After nearly two years of COVID-enforced isolation in Melbourne and regional Victoria, I’m recalibrating. Fast. I’m in Lisbon, sipping on a Portuguese wine in a hilltop bar along with scores of happy tourists.
It’s selfie paradise here; the Tagus River and the city’s mansions form a beautiful backdrop. It’s been a full day: I’ve browsed Chiado, the fashion district, and perused the stunning tiles in the Museu Nacional do Azulejo.
As a traveller during COVID times, I’ve never felt more at ease as I do here. Portugal’s vaccination rate – a whopping 87 per cent – is the highest in Europe.
Why Portugal is so far ahead of the vaccination regime, it’s difficult to know. Much credit goes to Rear Admiral Henrique Gouveia e Melo, a well-respected naval officer who is responsible for the ultra-efficient rollout. Or perhaps the Portuguese are simply more law-abiding as a result of 42 years of a repressive dictatorship, even if this ended way back in 1974. And yet these days, Portuguese hardly follow the rules when it comes to speed limits (fast), parking (illegally) and walking their dogs (leash free).
My Portuguese friends say the rapid response was a no brainer: “Because we knew that it was needed to have a normal life!” But there’s more to it.
Inherent in the Portuguese culture is a respect for elderly folk. Early on, when COVID-19 hit vulnerable individuals – especially the aged population – shocked locals raced to get their jabs and protect their communities.
For tourists, however, most COVID-related practices are completed before departure. You must have a PCR COVID test – 48 or 72 hours before leaving, depending on your departure point – and a copy of the result, as well as a record of your double vaccination certificate, and a completed Locator Form that confirms your contact details. Carry copies with you as they’re handy to have if required. Unlike some European countries, scanning of QR codes is not required to enter locations, at least at the time of writing.
Business owners, too, follow strict regulations relating to cleaning protocols and air flow in buildings.
Elsewhere, masks are mandatory indoors (except when eating), but most locals opt to wear them outside, too. Thankfully, the ‘below the chin’ habit isn’t a fashion trend here. For the tourist, it’s a case of ‘when in Lisbon’ and thankfully, most follow suit.
Want to visit cafes and restaurants, museums and attractions? Knock yourself out.
Cafes are at full capacity, with outdoor seating. As at most venues, hand sanitisers grace every entrance.
Need to catch a train, bus or tram? No problem. And grab any seat. The popular Tram 28 that winds its way along the hilly streets of Alfama and Graça is packed like a Portuguese sardines can, though there’s plenty of breeze blowing through the open windows.
As for hotel breakfasts? In one hotel I’m touching elbows with others, such is the tight space. Elsewhere, at the Four Seasons Hotel Ritz, I relax over brunch in the elegant dining room, whose buffet tables heave with local delicacies. It’s DIY serving, though staff ensure the communal implements are in order.
I don’t make it to a nightclub or bar (that’s beyond my limits), but party-going friends tell me dance floors are packed and it’s business as usual.
I’m more at ease with a small group on a walking tour with Taste of Lisboa. We stop for snacks at various locations, including a hole-in-the-wall cantinho (tiny bar) and an historic pastry shop. Post-COVID tweaks include pre-plated samples rather than a shared platter. And it’s a ‘no go’ to pick up a dried cod at Lisbon’s traditional grocery, Manteigaria Silva. Instead, a staff member is happy to display one for photos (it’s worth seeing the scale of a full dried cod, believe me).
The only time I feel slightly unnerved is at The Time Out Market. Tourist crowds flock here for accessibly-priced dishes produced by some of Lisbon’s top chefs. It’s not so much the numbers that bother me, but the clientele – fellow foreigners. And, although to enter Portugal we’ve all had to provide evidence of our immunisations, I trust locals more to follow on-the-ground COVID customs.
But it’s autumn. The weather is unseasonally warm so it’s pleasant to be outdoors. Winter might bring other challenges, when temperatures drop to 9 degrees Celsius, and eateries must continue to keep their doors open for fresh air.
My advice to ward off the chill? Mask up and head to Luvaria Ulisses for a pair of matching leather gloves. Then hat yourself out at Chapelaria Azevedo Rua, one of Lisbon’s oldest hat shops. Order a bica (a local term for an espresso) and a freshly baked pastel de nata (custard tart) or three.
Other than gaining weight, you’ve little else to worry about.
For current information on pre-departure requirements to Portugal visit www.visitportugal.com/en/content/covid-19-measures-implemented-portugal
The writer travelled as a guest of Four Seasons and Taste of Lisboa.
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