The sightseer sees what he wants to see; the received ideas he carries around with him will be projected onto the places he goes, and will mould the memories that he takes away with him. Lisbon had a dreamlike quality to me, like the stage set for a disquieting film; but I went there specifically hoping for experiences out of the ordinary, I didn’t have to work in some ghastly job, or commute twelve miles in rush hour, or stay long enough to get used to those giddy flights of constantly descending and ascending steps, those monochrome mosaic pavements, silent stifling middays and midnight pandemonium, that dazzling, brilliant afternoon light…
Where do I start? The first things that spring to my mind are that river, and that crystal-clear light. It’s not quite like anything I’ve seen before; the sky is so blue, everything the light falls on looks so luminous, that it has a quite peculiar intensity. The whole city looks a white shirt just out of a 100-degree wash. You feel bathed by it. The one time I tried mushrooms, everything was uncannily bright and I felt quite certain that if I opened the curtains of my room, instead of train tracks stretching to Upper Holloway I would see an array of Peloponnesian islands. The sensation of being in Lisbon is not actually a million miles away. I’d always had a notion that Paris was known as the City of Light -for its pioneering use of gas-fuelled nocturnal street lamps decades before electricity- but I can think of nowhere more deserving of the epithet than Lisbon.
Dotted at appropriate high spots throughout the city are miradouros; wide platforms with terrace café/bar kiosks where people can sit in front of a glorious view to meet friends, flirt, picnic,or just look out and dream.
Our fifth-floor flat looked onto the Tagus, and what a beast that river is. Thames, Tiber, and Seine are streaks of piss in comparison. In mid-afternoon, when the light is at its most beguiling, the river will be busy with scores of sailing boats, cargo ships and passenger ferries bobbing back and forth, and it feels like being transported back to another era, when all the riches of the Indies ended up in Bermondsey warehouses.
This feeling is reinforced by the public transport. A decent, four-line tube where each line has its own colour and nautical symbol (easier to navigate than that Porto colourblind chart). There are also funicular cars travelling from the seafront to the summit and back, and a network of wooden trams covering the city centre which are less a heritage fig leaf like Routemasters 9 & 15, more a means of getting residents around. The iconic route 28 passed our flat and was 50/50 tourists and pensioners doing a food shop. This is all charmingly retro to a holidaymaker, what would a commuter say if they replaced the DLR with rickety trams?
But like I say, these are all ideas I had packed in my suitcase and brought with me; literally. I’d packed a couple of Lisbon novels for re-reading; Tabucchi’s Sostiene Pereira is a shrewd, subtle call to Take Sides, but it is also a love letter to those steps, squares and trams. Cees Nooteboom’s The Following Story tells of a Dutch teacher who goes to sleep in Amsterdam and wakes up in the Lisbon hotel room where he had an affair some years earlier. The choice is telling; the city whose golden age was eclipsed by Amsterdam’s in the late C16th. A devoutly Catholic city which never made the most of Brazilian riches because trade was seen as vulgar, as opposed to a city that lived for trade, whose big break was the Jews & Protestants being thrown out of Antwerp. To Northern Prods, an inscrutable Other.
The Lisbon of the book turns out to be the ante-room for the dead, before they are put on a boat and sent off to the next world. “The fringe of Europe, the last shore of the first world… Lisbon is reluctant. That must be the word, this city puts off the moment of parting, this is where Europe says goodbye to itself. Lethargic songs, gentle decay, great beauty.”
One thinks of the cast of Casablanca, all selling their grandmothers over the roulette wheel for passage to this departure lounge of the Old World, of fado and saudade. The bittersweet, melancholy allure of a train station dispersed through an entire city. One could walk through Shanghai, Delhi, Baghdad, Istanbul, Vienna, Rome, and this would be the end of the line. Of Europe but slightly out of step with it, they share their time zone with Britain. Look along the river in the direction of the Atlantic, and towards the edge of town are doubles of the Golden Gate bridge and Christ the Redeemer, as if to advertise that next stop, the Americas. Golden Gate, steep hills everywhere, a thriving counter-culture… perhaps the poster of James Stewart & Kim Novak’s ‘redwood forest’ scene in our flat was a nod to Lisbon’s sister city.
Put me in front of a keyboard and I will build theories in the air. Walking those streets my feet were on terra firma, and one of Lisbon’s trademarks is its black & white mosaic floor patterns, all over the place. There are as many patterns as there are squares, and some of the best are a bit Bridget Riley if you stare too long. It’s marvellous, but harder to keep clean; in the Barrio Alto fag ends, beer bottle tops and sticky liquids fall between the pebbles.
The buildings are, in the centre, quite elegant. Many a fancy shop front catches the eye, even if both front and shop appear to have seen better days. The showpiece boulevard of Avenida da Liberdade has some wonderful old art deco, and Teatro Eden’s precious pink valentine to the age of Cecil B. De Mille was one of my favourite things in the whole city.
