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Winter 2006 | Portugal's Sapphic Secret

Winter 2006 | Portugal's Sapphic Secret

Searching for signs of lesbian life amid the seven hills of Lisbon.

If Paris is a woman, Lisbon should be a lesbian. It is a city with steep hills that demand sensible shoes, a city where the greatest fado singers are strong, sultry women and whose complex weave of traditional and cutting edge inspires endless processing. And then, of course, there's that name.

So forgive the place if its scenes of dyke life are not so easily stumbled upon. While gay boys have a lineup of at least six nightspots to call their own, Lisbon has no exclusively lesbian bars or clubs. In the streets you'll spot no hand-holding girls (or boys, for that matter) thanks to a lingering old-world culture. But what you will find are Lisboans with a warm and accepting attitude plus a smattering of mixed hangouts worth seeking out. The quiet area off Avenida da Liberdade is home to one, Os Tibetanos (Rua do Solitre 117, 011-21-314-2038)--a rare vegetarian restaurant (it's all about fish in this town) with a romantic back garden--but most lesbian-friendly venues lie in the hip hoods of Bairro Alto and Principe Real.

Bairro Alto is set on a steep hillside, where peaks offer vistas of the Tagus River and coral roof–topped city skyline. The neighborhood is a romantic jumble of cobblestone roads and apartments with brightly tiled facades, a place where local kids kick around soccer balls and fresh laundry billows from balconies. Come nighttime, the volume cranks way up as eateries and bars pack in young partiers who spill onto the narrow streets, drinks in hand. While some girls join the hordes of gay men who have their first round of cocktails at Portas Largas (Rua Atalaia 105, 011-21-346-6379), most head to Primas (Rua Atalaia 144-146, 011-21-342-5925), a mellow, 20-year-old pub with Foosball and one-Euro beers that is owned by Spanish sisters Conchita and Prima Martinez. "We are both lesbians," says the affable Conchita. "I'm very proud of this."

Nearby is the incense filled, blue-lit cave called Purex (Rua dos Salgadeiras 28, 011-96-348-8641). And though it likes to call its crowd "mixed," various clues--including a poster for a feminist art show and the gaggles of girls filing inside--indicate it's clearly another dyke favorite. (While in the hood, keep your eyes peeled for posters announcing occasional special events, or check it's in Portuguese--for updates.)

You won't have a long way to stumble when you leave if you're staying at the popular gay guesthouse Hotel Anjo Azul (Rua Luz Soriano 75, 011-21-347-8069, rooms 40-75 euros per night). Its bright-blue front gives way to a cozy lobby and 20 tidy rooms. But be warned that for most lesbian revelers, the night is just getting started at 2 or 3 a.m. when they hit the dance floor at one of two gay-mixed clubs: Trumps (Rua Imprensa Nacional 104B, 011-21-397-1059) in the nearby Principe Real gayborhood, or even more popular, Mister Gay (Quinta dal Silveira, Monte de Caparica, 011-96-258-6803), which lies a ferry and bus trip away across the Tagus in Costa da Caparica. "The travestis are the best," claims one scarlet-haired baby dyke about the club's drag shows.

Drag acts? At 3 a.m? What kind of lesbians are these?

And then, out of nowhere, "L Word!" exclaims another girl in the pack. "We love it!" Some things are universal. So never fear.

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Beth Greenfield