As most good stories often do, this one begins with a photograph.
Hanging on a wall in my grand-uncle’s house in England.
A grainy black and white of a military figure standing in what, I presume, was considered a suitably dignified, martial pose. If you looked closer, you’d notice the prodigious moustache, the dark eyes, the hands carefully clasped together as though holding on to a secret.
Their families travelled to India looking for work, fleeing from a country facing the gradual decline of its empire. They came by ship and never saw their homeland again.Walking through Alfama, one of Lisbon’s oldest neighbourhoods, I wondered whether these connections were still alive, pulsing thinly in the blood of a stranger I happened to pass. There was no way of knowing, of course, and against all the makings of a melodramatic tale, I didn’t feel an inexplicable connection to the place as soon as I alighted at Santa Maria Novella station. It was more an intrigued, quiet “this is nice”. And it was. Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world – outdating Rome, London and Paris by hundreds of years – yet little of that past remains, having been destroyed in an earthquake in 1755 that killed over thirty thousand people and laid waste to eighty-five percent of the city. Lisbon lies along the banks of the Tagus River (not, as everyone usually supposes, by the sea), now sweetly dreaming in lime washed buildings topped by distinctive terra-red tiles.
My first day started well – a long walk through some of the old city, a stop at Porto Sol, a seafood lunch at a tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving magnificently large jugs of sangria, an accidental stumble into a flower-laden viewpoint – and then it slowly unravelled. Mainly due to tiredness from a string of sleep-deprived nights and an excruciatingly uncomfortable sit-down twelve-hour train journey from Madrid (Yes, it was a bad idea, but terribly, temptingly cheap). My Canadian dorm mate and I seemed to take all the wrong turns that evening, wandering into an unkept, garbage-strewn park, dead-end roads flanked by decrepit buildings and then a charmless riverside walk interrupted by dead pigeons – three to be precise.It was time to retire and hope the next day be better.Although my skill at interpreting maps had improved by colossal leaps and bounds, I misjudged the distance to Belém
Torre. What I thought would be a leisurely half-hour stroll took almost an entire morning. Hot, bothered, and beginning to look suspiciously like a miffed lobster, I hailed down a passing man in a bright green shirt. How far was Belém, kind sir
“Oh, another forty minutes,” he replied cheerfully. “It’s a nice walk.”
His name, he said, was José
, and since I looked a little tired, he asked if I’d like to join him for coffee at a cafe down the road. Not as good as Italian coffee, I’m sure, I mumbled under my breath. I wasn’t in the most pleasant of moods. I missed Rome, and gelato, and my friends in Italy.
“Is it true Portugal would like to opt out of the Euro?” I asked, and what followed was an interesting, passionate retort. José, well into middle age but with a bright, friendly smile, explained how he’d lost his job in the north of Portugal and come to Lisbon to find work. “I was in the textile industry, which is now in massive decline. Everything in Portugal is in decline. It’s because of the mentality of the people – spend too much, without planning, and think about the consequences when it’s too late. The problem is the government works in the same way.”
I don’t know if this is true, but he went on to tell me how farmers in Portugal are paid to produce nothing by the European Union council – this is to keep imports high in the country, and to disallow Portuguese produce (which is far more inexpensively priced) to infiltrate the European market.
“How is it allowed?” I exclaim.
“Because everyone is paid to keep quiet.”
After our coffee (which wasn’t nearly as good as Italian espresso), José says they need a revolution. ”Something peaceful. Like the last one we had…we overthrew the government with carnations.”
It’s true. On the 25th of April, 1974, a military coup began coupled with a rising level of civil resistance against the authoritarian dictatorship. When people streamed out into the streets they placed carnations into gun barrels. Not a single shot was fired.
There is a lot to learn from Portuguese “mentality.”