The interior must have been a sight to see, but the Internet tells us that the cinema closed in 1989 and was subsequently converted into flats. Well done, gents. A worse fate still awaited the cinema opposite.
Lisbon had its year zero in 1755, of course, when 85% of the city was lost to one of the worst earthquakes in history (tremors were felt in the Norwegian fjords). The ruins of the Carmo convent still stand in memoriam to a vanished city.
One of the few survivors was Igreja Sao Roque (St. Roch), a Jesuit place with startling amounts of marble whose main charms are nonetheless a disarmingly simple shoebox shape and trompe l’oeil ceiling frescoes.
The centre of Lisbon (Chiado, forming a flat valley between Bairro Alto & Alfama) was rebuilt in a logical grid pattern, old Rossio Square at one end and, in place of the royal palace, the vast Praca do Comercio at the other. With a huge triumphal arch opening onto a wide shopping street, symmetrical colonnaded buildings along the perimeter and an equestrian statue flanked by elephants at the centre, this monumental square is Piazza del Campidoglio on steroids.
Surely the intention is as much to dwarf and humble visitors as it is to give Lisbon back its pride. As a visitor, your boat glides up the Tagus and embarks here; your first sight of Lisbon is the largest square you have ever seen. Beat that!, the city says. Both square and king face out towards the water, the square’s very name asserts that Lisbon is open for business.
It’s a panorama as iconic as the one awaiting boat passengers to Piazzetta San Marco in Venice; a city whose days were numbered once Vasco da Gama had found a route round the Cape of Good Hope that led to the Indies.
Although it’s a transport hub, it’s not really a square where the city lives out its life. Praca do Comercio is the immaculate front room which a houseproud mum keeps for special visitors and bars the kids from using, Rossio is the lounge where everyone watches the soaps and eats dinner from their laps. As in Porto, even their equivalent to Trafalgar Square has some quite makeshift-looking housing on the upper stories.
Aside from the beggars every big city will have, there is poverty here. One news story seemed to be about a 20% pay cut for the public sector. In a Bairro Alto bar, a drugged local asked us if he should take up a job offer in Newcastle; as a make-up artist in the film industry, he was earning €85 a week. Portugal is cheaper than Britain, but that’s just about half the rent on a room in London. The young must all live with their folks. There were a few power cuts on our nights out, all momentary but frequent enough for remark. EU membership might have been worth its weight in gold when Portugal came in from the cold of Salazarist isolation, but the Euro must be killing the place now.
Although Lisbon has a reasonably uniform feel, the quarters are distinct. Chiado is downtown, shops and big old banking HQs. Bairro Alto, where we stayed, is a blend of ageing locals and a hippy/grungy mecca for backpacker types. Its boozing goes on well into the small hours -fuelled by countless interchangeable hole-in-wall bars offering cheap cocktails- and its mornings are deathly silent. We seemed to hear Bob Marley’s greatest hits every time we opened the window. It takes a bit of digging around to find something out of the ordinary, but they do exist: Pavilhao Chines was quite an experience.
The Alfama is the oldest part of town. We only made it there towards the end of the stay but it seemed a great place to while away time, losing oneself in a maze of alleyways, sleepy and resolutely ungentrified. At its peak sits the C10th Islamic castle, captured during the Iberian reconquista (caveat emptor, there’s fuck all to see inside). South of Bairro Alto, the Cais do Sodre station is by the seafront and feels like the seedy end of town. There’s a British Bar to which we give a wide berth, expecting stag nights on their 14th pint. Later I find reference to the very bar in Tabucchi as the place where poets, novelists and critics meet up.
Most of the area feels like old sailor hangouts being regenerated. At the large covered market of Mercado da Ribeira, you can meet the face of the new, globalised Lisbon (God help them): the market has been bought and converted into a foodie mecca by Time Out.
Colonialism rises from the grave; this is an Islington (or Prenzlauer Burg, or Navigli, or Eixample) liberal’s dream of bringing his religion to the rest of the world, for their own good. All the rising chefs of Lisbon have a stall and they’re serving up high quality, inventive takes on Portuguese classic dishes, so why does it feel more like Spitalfields than Lisbon? Give the kids what they want, but they might not like what all this stuff does to their rents.
An honourable mention for the Gulbenkian museum, a metro ride away and the most rewarding way to spend €5. Gulbenkian was an oil man of Jay Gatsby means, who sat out the war in Lisbon and stayed the rest of his life. This is his collection and it’s a brisk , thrilling gallop through Antiquity, Islam, China and Japan, and European masters. Many of the great museums have so much that your brain is saturated 5% of the way through; there’s a lightness to the Gulbenkian that allows you to really enjoy everything, and it only sags slightly towards the end (he was really keen on C18th French furniture).
You reach the end feeling not-too-full of art, and your dessert is a room full of René Lalique.