Crossing the Tagus
On one of those warm, hazy October mornings I crossed the River Tagus to Lisbon by ferry from the south side of the estuary, as thousands of commuters do every day. The river is wide here, close to the sea. The frontispiece of the Baixa, seen from the river, is an open square on the waterfront, the Terreiro do Paço, visual climax of the Pombaline reconstruction.
“It looks like San Marco in Venice,” I said to one of my fellow passengers. Then added, in a fit of enthusiasm,“É uma maravilha.”
My interlocutor, whose name, he told me, was Heitor, was a regular traveller on the ferry. He shrugged and pointed out, as we drew closer, that the square was used as a giant carpark. Thus reducing, as he put it a grandiosidade da arquitetura da cidade.
Still, as Heitor also pointed out, the rest of Pombal’s toytown Manhattan is intact: seven blocks by seven, six or seven storeys high, running back on the level space behind the Terreiro do Paço to Rossio, Lisbon’s main square. Once Rossio was the scene of public executions, bullfights and autos-da-fé. Today it is still the social and cultural centre of the city. On its northern side is the National Theatre; round a corner is the main railway station, an excessively ornate four-storey edifice built in imitation of the fairy-tale architecture of early sixteenth-century Portugal. The station is half-buried in the hillside. The lines that vanish into a tunnel and run several miles underground before emerging on the far outskirts of the city.
Rossio and the two smaller squares that flank it swarm with taxis and buses; the café chairs and tables spill onto the tessellated sidewalks. Behind seductive displays of port and pastry in immaculate pastelarias, ladies of leisure scoff almond tarts and sip black coffee; working men in bars drink wine from tumblers, with dishes of squid-in-ink or bacalhau. There is less and less of the latter, though. Bacalhau—sun-dried salt cod, rehydrated and sprinkled with hot olive oil—is the Portuguese national dish, but there is no cod to be caught in the seas off Portugal these days; it is imported from northern European waters, themselves in danger of overfishing.
The crowds in the city centre include immigrants from the Cape Verde islands, from Guinea-Bissau, from Macau and East Timor—and, more recently and less visibly, large numbers of retornados, the pieds noirs of Portugal, displaced from Portugal’s former possessions in Africa, and now reduced, many of them, to shining shoes in the heart of Europe’s first and last empire. In every church porch, there are mute, hungry beggars. Once, I suppose, all southern European cities were like this; today the ubiquity of indigent people singles Lisbon out, giving it an oriental air.
Plan of Pombaline Lisbon
Beyond the Baixa
On either side of the Baixa rise steep hills where aspects of an older Lisbon are preserved. To the east the shady steps and alleyways of Alfama lead up to a rocky summit crowned with a Moorish castle. Here in Alfama, where the streets are too narrow for buses, and only trams can pass, a more communal form of life persists. The front parlours of the narrow tenement houses give on to the street; pot plants and caged birds cascade from their upper windows; there’s a bar on every corner, sometimes scarcely bigger than a phone booth. An inner city neighbourhood like this might seem ripe for gentrification, but we are not in one of the prosperous capital cities of northern Europe. Since the revolution the Portuguese gentry have largely gone to ground—or to Brazil. And, so far, earthquake-proof Alfama—it survived the cataclysm of 1755—has resisted social upheaval too.
West of the Baixa, up an even steeper slope, an elevator and a funicular railway carry shoppers and others to the Bairro Alto, where Lisbon’s fanciest shops and most celebrated bars are to be found. The elevator, a cast-iron edifice designed by Gustave Eiffel, towers above the lower town—an outsize gothic crane—like a giraffe in a sheepfold—that causes visitors to stop and gasp and laugh.
The Bairro Alto is the centre of Lisbon’s nightlife, also of the book trade. Here is Lisbon’s Left Bank, its Greenwich Village, the kind of neighbourhood every city ought to have but which most have lost, with little squares and fountains and tiny restaurants in steep streets. Here also is Lisbon’s answer to Bond Street or the rue de Rivoli, the square and surrounding streets called Chiado. Named after a sixteenth-century poet António Ribeiro whose nickname was “chiado” (“squeak”), Chiado is lined with glass-fronted emporia so exquisite they are like museums. In these gilded grocery stores, the display cabinets—mirrored eighteenth-century armoires—are likely more precious than the objects displayed in them. Self-effacing sales staff carefully tie packages with coloured string and ring up purchases on old art-nouveau tills. It is almost a pleasure to pay.
