Column on Lisbon

King Jose I, who might have liked the odd custard tart himself.

Below is yesterday’s column. I’ve had various emails, tweets and Facebook messages from concerned readers suggesting alternative Lisbon tours, plus one recommendation for the Ghost Walk on the Isle of Wight which I will certainly look up if I’m ever there. As ever, am just so tickled that people are reading my stuff so thank you ALL.

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I’m just back from Lisbon. A few days there to finish editing my new novel, fuelled by Vinho Verde and custard tarts. I’d never visited but long been fascinated and so, one afternoon, signed up for a three-hour walking tour. I was exceptionally pleased with myself for doing this. How cultured and brave! Here I was on a solo holiday, practically Patrick Leigh Fermor, venturing out to learn about the glorious history of Portugal – the Moorish invasion, battles with the Spanish, about Lisbon’s tiled architecture and its Jesuit churches. Perhaps I’d even make a few friends on this tour.

I realised how mistaken I was within the first two minutes when our energetic group leader, Alberto, a human magic bean, marshalled us in front of a monument for a team photo before even setting off.

‘You have to jump in the air or do something interesting in this photo, otherwise you’re not coming ha ha ha,’ cackled Alberto. Feebly, hating this tour already, I made the peace sign with my fingers and gurned at his camera.

Then we had to stand in a circle, introduce ourselves and say where we were from. Dublin, Brisbane, Toronto, Tokyo and Oldham were among the answers. Plus, a couple from Tampa Bay who went on to explain in great detail that the city was situated below the panhandle of Florida and what this meant for the climate. Humid in the morning, cooler in the evening, clarified Jim, demonstrating the meteorological conditions with his hands while I stared at his bright white sports socks, hoiked half-way up his calves as if DVT bandages.

Eventually, Alberto wrestled control of the tour back from Jim and embarked on the history of Portugal. David Starkey can certainly rest easy. ‘They did not have iPhones in those days so nobody knew they were coming, ha ha ha,’ said Francisco, a joke so good he repeated it several times in reference to various military incursions. I laughed dutifully every time because that’s what you have to do on a group tour, although I noticed the Dubliners had slid off by our third stop.

The bad jokes continued, as did Alberto’s hard upselling of other tours the company offered. We paused for a custard tart half-way while Alberto discussed Portugal’s football fortune. The couple from Oldham and I became the butt of the jokes as traitorous Brits who were abandoning Europe. We stopped a further couple of times for Jim’s wife to use the restroom. The last 15 minutes of the tour, standing beneath a statue of King Jose I astride a bronze horse, was given over to Alberto’s plea for tips. All in all, a less enriching experience than I’d hoped.

Although I’ve done a couple, I’ve always felt slightly disdainful towards those open-topped tourist buses. They seem lazy and unimaginative, made for tourists who want to eat hot dogs and ‘see the sights’ simultaneously. Where’s the romance in sitting on a bus as if on your morning commute when you could be strolling the streets below? But I may now readdress such loftiness and embrace the bus. Either that or go the old-fashioned route and walk solo, armed with a guidebook.

Although I did learn one useful nugget that afternoon. Did you know that Tampa is the lightning capital of America, with more lightning deaths there than in any other US state? So if you do a walking tour there, remember to wear rubber shoes.

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On my return flight, I stood at the back of the plane in the loo queue. The person in there was taking an exceptionally long time. Had they settled in with their book? Had they died? I rolled my eyes in solidarity at the woman in the queue behind me, adding a ‘tut’ for good measure. She grimaced as if in pain. Normally, I’d never be so judgmental. What a person does in the loo is their business and they should be allowed to get on with it in peace. But we’d been waiting for a good 10 minutes. The true horror, however, only struck me when we landed and I reached for my bag in the overhead locker. Across the aisle from me was the woman I’d tutted at, sitting with the man who’d eventually relinquished his fiefdom and let me into the loo. I’d pulled a face at this woman about her own husband. The moral of the story, if you were in any doubt, is always stand quietly in the queue and don’t make a fuss.

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Sad new about LK Bennett. Kate Middleton’s favourite high-street shop is appointing administrators. Yes it went a bit Tunbridge Wells in recent years, but writing as someone with feet the size of flippers who struggles to find heels that fit, they were a godsend. As the Duchess of Cambridge knows, they made the most comfortable party shoes for weddings, when there can be a lot of tottering about between church and reception and standing for hours before dinner. I still have an ancient pair with clods of mud spiked on the heel after years of trampling through fields to the marquee. Farewell, LK, your nude sledge pumps served me well.

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