At first glance, Lisbon doesn’t look like a shopping mecca. I hadn’t expected to go home with a case full of bargains
Holiday shopping is a dangerous business. As a rule, something that looks absolutely fabulous with gold sandals and a glass of rosé on the beach never looks quite as hot back home, in the rain, on the school run. Some clothes simply don’t travel well. This includes anything folkloristic (ponchos, ethnic scarves, clogs, lace-edged blouses, traditional jewellery); anything with a cultural-geographic theme (Viva España T-shirts, humorous depictions of the Pope) and anything too bright (let’s face it, if Britain were a colour it would probably be navy blue or, at a push, khaki — certainly not coral florals or bright yellow).
That said, if you avoid the obvious pitfalls there is great satisfaction to be had from topping up your wardrobe on holiday. In mainland Europe especially, the high street is not nearly as homogenised as it is here. Nor is all the decent stuff the exclusive preserve of Size 8 trophy wives with toned arms and the might of their husband’s black Amex at their manicured fingertips. Affordable, well-cut, quality clothes that actually fit — as rare as hen’s teeth on your average British high street — are the norm.
Everyone knows about France and Italy; but in many ways these places are past their prime. Ten years ago it was still worth the budget air fare to Milan or Turin for a few days’ total immersion in the markets of the Crocetta and the shoe shops of Via Garibaldi, where even a pauper could kit herself out like a princess. These places still exist, of course; but the real bargains — such as the 100 per cent cashmere overcoat that I bought for something ridiculous like £50 (tragically hacked off by paramedics when I shattered my arm last year, causing me almost as much pain as the broken bones) are long gone.
No, in fashion terms the emerging markets lie farther afield. This year, mid-August found me in Portugal, first in Lisbon and then a few miles up the coast near Cascais, an area renowned for its winds, waves and golf courses. I expected to spend my days pootling around by the pool, perhaps visiting a few churches and medieval palacios (including the spooky, magnificent Moorish castle at Sintra).
What I hadn’t expected was to return home with a case full of proper bargains.
At first glance, Lisbon doesn’t look like a shopping mecca. For a start, the place is plastered in graffiti. Paint covers the sagging walls of the old city like tattoos on an aged whore — there is literally nowhere the spray can will not venture. Economically, Portugal has been having a tough time, yet despite (or maybe because of) this, Lisbon is bursting with ideas — and unlike in Britain, where the smartness of a shop often correlates with the surliness of its sales staff, the service is worthy of the snootiest Jermyn Street outfitter, yet the prices are more reminiscent of Primark.
As every successful salesperson knows, the secret is to make your customer feel happy and relaxed. In Lisbon they are experts at this. When trying on shoes, for example, it is customary for the sales assistant to fit them to your feet himself. The first few times this happened I was paralysed with embarrassment; by the time a pair of ravishing red platforms in Ana Salazar (75 per cent off in the sale) were being strapped around my ankles, I was rather enjoying having a handsome Iberian kneeling at my feet. It certainly loosened my purse, anyway.
Satisfying though this was, it was my very own dashing Aberdonian husband who, prised from his copy of Matthew Crawford’s The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (timely reading for a man who has been known to call an electrician to change a light bulb), uncovered a gem: a fabulous wool jacket, with a scooped hem at the back and an asymmetrical lapel, that hung beautifully and cost only fractionally more than lunch at the airport on the way out.
In Adolfo Dominguez (a sort of Iberian Jaeger) I picked up a linen shirt and a long-line silk knit cardigan for €49 (£40). The local branch of Zara was a revelation: rather cheaper and with a distinctly more sophisticated edge than in the UK. Even the Apple Store seemed somehow cooler, although that may have had something to do with the air-conditioning (we were shopping in 38C heat).
I have only two regrets: that I didn’t buy the pair of utterly bonkers shaggy white winter boots in Zara that I now see were a direct rip-off of this season’s Chanel ones; and that I didn’t pack an extra holdall for the journey home.