NORMALLY in July, the Praça do Comércio in Lisbon would rival London’s Trafalgar Square when it comes to tourist numbers.
But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, my boyfriend and I are two of five people in the huge city square.
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It’s the same deserted scenes at the Portuguese capital’s other major attractions – from Belém Tower and Jerónimos Monastery to the streets of Alfama.
The city, where locals are usually outnumbered ten to one by tourists, was eerily peaceful.
As a result, anyone returning to the UK from Portugal has to quarantine for 14 days on arrival, and the FCO advice against travelling there means that most travel insurance policies are rendered invalid.
So, when I flew out on July 4, the Ryanair flight was 99 per cent Portuguese-speaking.
There’s currently a mini local lockdown in the capital, so you can dine out until 10pm, but bars close at 8pm.
Everything else like hairdressers to gyms and beaches are back to normal, which makes for good holiday vibes, unless you’re after a party trip.
Covid-19 ‘hotspot’ Lisbon feels far safer than London
Portugal may be ahead of the UK in the ‘unlockdown’ process – but it feels far safer.
For starters, they seem much better at sticking to social distancing and the police make sure everyone adheres.
There’s also been avid mask-wearing in enclosed spaces for weeks. You need to wear them in so many places that most people don’t bother taking them off.
Hand sanitiser dispensers are everywhere and in certain places like the big indoor Time Out Market, shoes are cleaned on a spongy doormat and tables are installed with perspex screens.
Visit now and feel like a VIP
But while everyone else is staying away, I’m over here feeling like I’ve won the holiday jackpot.
There are no queues, no tour groups and the locals are even more happy to see you than usual.
For example, you’d often queue for upwards of 50 minutes to get on one of Lisbon’s historic trams and would never get a seat, whereas we caught one immediately on our trip.
It was the same on our day out to the beach at Tamariz – which sits between Lisbon and the fancier Cascais.
Police are stationed at the entrances to stop the beach filling up too much and ‘lanes’ mark out where people should walk, meaning there’s at least five metres between our parasol and the next.
After visiting virtually empty Insta-favourite photo spot Miradouro de Santa Luzia, we visited the popular Solar dos Presuntos restaurant – a hit with many celebrity holidaymakers and were able to walk straight in.
Manager Carolina Cordoso said: “We’ve noticed a huge difference since coronavirus arrived – we used to serve 600 meals per day – now we’re doing 20% of that.
“But it’s great for customers. You don’t have to book by morning at the latest, and the service is better – we can focus on each table more.”
It’s a similar story at steakhouse Atalho Real, with the owner Tarek Mabsout telling us: “We’re having none of the visitor numbers that we’re used to – we’re 57% down.”
It’s not just places to eat. One hotel receptionist, who usually receives hoards of Brits, as well as Americans and Brazilians, tells me they have one single booking for the whole first week of August out of 30 possible rooms.
It’s not just the capital…
The story is similar elsewhere in Portugal. My boyfriend spent a week in the Algarve before my arrival where the absence of Brits was stark.
It was the same in the country’s third-biggest city Coimbra, in the Centro region, with the medieval streets empty apart from the same three pairs of German, Dutch and French tourists that we crossed paths with all day.
The only busy places are the natural pools where Portuguese families go to swim and sunbathe.
If you’re after a bargain, prices are – understandably – the same, as Portuguese businesses strive to remain afloat.
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