s a Nespresso store on the corner. In Italy and in Portugal, the summer special is an Australian coffee blend, with the slogan “Taste the Australian Summer”. Not sure what that has to do with a coffee blend, but the marketing posters look smart. Anyway, we will get back to coffee.

My first stop is a bookstore. I love visiting book shops. I could spend a lot of time in them. I love that my little kids are fans of bookstores as well. In my rest moments on this trip I’ve been finishing off a good Australian crime novel set in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne where I live. It’s a small world when you are sitting on an Italian beach or at a Portuguese café reading about a murder hunt in Forest Hill.

There were no Australian crime novels in the Rue Garrett bookstore today, but this shop does have a special claim to fame. 

The Guinness Book of World Records gives the Livraria Bertrand store the official title of the world’s oldest bookstore. It first opened its doors in 1732 and despite several changes of ownership, name and location, it has been trading continuously ever since. Not even an enormous earthquake in 1755 could stop them. According to local history, the original owner, Frenchman Peter Faure, even married his daughter to his younger French business Pierre Bertrand, to ensure the store’s continuing dynasty beyond his death. Livaria launched a printing press in 1939, created their very own font, and now has a chain of more than 50 stores across Portugal.

As you keep rising on Rue Garrett you reach a quaint city square Praça Luís de Camões, which separates the Chiado and the Bairro Alto districts. At the centre of the square is a bronze statue of Portuguese poet Luís de Camões. I don’t know any of Luis’ poems but today a local singer is “reciting” the poetry of Stevie Wonder –  Isn’t She Lovely – guitar in hand, as many people – local and. tourists – connect and rest in the square.

The black and white patterned, cobbled square also takes you from the cosmopolitan chic Chiado to the bohemian Barrio Alto quarter, which dates back to the 1500s. Quieter by day this quarter is Lisbon’s go-to evening destination with restaurants, bars and cafes. I ventured up there last night and ate at a great tapas bar. I went with a few recommendations from the staff, which included a fantastic sardine bruschetta, very tasty cod croquettes and the local sausage tapa of the day, which lost in translation was chorizo blood sausage. It’s not usually on my go-to menu selection, but it went down well, with crispy onion bites on top.

OK I’ve been to the world’s oldest bookstore, googled to learn a bit more about Luis de Camoes, sung a bit of Stevie Wonder, took some of the obligatory snaps of the 28 trams and admired the views and architecture behind another of Lisbon’s cultural icons – the funicular cable-car line, or otherwise known here as “elevadors”. Operating for almost 150 years the funicular haul passengers up some of Lisbon’s steepest streets.

I’m now on Calcado do Combro and there’s certainly a shift in the look and feel of the shops and cafes in this street. My eldest son would like the retro vinyl store and I also stop to watch a local street artist Mariana at work. I’ve started the downhill descent and my phone map tells me my final destination is not far away.

I’ve been walking all morning and it’s now mid-afternoon. There could be no better sugar-hit choice in Lisbon. It’s time for another “pasteis de nata” –  yes. bring on a Portuguese tart.

Pastries, in particular the Portuguese tart, are everywhere in Lisbon. They are a sweet tooth population and the tourists all play their part as well sampling this national treasure. I must admit I’ve rarely bought a “pasteis de nata” back home, but I’ve had to sample a few here in Lisbon. They are simply delicious!

I took an 8km riverside walk to Belem this morning, home of the famous Torre de Belem [Belem Tower], only to see a long queue at a pastry store near my return tram stop. It turns out here is the home of the sweet little egg tart. They were created before the 18th century by Catholic monks at the Jeronimas Monastery in Belem. As the story goes, at the time, convents and monasteries used large quantities of egg-whites for starching clothes, such as nuns’ habits. It was quite common for monasteries and convents to use the leftover egg yolks to make cakes and pastries, resulting in the proliferation of sweet pastry recipes throughout the country.

Following the extinction of the religious orders and in the face of the impending closure of many of the convents and monasteries in the aftermath of the 1820 liberal revolution, the monks started selling pastéis de nata at a nearby sugar refinery to bring in some revenue. In 1834, the monastery was closed and the recipe was sold to the sugar refinery, whose owners in 1837 opened the Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém. The descendants own the business to this day and between tourists and locals, it’s estimated that 20,000 Belém pastries are sold every day. No wonder there was a queue!

Boosted by my little sweet egg pastry I walk the last 500m downhill and turn left to find The Mill.

Yes, here in Lisbon’s bohemian quarter an Australian family have opened an Australia meets Portugal café – with coffee, food and wine. It’s three years on and they are doing well. They’ve opened a second cafe 50km away on the Portuguese west coast.

The minute I walk into The Mill I feel at home.

There’s no red and white tablecloths here – no external plastic alfresco chairs and tables. I could be in Melbourne, Sydney or Newcastle other than the language on the menu.

And yes, I’ve had good, strong expressos in Italy on this trip, but hotel coffee and long Americanos haven’t hit the mark. Finally, I see long black on the menu [sub-titled Americano for the US tourists used to diner-style coffee]. And it’s a good brew!

My barista is Reuben, a young, hip, tanned Aussie who tells me he hails from Canberra. He looks more like he could have just got of a board in Bryon. Watch him in action and not only does he know how to make good coffee, he knows customer service – he’s welcoming and connecting with local regulars. I tell him how much I enjoyed the coffee and he laughs and humbly comments “it’s not easy getting good coffee around here”.

The Mill does great coffee, has a good local Portuguese wine menu, simple, fresh food options – including Australian style breakfasts. And smack bang in bohemian Lisbon two local hipsters order their expressos, fresh juices and wait for it …. two Anzac biscuits! Yes, the world suddenly seemed even smaller.

Now the humble Anzac biscuit has tough competition. You’re not going to beat the treasured national tart in Portugal, but the humble biscuit and great coffee highlight how Australians can stand tall in the hospitality game across the world – be it Michelin restaurant or café in boho Lisbon.

The team at The Mill have done well with strong ratings on a number of platforms including one of the most recommended coffee houses in Lisbon on Trip Advisor. Good luck to them!

And to my Newcastle family and friends – Reuben comments that “Newcastle is the happening place for coffee in Australia”.  My fellow Melburnians probably won’t agree. But one things for sure, if in Lisbon head to The Mill for a great coffee and an Anzac biscuit. By the time you’ve walked back into the centre of town you might just need a Portuguese tart!

Got to go – some Lisbon seafood is calling for dinner.


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