“Why Portugal?” more than one person has asked me in the past couple of weeks. Or, to be more precise, there have been two variations on this question: “Portugal? Why not Spain?” and “Oh, Portugal, you’ll be in the Algarve then?” So I’m here in Lisbon, writes OutUK correspondent Chris Stevens, because I want to find out just what those who don’t come here are missing. And it doesn’t take me long to work out that they’re missing a lot.
Say it with flowers, the ads tell us. Well, the Portuguese did. One day in 1974, in what surely must have been one of the world’s most unique revolutions, and one whose gentleness seems strangely at odds with the willful ferocity of the country’s drivers, people started putting carnations in the barrels of soldiers’ rifles.
Lisbon is situated on seven hills.
Meeting virtually no resistance, this so-called Carnation Revolution signaled the end of a little-loved dictatorial government and heralded Portugal’s re-entry into European affairs after a half-century of isolation.

“The history of Portugal is not that of Europe,” said the Nobel Prizewinning Portuguese author José Saramago, “but the history of Europe would be unimaginable without that of Portugal.” These are, after all, the people who discovered a sea route to India, who established colonies in Brazil and Macau, who were the first to circumnavigate the globe. Today, Portugal’s borders are much shrunken. It is overshadowed by its larger neighbour, Spain, while its ancient capital, Lisbon, is often neglected in favor of the southerly lure of the Algarve’s beach resorts. Something of a connoisseur’s tip over the past couple of decades of its gradual re-emergence into the contemporary world, recent government investment and redevelopment associated with its role as European City of Culture in 1994, and events such as Expo ’98, mean that Lisbon is now attracting more attention than ever, and is poised to take its place as one of the European destinations not to be missed.

The imperial past is evident everywhere, most obviously in the countless royal statues which have outlived the actual monarchy and benignly survey the goings-on in the city’s squares and avenues. That of Dom Pedro IV is of particular note, not only for the magisterial height of its pillar which towers above the cafés of the Rossio, but because the history of this statue offers a certain insight into the survival of Portugal’s imperial heritage, and a glimpse into the psyche of its people. The statue actually portrays Maximilian of Mexico, who happened to be assassinated while his likeness was in the port of Lisbon awaiting shipment. Rather than being allowed to go to waste, the statue was renamed and installed on its column, in the belief, perhaps, that from a such great height, all kings look alike.

Today, Portugal’s expansive imperial past translates, variously, into a mixture of races on the streets, a thriving musical scene centered around the traditional “fado”, and the kaleidoscopic international menus on offer around the city. And everywhere you can wash down your meal with very affordable and fabulously drinkable Portuguese wines which may not always travel well but which, from the crisp vinhos verdes, or “green wines”, to the rich reds of the Dão, are nothing short of inspiring in their country of origin.

NIGHTLIFE

While the streets of the city centre below are the domain of formidably coiffed and stilettoed matriarchs, its cafes and bars seem to be the preserve of sultry youths. It crosses my mind, briefly, that Lisbon might just be a stage set dreamed up by a drag queen. At any rate, it’s a city which welcomes gay travellers. As with their one-time kings, and despite that fact that this is still a deeply religious country, the Portuguese do not take themselves too seriously and are not averse to a little gentle self-satire, which shows up in the name of a restaurant such as Mássima Culpa. Then there are Finalmente’s ubiquitous ads for their nightly “Travesty Shows”. Clearly, the future is free, gay and happy - if we are to accept the word of the current Mayor of Lisbon, who, writing the preface to the widely available Lisbon Gay & Lesbian Guide, describes his city as increasingly a place of “freedom, tolerance and creative restlessness.” He adds that it’s a city that knows how to have fun – and for evidence of that you need look no further than the small but astonishingly diverse and invariably welcoming bars and clubs of the Bairro Alto and Rato.

Though a very Catholic country, it has a very South American not European feel. You needn't go to a gay hang-out to meet that Portugese boy of your dreams, but there is a gay quarter which you'll find between the old Rossio station down to south of the Polytechnic in the Rato. You can cruise openly in the clubs or bars in Bairro Alto or Principe Real. Post-industrial and post gay it's habitués are gay, bi, straight or whatever. If you want boys only fun then try Bric-a-bar with the tunes accompanied by porno projected on the walls plus shadowy backrooms upstairs if you just can't wait to get back to your hotel room. And if you want to get steamed up check out Spartacus which offers just about anything you want including videos, cabins, a sauna, a steam bath, a Jacuzzi, back-room action, a very varied crowd, and much more!

But whatever you do, believe the guide books when they tell you nothing starts till late. I turn up at half past one on a Tuesday morning at Finalmente, only to be advised by the matronly woman at the door: “You’re very early.” Sure enough, the tiny club is empty except for three lanky teenagers practicing dance moves, but by three in the morning, it’s packed wall-to-wall for the stylish drag homages to English, Spanish and Greek pop stars which constitute the “Travesty Shows”. When you do finally slump into your bed as the sun is rising, you can always take comfort from the fact that the morning starts late as well: no need to think about breakfast in a café before at least eleven, when many stores will just be opening their doors.

Revised June 2016.

 

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