Lapa: Quiet quarter of Portugal's capital


LISBON, Portugal -- Lapa, the diplomatic quarter of Portugal's capital, is a quiet, residential neighborhood of old palaces surrounded by high walls.

Located just west of downtown and slightly downhill from the trendy Bairro Alto district, Lapa is hardly out of the way, but surprisingly doesn't attract many travelers. Yet the neighborhood contains three memorable places -- the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga (National Museum of Ancient Art), Hotel As Janelas Verdes and Restaurante Senhor Vinho.

The National Museum of Ancient Art, one of the most acclaimed in Portugal, was converted from the 17th century palace of the Count of Alvor. Most of the pieces in its collections date from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Nuno Goncalves' Panels of Sao Vicente is the museum's centerpiece. The six panels illustrate the spectrum of 15th century Lisbon society -- from royal figures such as Prince Henry the Navigator to priests, fishermen, soldiers and others -- paying homage to Sao Vicente, Portugal's patron saint.

My favorite pieces in the museum are the nambans, a series of screens depicting Portuguese explorers arriving in Japan in 1543. The Japanese artists who created the nambans were fascinated by their Western visitors, who are rendered in extraordinary detail.

Lisbon, set on the Tagus River, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1755. Today, a revitalized capital includes fashionable neighborhoods such as Lapa, Bairro Alto, Santo Amaro and Belem.The write stuff

Nearly adjacent to the National Museum of Ancient Art is the Hotel As Janelas Verdes. The onetime town house of 19th century Portuguese novelist Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz, the hotel has 29 rooms, each of which is stocked with a complimentary decanter of port wine.

Autumn rates start at around $139, double, and commissions range from 8% to 10%. A library on the third floor contains Queiroz's novels, among others, as well as a full honor bar. Hotel As Janelas Verdes provides a full buffet breakfast every morning for 2,500 escudos, or about $11, in its attractive parlor.

When I stayed there in March, the weather was pleasant enough to partake of my morning meal in the courtyard, a cozy, cobblestoned space surrounded by ivy-covered walls.

Singing for supper

Although it serves the full breakfast, Hotel As Janelas Verdes does not contain a restaurant. The top choice for dinner in the neighborhood is Senhor Vinho, an upscale place at Rua do Meio a Lapa 18 that also hosts some of the best fado musicians in Lisbon.

Fado, which translates loosely as "fate," is the soulful, lament-filled music of Portuguese taverns. "Fadistas," or fado singers, are usually women, accompanied by at least two guitarists. In fact, Maria da Fe, one of Lisbon's famous fadistas, is the restaurant's proprietor.

At Senhor Vinho, the standard trio was joined by a man playing a stand-up bass. Although Senhor Vinho is a fine restaurant, it follows the custom of ordinary taverns for staging fado performances. At around 9:45 p.m., the musicians simply walk to the middle of the dining room and begin playing. Some people continue to eat quietly; others pause to devote their full attention to the performers.

The food at Senhor Vinho nearly matches the entertainment. I enjoyed a typically hearty feijoada, a sausage and fava bean stew. As you'd expect of a restaurant that calls itself "Mr. Wine," the wine list is well chosen. Senhor Vinho was the only restaurant where I could find Colares, a powerful, tannic red wine that is becoming increasingly rare in Portugal. Like many fado houses, Senhor Vinho requires guests to spend a minimum amount (in this case 3,500 escudos, or about $15) on food and drink -- essentially a cover charge for the music.

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