Anonymous review of Hotel Britania
‘Right then. Lead me to the custard tarts.’
Mr Smith’s first not-altogether-romantic words at Lisbon airport. He had a point though: they’d been one of our main topics of conversation since booking our first trip to Lisbon – and he’s not a man to be easily distracted from the prospect of food. Even watching our taxi driver manage the impressive multi-tasking feat of driving the 20 minutes to the hotel while listening to both a jazz station and recorded birdsong, and keeping up a phone conversation while playing a shoot-em-up on his iPad at traffic lights, only briefly kept Mr S off the subject of food.
As we pulled up at the discreet entrance to the Hotel Britania however, it was my turn for a touch of obsessing. I’m a bit of an art deco nut; so the promise of a thoughtfully renovated, original deco hotel brought me out in a bit of a hot flush. Stepping gratefully from the sensory overload of our taxi we were met with the imposing arch of this Portuguese boutique hotel’s door, which was opened for us with a cheerful ‘boa tarde’ as we were ushered into the simple and chic reception area.
Built in 1942 and designed by Portuguese modernist architect Cassiano Branco, the hotel is filled with art deco and modernist touches, from the perfectly preserved barber’s shop to public toilets even Poirot would commend. At check-in, we were handed our room key with a frankly enormous fob. How lovely, I remarked to Mr Smith, an actual key. No super-techy, easy-to-lose plastic cards here. This subtle, low-tech feel extends to the rest of the hotel, including our home for the next few nights, a sixth-floor penthouse.
This is the newest part of the hotel, added in 2008, with all the swish touches you would expect from a modern design hotel. Queensize bed? Marble bathroom with rain showerhead? WiFi access? All present and correct. And yet this modern addition to such a distinctive period piece doesn’t jar. Through clever design and the use of original deco furniture, the room retains the ocean-liner feel of the hotel.
One definite bonus of the penthouse that made Mr Smith and I sigh: the room’s massive glass doors open out fully on to the decked terrace to provide a clever indoor-outdoor space – perfect for relaxing with an early evening glass of port thoughtfully provided by the hotel, before heading out for an evening of food, discovery and, probably, more port.
The Britania prides itself on the kind of old-school charm and service alien to many cool hotels. No attention-seeking hipsters and banging tunes here – just the excellent Raquel at the front desk providing the answers to all our ‘where should we go for…?’ questions. The hotel’s location on a quiet backstreet feels well away from the action, but as we left the hotel armed with Raquel’s sage advice (just head downhill to go out, and uphill to come back), we turned the corner onto Avenida de Liberdade to see Vuitton and Gucci among the luxury stores.
Stopping in a basement bar for an aperitif, the piped fado tunes allowed us to tick Portuguese lost-love blues off our list. The city is full of venues you can hear fado’s plaintive songs, but as many don’t open until late, and Mr Smith and I are dedicated sleepers, we figured listening to a CD while sipping Portuguese wine definitely counted. Fado stop over, we headed into the cool neighborhood of the Bairro Alto for dinner and people watching before heading home to our queensize bed and a proper lie-in, having discovered our favourite feature of the hotel so far: at the Britania, breakfast – including the longed for custard tarts – is served until noon.
Late the following morning (I blame the first-class blackout blinds) we headed down to hotel’s light and airy library for what started out as a buffet breakfast and turned into a Who Can Eat The Most Custard Tarts? competition. Mr Smith won with three and a half. In my defence, I was distracted by yet more gorgeous Art Deco furniture and photos of the great and good of Portuguese society from the hotel’s Forties’ heyday.
Planning to lose breakfast’s custard-tart weight with a walk, we headed past the stunning façade of the Cinema Eden (another Branco design) to the train station for a day trip to Sintra, where a wander around the chocolate-box palace and gardens provided some much needed exercise. Returning to the city late, we headed straight back to the hotel and our gorgeous terrace.
After breakfast the next morning (total tarts consumed: a record six) Raquel showed us some of the original hotel bedrooms on the floors below ours. Seeing these lovely time capsules with original patterned cork flooring, crystal chandeliers and the sort of furniture I obsess over in our local antique shops, we were torn – would we have swapped our indulgent terrace for this? Honestly, I think we probably would. But I guess there’s always next time…
Oh, and those custard tarts... They are called nata, by the way. And yes, they really are worth the trip.