Lonely Planet – £16.99

Lisbon’s Alfama district, with its labyrinthine alley-ways, hidden-courtyards and curving, shadow-filled lanes, is a magical place in which to lose sense of direction and delve into the soul of the city. You’ll pass breadbox-sized grocers, brilliantly tiled buildings and cosy taverns filled with easy going chatter, accompanied by the scent of chargrilled sardines and the mournful rhythms of fado drifting in the breeze. Round a bend and catch sight of steeply pitched rooftops leaning down to the glittering Tejo, and you’ll know you’re hooked.

                                                                                       (‘Portugal’s Top 25’)

Having spent a little time in Lisbon last month, I can assure readers that nigh all of the above is true. The ”brilliantly tiled buildings, cosy taverns,” along with ”the scent of chargrilled sardines” and steeply pitched rooftops leaning down to the glittering Tejo (along with everything and everywhere else).

There is indeed something about the place that is both alluring and captivating.

The seemingly old and knackered, creaky, colourful trams for instance – which wind their way throughout the city as if a menagerie of over-bloated, metallic snakes – being just one aspect. One aspect, which appears to set Lisbon apart from most other, perhaps more hip-induced, modernised cities.

The word modernised, being ultimately key here, as Lisbon is the most blatant opposite.

It absolutely isn’t modern in anyway, shape or architectural form whatsoever, thus making it all the more subliminally attractive – as touched on in this guide’s section entited ‘Lisbon’s Architectural Highs’: ”Lisbon is packed with stunning works that span more than five centuries. You’ll find wildly intricate Unesco World Heritage sites, commemorating Portugal’s Golden Age of Discoveries […].”

But what accounts for Lonely Planet’s Portugal being such an enticing, and valuable all-round travel guide, is the degree to which it delves into what makes the country so worthy of visiting and spending time in to begin with.

Apart from containing all one would normally expect from a travel guide (an array of colour photographs and relatively detailed maps, along with information on hotels, dining, transport, festivals, events and exploratory tours for ever adventurous tourists), there is a very note worthy section towards the back of the book called ‘Understand Portugal’ – which I personally found a most interesting highlight.

Said section bequeaths the reader with an overtly substantial background with regards Portugal’s current social synthesis – of which the following is a prime example: ”The Portuguese have been through some tough times. Cuts to pensions and social programs, privatisation of government industries – all were part of the austerity package imposed by a conservative government and the EU powers holding the purse strings. Change, however, is on the horizon, as a new left-wing government takes the reins. Economic challenges aside, one of Portugal’s biggest slow-brewing crisis is its shrinking population […]. It’s been called a ‘perfect demographic storm’ that could have catastrophic effects on society and the economy. The population in Portugal has been shrinking – falling year on year since 2010 – and unless things change, demographers estimate that the population could fall to just six million by 2060.”

In and of itself, the above is a rather sobering thought at best, and not something one would normally read within the pages of a travel guide – which goes some way in explaining why Lonely Planet’s Portugal reaches way beyond that of most.

So if you’re planning a visit, this is the (only) travel guide you’ll need.

David Marx

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