Portugal’s off-the-radar gem.
BY ALLAN LYNCH
Someone once said they didn’t want to own shares in a company that made headlines. Headlines either inflated the price (and executive salaries) or deflated share values. This investor wanted quiet companies which functioned well and created profit. Lisbon is like that. While the rest of Europe is embroiled in screaming headlines over debt, political turmoil and street protests, Lisbon keeps its head down and moves along.
However, being off the radar has a downside. We don’t realize all that it has to offer. Lisbon is itself, but it’s also an amalgam of several cities. Like Rome, Lisbon is built on seven hills. Rome has the Tiber River, Lisbon has the Tagus. Like Rio, it has a giant statue of Christ overlooking the city. This Monumento ao Cristo Rei is reached by crossing a near-replica of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.
Lisbon is Portugal’s compact capital city of 600,000, with another 2.3-million people living in the outlying areas. Most places of interest are within walking distance, a short cab ride or via the 46-stop subway system. Above ground, streets are lined by brightly-painted and tiled buildings. The more monochromatic structures are highly decorated in Belle Epoque, Art Deco and Baroque styles. In short, they look like cakes in stone.
While Lisbon’s history stretches back to the Romans, it’s more modern history has provided fun opportunities for themed group programs. During World War II, Portugal was neutral, so it became the main rendezvous for spies taking advantage of the city’s Atlantic connections. If you remember the film Casablanca, the whole plot centred around getting a letter of transit to Lisbon in order to escape the Nazis.
One company even offers a spy walking tour of the city.
In the winding, narrow lanes that pass for streets leading to the hilltop Castelo de Sao Jorge, which is often used by groups for receptions and dinners, you will hear passionate melodies of Fado music seeping from neighbourhood cafes and restaurants. For those who want something faster, Lisbon has Hard Rock Cafe among its lineup of nightclubs.
Among the more unusual—and memorable—venues is the Museu Nacional dos Coches (National Coach Museum), which comprises a stunning collection of opulent carriages owned by kings, princes and popes housed in a baroque royal riding academy. For a moveable feast, some groups have hired one of the yellow trams, which climb the hills to the castle and can organize onboard the city delicacy, pastel de nata, a custard tart topped with cinnamon or sugar, and Moscatel wine.
As a place to conduct business, Lisbon boasts an astonishing array of meeting venues.
One unique venue is the Belem Cultural Centre, with conferencing, performance and exhibition space.
Another option is the former World’s Fair site, the Parque das Nacoes, which, in 1998, hosted the high-profile event.
That 50-hectare waterside fairground has become a modern city-within-the-city, featuring three major meeting facilities; four four-star hotels with 968 bedrooms; plus restaurants, an aquarium and cable-car service.
And these facilities are used.
Lisbon is popular with medical groups (in the last two years, pharmacists, operating-room nurses, palliative-care specialists, dermatologists and psychiatrists have met here), which usually range from 1,000 to 3,000 delegates. In 2011, it welcomed 17,000 delegates to the European Association for the Study of Diabetes AGM and is scheduled to host 35,000 Rotarians in 2013.
Lisbon is such a hot meetings destination that 20 new hotels are set to open by 2014.
–Allan Lynch is a freelance writer based in New Minas, N.S.
Direct flights are available from Toronto.
Lisbon Airport, LIS, is served by 28 airlines flying to over 100 international destinations. It is one to three hours flying time from most European capitals, and five to eight hours from North America.
Attention all duffers: Lisbon boasts 25 golf courses.
One hour behind London/GMT.
In 30 minutes, groups or individuals can either go to the beaches of the Costa do Estoril and Cascais or visit the UNESCO World Heritage community of Sintra. This is a royal enclave where kings, princes and Portuguese nobles built lavish palaces, fanciful castles, gardens and lakes. Sintra provides an opportunity for historic-themed off-sites.