An antic statue of António Ribeiro presides over Chiado. It is not the only one. Lisbon, even more than other European capitals, is littered with statues. In the lower town are the monuments to the empire builders; in the Bairro Alto a scattering of effigies of other celebrated writers. Here is Portugal’s greatest novelist, Eça de Queiroz, commemorated with an extravagant monument near the main fire station, which shows the nude figure of Truth flinging herself backwards into his arms. But Truth’s hands have been broken off. And in Rossio the great bronze statue of Pedro IV, King of Portugal and Emperor of Brazil, turns out to be a hand-me-down. It was originally a statue of Maximilian of Mexico: the statue was about to be shipped out via Lisbon when Maximilian was assassinated. The city fathers thought fast, bought it cheap and affixed a new head.
Chiado is as precipitous as every where else in Lisbon apart from the Baixa. You hardly find yourself on the level at all. The whole city slopes down to the water, to the wide estuary, busy with ferries like the one I arrived on. Beyond the looming new suspension bridge that connects Lisbon to southern Portugal—to the Alentejo and the Algarve, the estuary joins the sea, linking Portugal to its former seaborne empire, to the territories in Africa and Asia and South America that it conquered in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In the old parts of the city all streets lead to the waterfront: the fish markets and the big ships at anchor are reminders of Lisbon’s raison d’être, its intimate relation to the ocean. Down at the far end of the long, straight streets of the Baixa, the sunlight bounces hot off the water. When the wind blows from the south and smell of the sea wafts up as far as Rossio
North, beyond Rossio, old Lisbon ends. The grid-pattern streets and squares and winding mediaeval alleys give way to a new-built city, growing faster since the revolution of 1974. From the landward end of the square a wide avenue in the Parisian manner leads up to a twentieth-century statue of the ubiquitous Marquis. Twentieth-century architecture takes over here: huge hotels loom over Lisbon’s biggest park, named after the British King Edward VII. (The name is one of many reminders, along with red post boxes and telephone boxes, of Britain’s historic relationship with Portugal, which dates back to eighteenth-century alliances against Napoleon.) Early in the morning, track-suited executives staying at the big hotels circle the park hesitantly, in search of somewhere flat enough to run.
I had an appointment there the following day to speak to Tomas Taveiras, Portugal’s most celebrated living architect, responsible for the most egregious of these new buildings. For the time being, though, I headed back down the valley once more to the three old areas of the city: to the ancient curvaceous passageways of Alfama, the geometric streets of Baixa, and the unpredictable twists and turns of the Bairro Alto, where streets may broaden into tree-lined squares or end abruptly in soaring flights of steps.
Satellite view of Tagus estuary
A run-down city
There is something endlessly alluring about this graceful eclecticism. It’s a model display of contrasting, but complementary townscapes, organic and planned. The city seems modest, humbly following the landforms on which it is situated, taking on the colour of the land it is built from, with the occasional white limestone church jutting up, a pale mushroom among the city’s earthen roots. Still, Lisbon is marked by poverty. This is the capital of what is, by European standards, a poor country. And it shows, not just in the shanty towns on the outskirts, and the shoeshine boys and the silent beggars but also in the upkeep of the buildings, most of which could do with a lick of paint. Much of the city is run-down and unkempt, shell-shocked, like a city in wartime. In fact Portugal maintained neutrality during the 1939-1945 war in Europe and the fabric of the city was unaffected by the conflict. By the same token, though, Lisbon did not experience the large-scale post-war redevelopment that was prompted by bomb damage in, say, London or Dresden.
There is a further explanation for the run-down look: rent control is so fierce that even the most left-wing political parties acknowledge that landlords cannot afford to maintain their properties. Political neutrality and poverty have conspired to save Lisbon from bombs and developers, the things that have done most to mark other European cities. Unfortunately the neglect has gone too far: about once a month one or another building suddenly collapses, without warning, into the street.
To the wealthy foreigner, weary of modernity, the tattiness may be charming, confirming the anachronistic air created by the trams, the old-world shops, and the mode of dress of the average Lisboan, which displays a Balkan lack of chic. It is certainly hard to feel underdressed here; hard to feel you’re missing anything important on the other side of town. (And it doesn’t take long to get to the other side of town if you are.) Civility exists without prosperity. The visitor feels safe: safe from street danger and safe from overexcitement. And free to enjoy the air of relaxed goodwill and bars, cafes, and public places. If this style of life can survive a revolution, you feel, even another earthquake would not destroy it.
The Portuguese are wont to say, self-deprecatingly, that nothing much has happened in Portugal since the earthquake. And sometimes they say that nothing much happened before that either, not since Henry the Navigator and the anni mirabiles of the fifteenth century when the tiny and the recently established kingdom, with a population of less than half a million, led the way for European world domination, establishing a seaborne empire that covered three continents, making it briefly one of the richest countries in the world.