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The International Writers Magazine

Guy Burton

Lisbon is a city of contradictions. Indeed it is one full of understated extremes – if such a mixed metaphor can exist. Sometimes it seems as if the Portuguese want to have it both ways, maintaining pride in their history, yet wanting to shut the doors from the world they have created and the future.

We had walked through the warren of cramped stairways and narrow squares which make up the area surrounding the ruined Castelo de São Jorge, a reminder of the battle in 1147 which saw the self-styled Portuguese king, Afonso Henriques, beat the Moors out of the city. This was the Alfama, the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon. From above the district appears empty and quiet, its whitewashed buildings and red terracotta tiled roofs faded in the midday heat. But once inside the maze it was quickly apparent that life in all its various guises was being lived. Two elderly women sat on a bench under an ivy tree in the corner of a small square, trying to escape the heat. Nearby two labourers were discussing the work they were doing as one ferried materials from a rooftop. Dogs could be heard barking while at the bottom of the cobbled stairwell a boy raced by on his bicycle, making bell sounds to warn people ahead.

We found a series of old houses whose brickwork was showing and boarded up. Many were in a state of disrepair, the ubiquitous Portuguese blue tiles, or azulejos, missing. Some had scaffolding around them upon which the details of a contractor was prominently displayed. On one someone had felt moved enough to express their feelings about the development, scrawling the words ‘Private Apartment or Public Utility?’

Judging by the posters and graffiti on display, a widespread sense of disillusionment was apparent. Leftist and apathetic sentiments were evident through the posters expressing support for communist alternatives alongside the recommendation to ‘Vote for Nobody’ in the recent General Election. But perhaps more worrisome were other statements found, either in posters demanding the regulation of immigrants in the city centre and the graffiti which claimed ‘not communism, but nationalism is the solution’ on a rundown and predominantly black estate on the city outskirts.

But it is not just on the walls that Lisbon’s tension between the traditional and modern was being played out. International companies, banks and retailers and five-star hotels surround the central Avenida Liberdade, a wide tree-lined avenue which evokes impressions of the Champs d’Elysée in Paris. Businessmen in dark suits walked by, their heads bowed into their mobile phones while wealthy women gazed absent-mindedly through the windows of the Louis Vuitton and Mango outlets. Meanwhile televisions in almost every café or bar were tuned to the live coverage of the Pope’s funeral while the city’s flags all hung at half-mast. On street corners and in some of the city’s more affluent squares the occasional beggar could be found, their limbs outstretched as they bewail a litany of misfortune and exhibiting their various ailments. Native-born Portuguese wound their way past groups of unemployed black Angolan and Moçambican men in striped shirts hanging outside outlets selling liquor by the glass.

At our hotel, a middle aged Portuguese chambermaid complained bitterly about her Brazilian contemporaries and the constant influx, despite earning twice as much as them.

In the west of the city, in Belém, the contradiction of Portugal’s imperial legacy was even starker. A marble map of the world with the dates of Portuguese maritime expeditions and the incorporation of these discoveries into an empire lay on the ground by the river.

An Angolan-born Portuguese woman was telling a group of tourists about its development. From her words, it is evident that she was proud of her nation’s past, even emphasising Columbus’s wife as a Madeira native, lest Portugal find itself written out of the history surrounding the discovery of the Americas. Behind it, on the riverfront, stood a giant concrete Monument of the Discoveries, with carved images of soldiers, priests and sailors gazing, praying and looking out over the water. In the nearby Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, one of the few churches to predate the 1755 earthquake, the tombs of the voyager Vasco da Gama and the chronicler of the discoveries, Luís de Camões, are placed. The message was clear: the empire brought wealth and prestige to Portugal. But lacking from these representations were the consequences of these events, including wholesale looting of foreign lands and exploitation of indigenous peoples in Africa and Brazil, most notably through slavery. With these thoughts in mind, it was hard to see the symbol of the sword in the shape of the Christian cross at the back of the Monument as one which was less of hope and more of oppression.

Yet it was the empire which saved Lisbon from its own greatest disaster. In 1755 an offshore earthquake resulting in a tsunami which surged up the Tagus River and demolished everything in its way with the exception of the Alfama. The king’s chief minister, the Marquis of Pombal, ordered the city’s ordered and planned rebuilding. The result is the Baixa, the river-level commercial district whose streets run in straight parallel lines from one square to another. Much of this redevelopment was done with the use of revenue derived from the discovery of Brazilian gold.

The Marquis’s exhortation to ‘bury the dead, feed the living’ also finds physical expression in the style used to rebuild the city. Ordered street planning and the neoclassical forms in the rebuilt constructions highlight the utilitarian preoccupation of the age, marking the new Lisbon out as less a city of whimsy and romanticism, more of clear-headed realism, rationalism and pragmatism. Yet ironically, given the passage of time, the Marquis’s new city has acquired a sense of romance and beauty, as the new has become both older and nostalgic.

Nowhere was this blurring of the senses and Lisbon’s place in the world more evident than in a particular scene one late afternoon in the streets running off from the Baixa. As we walked back through the Rua do Arsenal in the breezy late afternoon sun we stepped past gloomy shops dimly lit by neon lights. Old men in flat caps and wearing browns and greys stopped to look and at the wares, mainly salted and dried tuna and cod (the Portuguese national dish) whose pungent smell filled the air. Civil servants in dark blue double-breasted suits were leaving the office to find their cars or take the tram home. Where Rua do Arsenal met Rua do Comercio an old woman in a floral dress and carrying several plastic bags shouted at nobody in particular. On the other side of the road strode a tall, tanned Benedictine monk dressed in brilliant white, his worry beads clicking as he went. What he might have made of the scene we never found out, his eyes hidden from view by his designer sunglasses.
© Guy Burton April 13th 2005

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