By the time I reached Belém Torre, I was in good heart. This medieval fortified tower boldly juts out into the Tagus as though eager to set sail. Structurally it isn’t spectacular, yet its location tells of the starting points of numerous maritime discoveries in the 1500-1700s. It was from here that Vasco da Gama sailed to India. And later in the century, so did the Sampeyo family. Looking out over the sun-glinting waters, it struck me now more than ever how life is all about circles.Across the road sprawls the Jerónimos Monastery, which, as my pamphlet on Lisbon unabashedly points out, was funded by the “magnificent wealth of India.” Within this stunning late-Gothic building are the tombs of Vasco da Gama and the poet and chronicler Luís de Camões.
After my long day out, the evening, I decided, would be spent reading Fernando Pessoa’s “The Book of disquiet” in the hostel lounge after a super local tapas meal.
Don’t ask me how I ended up at a river-side nightclub dancing until six in the morning, fuelled by endless tequila shots and goblets of Margheritas.
I blame it on the moonlight that bathed Lisbon in quivering silver.
And some very enthusiastic Austrian hostel mates.
It would have to be a restful Saturday, one devoted to a quest for St Anthony, the saint of lost things. On Largo de Santo António, while the tourists brushed past to visit the more prominent and popular Se Cathedral, I ducked into an unobtrusive room at the side of Igreja de Santo António. It’s called a museum, but it’s little more than a loving collection of paintings, statues, books, and religious artifacts connected to Saint Anthony. The lady who lets me in brushes away my payment; I’m the only visitor. Reading about him inside, I realise that Lisbon really is a city of loss. In 1219, their patron saint left for Padua, Italy, never to return.
I don’t know when it began to permeate, the inevitable saudade. Perhaps it was when I entered the church and caught the trailing end of a mass attended by a handful of old men and women. At the altar and along the walls were statues of Saint Anthony holding the toddler Jesus and a bouquet of white lilies. I sat there for a long time as did the others – silently recounting our losses, limitless as the sea somewhere heaving behind us.
The next day, before the melancholy deepened, I caught a train to Aveiro, a small town about two hours away from Lisbon. There, I was to meet Mario, Giovanni
’s friend. Some company and conversation would be heartening and wholesome. Aveiro, with its meandering canals, elegant old bridge, rows of round-roofed houses and ancient church, is intensely charming, and has a strong historical attachment to the sea. Anchored in the canals are moliceiros
, elegant wooden boats that, as Mario explained, were once used to transport seaweed (for use as fertiliser) and cod (I presume, to eat!) to the city. This maritime connection is apparent mostly everywhere – its tiled pavements outline motifs such as anchors, boats and fish and many houses sport images of saints connected to ensuring safe voyages across the sea. In the distance, Mario pointed out glittering piles of white salt – this ancient profession is still practised in the city.
My last day in Lisbon was spent walking around Baixa, the place where the writer and poet Pessoa worked and largely wrote about. Close to Bertrand’s, the world’s oldest running bookshop (apparently in operation since 1732), is a statue of him sitting (as he would have probably approved) nondescriptly near the Brasileira cafe.
On an impulse, I follow the tracks of Tram 28, to find the house he lived in for fifteen years. It feels right that I should walk in search of one of the world’s greatest flâneurs. It takes me a long time and a great deal of mis-direction before I find myself in the neighbourhood of Campo de Ourique, along Rua Coelho da Rocha. To my surprise, rather than a silent, sombre memorial to the dead, the Fernando Pessoa Museum is a vibrant, dedicated art space with an exhibition room, a library and small auditorium. Pessoa’s things – his typewriter, books, spectacles, letters, furniture – form an organic, lively part of the centre.
In one of his poetry collections, I find these lines from “Portuguese Sea”:
Ó sea of salt, how much of
all your salt
contains the tears
That evening, I wander the sloping streets of Lisbon, catching the strains of fado singers in small, dimly-lit bars. I had come here hoping not to be caught in a web of nostalgia. Yet all around me lay the brooding heaviness of the past. On my wrist, I wore a silver bangle that once belonged to Nana, who had it made for her wedding day. The family heirloom fit no one else but me.They were impossible to escape. These circles. Some that complete, some that don’t – and others that take more than a lifetime for the ends to meet.
Image © Gerard Michel