A Postcard From: Lisbon
Ah, the steep hills and winding gardens, the trolley-buses, the great spanning bridge, the earthquake. I must be in Lisbon. I could have added ‘the Fado’ and given the game away – that mellifluous, doom-laden guitar is never far from any street corner.
But the first thing you notice is how Lisbon glitters. Its streets cobbled in shiny irregular cream and black stones, its buildings faced in cobalt and emerald tiles so that everything shines (and is slippery – the hills are alive with the sounds of falling over). Down on the levelled parts, it reminds me of oner of those Italian coastal cities that face back from the water, but there’s also something of Istanbul here too – after all, we are at the mouth of a great river, and there’s an odd ornateness that doesn’t echo the baroque architecture of its neighbour Spain, where Moorish design reigns.
I’ve been to Portugal before but not to this side of the country, and Lisbon is better; a great city in miniature, slightly knocked about and with the inevitable giant cruise ship dominating its port, but still its own beast, a polyglot place, and mixed in with French and English (mostly weekenders) is Merkane, a broader language than the normal softer US-accent, which carries long distances, and indeed they’ve travelled a long way to get here so good on them for being adventurous (I’m a big fan of Americans abroad).
So, time to hop the 28 trolley and head for the funkiest new barrio LX Factory, home of one of the world’s coolest bookstores and the mad automata of the man who lives on top of its printing press, who showed me the real meaning of Fado with the aid of three eliding LPs, some plastic hearts and a clockwork motor – very clever, if bonkers.
Despite a fair amount of tourist tat, the city is not really fighting to cater to tourist needs. It’s powerfully Catholic (its cathedrals seem grander on their exteriors), proud of its navigation pioneers and literary giants. I’ve just read ‘Pereira Maintains’, ideal reading for walking (and climbing) around the city.
Antonio Tabucchi’s novel has been widely translated and adapted to film, garnering major European awards. Its Portuguese protagonist concerns an overweight widower who edits the culture pages of a second-rate evening paper in 1938 Lisbon, under the dictatorship of Salazar. He believes that self-censorship is common sense, that he need be nobody’s comrade and that he can convey coded messages of dissent by publishing 19th-century French stories about repentance and resistance. But he undergoes a radical change of heart after meting a young member of the resistance.
Much to do, and only a weekend in which to do it; all recommendations welcome!