Portuguese perfection: Castles, calm and glorious custard tarts in romantic Lisbon
There are not many places left in Europe where it's still possible to be a romantic, but Lisbon probably tops the shortlist. Even smiling middle-aged couples stroll along its leafy avenues and sun-bleached plazas as if out on a first date.
Lisbon's charm has as much to do with everyday sights as its reasonable prices and friendly people. The locals are so laid-back, in fact, that it's a wonder Portugal ever managed to get an empire together.
Gateway to greatness: Lisbon - in streets such as Rua Augusta - has a lively yet historic feel
Lisbon, built on seven hills, is also one of Europe's most accessible cities for exploring on foot, and often feels more like a series of neighbourhoods knitted together.
And it is not just tourists who are attracted to the delights of the Portuguese capital - film-makers also flock there. Among the latest movies to be made in the city is Night Train To Lisbon, due to be released in the UK next year. Jeremy Irons plays a professor who abandons his job and heads to Lisbon on a journey of self-discovery.
Irons was certainly impressed by the city, describing it as 'an absolute jewel'.
He says: 'Lisbon is a glorious city to shoot in. Not only architecturally because of its extraordinary buildings, but there's this huge friendliness I felt from its wonderful people. I hope it won't be long before I come back and make another movie here.'
The film was shot largely in Lisbon's historic districts during the spring and made use of streets such as Rua da Bica and Rua Misericordia, the Baixa (city centre), the pedestrianised Rua Augusta, the cemetery of dos Prazeres, and St Apolonia and Rossio railway stations.
'Lisbon has a very special atmosphere,' says Bille August, Night Train To Lisbon's Danish director.
'It has a decadence and melancholy that comes from lost grandeur. It's a mysterious place but there's certain beauty to the city that's long been lost elsewhere. So much of the world has been taken over by money, but not so in Lisbon. There's a kind of innocence to the people which I really hope they retain. It's important they don't step into the greedier world the rest of us inhabit.'
Silver screen spectacle: The city features in the upcoming movie Night Train To Lisbon, starring Jeremy Irons
Although Lisbon is easy to navigate on foot, there are two quirky forms of transport not to be missed: the fabulous, creaking old elevadores (cable-winched lifts), and old trams that carry you into Lisbon's charming heart.
During my visit, I hopped aboard the No28, a polished wooden tram that winds its way from the shopping area of Baixa to the narrow streets of the capital's Alfama quarter.
Later, I took the giant Elevador de Santa Justa, which rises from sea level to Chiado, a district known for its fashion boutiques.
Even with just a few days in Lisbon, I was able to cram in a lot more besides eating salted cod and sardines and drinking strong coffee called bica. One morning, I visited the striking Belem Tower beside the River Tagus - it's a stone monument that celebrates Portugal's seafaring past.
Afterwards, irresistible sweet smells drew me into Pasteis de Belem, a picturesque pastry shop rightly known for its deliciously fresh egg tarts. But be warned: one is never enough.
TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932, www.flytap.com) flies up to seven times daily from Heathrow or Gatwick to Lisbon, with one-way fares starting at £76 per person.
For more information about Lisbon, see www.visitlisboa.com.
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