The International Writers Magazine:
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.
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
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 Lisbons 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 dElysée 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 Popes funeral while the citys
flags all hung at half-mast. On street corners and in some of the citys
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.
the west of the city, in Belém, the contradiction of Portugals
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.
Portuguese woman was telling a group of tourists about its development.
From her words, it is evident that she was proud of her nations
past, even emphasising Columbuss 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 kings chief minister, the Marquis of Pombal,
ordered the citys 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
The Marquiss 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 Marquiss 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 Lisbons 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
© Guy Burton April 13th 2005
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