by András Zágoni-Bogsch
The afternoon Sun is setting on the broad Tagus River as a colorful array of passers-by cross the Praca do Comércio. This is one of Lisbon’s prestigious main squares, whose extensive marble-covered surface has served for centuries as a gateway for envoys, merchants and visitors.
Looking at the proportions of this dazzling space, the intention to intimidate is hard to deny. Yet imperial gestures like this are not what defines the Portuguese capital. They are more like a conspicuous golden necklace that, despite its unique elegance, is more graceful than lavish. In fact, you need all the human senses to fully capture what goes on here. Lisbon, with its river that is more like an ocean, with its seven hills that are in fact way more numerous, often feels more like a vivid dream than an actual landscape.
Enjoying 3.000 hours of sunlight in an average year, Lisbon is one of the least cloudy cities in Europe. However, as this is far from being a bare meteorological fact, the great abundance of light has deeply influenced the development and the design of the city. The Lioz limestone used habitually on the facades of Lisbon, the renowned azulejo tiles in white and blue and the other colors most familiar to the city’s buildings—yellow, orange, sky blue and even pink—all have one thing in common: they reflect sunlight, preventing houses from warming up excessively. All this light, together with the amount that shines back from the massive waters of the Tagus River, effectively causes the city to bathe in luminosity. And as Pedro Sousa Tavares, a Lisbon-based journalist puts it, “Lisbon’s light is magical. And only its singers and poets truly understand it.”
Clearly, he is not alone in the opinion that the allure of the city is beyond graphic description. “What makes us different, what has always made us different, are the great poets,” says artist Joana Vasconcelos. Indeed poesia seems to pervade the city to an extent that even those hardened to sentiment cannot evade. Verses mold into words the elusive quality of lights, sounds, smells of flowers and fish, stillness and movement, all of which characterize Lisbon. Far from being confined to the back pockets of the literary intelligentsia, poetry even appears as graffiti on the walls of crooked alleyways.
This popular poetic energy is probably most notably expressed in the incomparable Portuguese musical form called fado, songs that tell the story of the city and its inhabitants, stories of love and heartbreak, of happiness and hardship, of craving and nostalgia.
“It was born,” says Carminho, a professional fadista, “in the poorest circles of Lisbon, where people had back-breaking jobs, and was a way to get together as a community and share their suffering.” Undeniably, in some fado houses and on some nights, everybody gets a chance to sing, connecting locals by emotion in a unique way.
Most of these locales are to be found in the mesmerizing Alfama district, a part of town left unscathed by the devastating earthquake that shook the city in 1755. Thanks to this somewhat miraculous happenstance, the narrow passageways of this quarter remain as they were when originally constructed—meandering without a straight line or a square corner. All this makes navigation in Alfama not only difficult, but downright impossible. However, as we ditch our maps and give ourselves over to this inviting chaos, a sense of calm is instilled within us, as if we were back to the playground where nothing is real, and everything is as much as we want it to be.
And this childish sentiment of freedom is just one of the many that Lisbon has to offer. With its colorful layers of history, suffused with originality, emotion and bittersweet ease, it cannot but leave us enthralled and, at the same time, overwhelmed. Words of warning by the poets and their followers about its elusiveness should, however, not discourage anyone from visiting. Much rather, when visiting Lisbon, one should listen to their words, as put by probably the greatest, Fernando Pessoa, who wrote that, “the best way to travel, after all is to feel.”