There are two sides to the Portuguese character. One is extroverted, outward looking, and adventurous; the other, less familiar to visitors, is insular and introspective. The Portuguese are often depicted in history as successful and persistent explorers. The feats of navigators like Vasco da Gama and Bartolomeu Dias are legend, and Lisbon’s memorial to the nation’s explorers—the sprawling Monuments to the Discoveries in the outskirts of the city—is a convincing reminder of that era when half the world was once claimed by Portugal.
The life and literary works of the country’s foremost poet and writer, Fernando Pessoa, on the other hand, represent a different side. Pessoa never left Lisbon after returning from Africa as a young boy in 1906. And just like the protagonist in his seminal work, The Book of Disquiet, he never ventured farther than his neighborhood in the city.
Pessoa was eccentric, but his penchant for staying put in Lisbon reveals the flip side of the national character: that of inertia and finding pleasure in the comfort of people and places that are familiar. Pessoa’s works trawl the depths of the Portuguese spirit and introduces readers to saudade—a unique and quiet sadness many feel and expressed in the tradition of fado music. These are songs that are sung in melancholic fashion —mostly about loss and of being left behind—by family and lovers, or indeed, by time. Pessoa captured the sadness of his city so well. In one of his books, he asks rhetorically: “Is there any city which cultivates sadness more lovingly than Lisbon? Even the stars only feign light.”
Lisbon has undergone rapid change since joining the EU, and on the surface, the youth here are not unlike their counterparts in Madrid or Paris. New investments, infrastructure projects, and mass tourism have likewise altered the physical landscape—and the pace of life has quickened considerably. There’s a new energy in the streets of the once languid capital, but in many parts of Lisbon, even in its most crowded squares, time stands still—as Pessoa often depicted it.
Pessoa was born and lived out his entire adult life in a neighborhood just off the historic Chiado district. The Praca Luis de Camoes where the Bairro Alto and Chiado neighborhoods meet is amazing in its fidelity to the past. Old buildings decorated with traditional azulejo tiles stand alongside baroque churches on the cobblestoned square where Lisbon’s historic trams pick up passengers. If not for the cars and the few fast food stands around it, the scene at Praca Luis de Camoes is one Pessoa would have recognized if he were still alive. The noisy remodelado or remodeled vintage trams especially.
The squares of Chiado are lined with traditional bars and cafes. Some were already in business during Pessoa’s time. Café culture is another essential Portuguese pastime. But not like the Italians who take their espresso in a rush and make for the door. Or the Viennese, who like their coffee with the morning papers and an animated discussion on world affairs. The coffee is generally good in Lisbon since many of the world’s best coffeegrowing regions in Africa and Brazil were former Portuguese colonies. Café culture also suits the unhurried pace of the city perfectly. One of the busiest establishments in Chiado is Manteigaria, known among locals for baking the best pasteis de nata, the famous Portuguese egg tart. But here, it’s only tourists and foreigners who don’t mind lining up for tarts and coffee ordered take away. In these parts of Lisbon, locals sip their coffee slowly, if not aimlessly.
They sit and wait—as if for something that’s not going to happen, or for someone who’s never going to come. One of Pessoa’s favorites was the elegant 19th century Café A Brasileira off Camoes square. As a tribute to their most famous patron, a bronze statue of the Portuguese poet was erected at the café entrance. Across from the Brasileira is the Livreiros Bertrand, Lisbon’s oldest bookstore established in 1732. In a city where many prefer to pass time slowly without expending much energy, bookshops, like cafes, are a natural choice for gathering. Many useful guide books on Lisbon are on display, though any one of Pessoa’s would provide a more timeless introduction to his city. The Book of Disquiet, though fictionalized, is set in Lisbon, and many of the scenes described in it can still be relived today. Pessoa also wrote a guidebook which he never completed. Only recently published, his Lisboa, What the Tourist Should See, remains relevant since much of Lisbon’s streetscape has hardly changed over the past century.
The streets in Chiado are also lined with vintage stores and antiquarian shops. On weekends, makeshift stalls selling antiques and artifacts spill over to the side streets. In Lisbon, it seems, the past is never discarded; it simply passes from hand to hand. Inertia may very well be Lisbon’s malady, and as Newton’s first law of physics states, an object will remain at rest or in a straight line unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. In 1755, that force came in the form of The Great Lisbon Earthquake. Walking, or taking the funicular, down the steep slope of Chiado brings you to the Baixa district. The entire area on flat ground was rebuilt from the ground up by the Marquis de Pombal after the earthquake that devastated the city.
Pombal’s use of a grid pattern for the district’s streets and squares in the 18th century predates Haussmannian Paris. The streets of Baixa are best known for shopping. International brands and fast fashion labels have opened new stores here, but traditional shops and local establishments still dominate. One of Lisbon’s best-loved boutiques is Luvaria Ulisses, a shop dedicated to selling gloves. The store has been in business since 1923 and is still going strong. Classic menswear may be trendy again in the fashion world, but it never went out of style in Lisbon. The modern retro-chic stores in the district look like cheap copies of the old-school tailoring houses and haberdasheries that have been operating in Baixa since the last century. For all Lisbon’s loyalty to its past, none is as passionately expressed as fado. The musical genre is popular across generations, and it’s often hard to get a seat at the best fado houses.
The Alfama district on the opposite side of Baixa and Chiado is where you’ll find the most number of bars offering both traditional and modern fado. The steep hillside neighborhood of Alfama is best reached using the E28 tram as it runs along a scenic route that crosses the neo-classical buildings on Praça de Comercio on the Tagus riverfront and up a slope passing the gothic Sé Cathedral and some of Lisbon’s most beautiful azulejo tile-covered homes. The steep incline, narrow streets, and hairpin turns in places like Alfama are partly the reason why Lisbon continues to use the vintage trams and funiculars that were originally designed for Lisbon’s challenging terrain. Again, the other reason could be inertia— and perhaps nostalgia.
Passing through the pleasant, though run-down streets of Alfama in a slow, crowded tram that lets loose an ear-shattering screech at every stop, one can’t help but ask where this reverence for Lisbon’s past comes from. Perhaps it emanates from a sense of resignation. Or maybe, the thought that the more you move the more things stand still—as Pessoa once proclaimed. “Everything I had never seen, I had already seen. Everything I haven’t yet seen, I have already seen. To travel? To exist suffices. As from station to station I ride daily in the train of my body or fate, bent over streets and squares, gestures and faces, always the same and always different, as landscapes are in the end.”
Lisbon, and Portugal in general, may no longer be in step with the spirit of Pessoa’s time, but like the pockets of the country that remain stubbornly insular, there are still those in the city that cling desperately to the old and familiar. But it’s thanks to this flipside of the Portuguese character that a part of the capital’s past remains suspended in time and on display to captivate visitors like me.
Photographs by David Celdran
This article first appeared in Vault Magazine, 2012