A young crowd beholds twilight’s touch on the yellow façade and 18th century arcade of the Praça do Comércio in Lisbon's Baixa-Chiado area. Right on the river and ensconced within government buildings, the square was occupied by anarchist troops during the 1974 Revolution. Today it hosts stores, street vendors, and a Sunday antique market.
Lisbon – Long Read

“Slow songs, gentle decay, great beauty.”

Photo by Jurjen Drenth

Lisbon – Long Read “Slow songs, gentle decay, great beauty.”

Hello Lisbon, a city whose history stretches back farther than that of London, Paris, or even Rome. Lisbon has gone from quaint backwater to one of Europe’s most vibrant capitals and this renaissance has brought it alive with fashion shows, romantic restaurants and fancy nightclubs. Its chaotic, rambling but historic streets are filled with “Slow songs, gentle decay, great beauty.”

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

She is old, thin and wears a wool hat and stockings in 25°C heat, yet she radiates an enchanting air of nobility. Just as we’re about to wish her “Boa tarde”, she opens her mouth to sing: “Fad-ooo!” An impressive volume for such a frail old body! We toss a coin into her cap, and for an encore, her friend juggles an umbrella for us. A tramp further down the way immediately racks his brain as to what he could do to earn a euro or two from our pockets.

We sidle up to a little wall and blissfully gaze at the terrace of the historic Cafe A Brasileira (built in 1905), a place where old intellectuals once wrote beautiful poetry or conjured up revolutions, and young betinhos (prep boys in striped shirts with sweaters over their shoulders) were taken down a peg or two. A giggling tourist grins at her husband as he takes a holiday snap of her hugging the sculpture of Fernando Pessoa, the most famous poet of Lisbon. Once a regular customer of the café, his cheeks are now covered in pigeon droppings and his whisky diluted by the rainwater.

Women saunter past wearing the latest chic fashion from the Rua do Carmo. Girls clinging to sacks from Mango flee underground while a pair toting Ana Salazar bags hail a taxi. A shoe-shiner works on the already bright shoes of a man in three shades of grey, who is warming his face in the afternoon sun. We kick back and enjoy. In a new city, you need to test the water first – inhale the unique aromas, fix yourself a drink and allow your ears to adjust to the background noise before diving in completely. Just one hour after touchdown and we’ve managed to source the perfect place to do just that: the entrance to Lisbon metro’s Baixa-Chiado station.

Just five minutes’ walk from Baixa-Chiado lies the first official attraction: the Elevador da Santa Justa, built in 1902. It is like a baby Eiffel Tower with a wood-framed elevator that lifts visitors high above the surrounding hills. The colors of the city extend their welcome – earthy ochres and the gleaming white of lime-washed walls, the lush green parks and gardens and the dazzling blue of the azulejos. The brilliant sunshine is reflected from many of its random surfaces.

“Lisbon is a city of timid geometry – hills, sharp corners and a swelling river offering reflections and a chaotic range of colors, depending on the days and the tides. A body to explore without haste,” writes José Cardoso Pires in “Lisbon, A Journal.” Nicely put, but our time is limited – we have only until Sunday.

The store also doubles up as a bar

The lift man has been opening and closing the iron gate of the elevador for more than 30 years. He nods us “Good day” with a smile and we are infected by his pleasant tranquility. The feeling vanishes five minutes later when we enter one of the hippest places in the city, the lilac house of fashion designer Fátima Lopes, in the middle of Lisbon’s working class neighborhood, Bairro Alto. This diva lives and runs her modeling agency on the top floors. Downstairs, revealing garments are sold off to the score of booming house music, day and night, as the store also doubles up as a bar.

Hitting the bar in your new outfit just seconds after purchase – to think that no one ever thought of it before! It’s also nice for men who don’t like to go shopping but do like to go to bars. The sun starts its journey down and we find the most beautiful place to watch it – from the Miradouro de Santa Catarina. On the little square in front, some old men are oblivious to all but their boisterous card games. On the miradouro, students and trendies look out over the Tagus, supping on beer. In the morning, after leaving the clubs, the moths gather around to watch the sun rise at the same spot. We resolve to do the same – and we have about a hundred more resolutions. Lisbon in an hour – our senses are on high alert.

We play table football with two Angolans

Thursday: In a little basement on the Rua Atalaia in Bairro Alto, we are treated to all sorts of delicious fish – for which no waiter seems to know the translation (“Is sea bass. And this? Is also sea bass. This? Sea bass, too”). Afterwards, we stagger from bar to bar. We play table football with two Angolans in a trendy bar (4-2 for the opposition), we hear some fado piping out of the room next door, we buy a tight T-shirt at Fátima Lopes and make a note to visit all the bars in the street wearing that T-shirt. Lisbon in a day? We’re kind of drowning here...

With its stylish hills and slippery paving stones, Lisbon feels like an obstacle course at times – and the area of Alfama is the most difficult to navigate with its chaotic layout, confusingly familiar little streets, stairs, doorways and dead ends. But the confusion is worth the reward – true, there’s no cultural highpoint per se, but this is the oldest and most beautiful area the city has to offer.

The fishwives screaming in the morning market on Rua de São Pedro, the old couples on the miradouros and the fish taking their last breath in the overheated and overcrowded windows of little restaurants… this is Lisbon just as it was 50 years ago. One hundred and fifty years ago, even. A little unnerving, but you find yourself whisked back into the 19th century. The Alfama district’s authentic aura tempts the young nouveau-riche, who would love to snap up three or more of its old houses and build lofts behind the old façades. Thankfully, the area isn’t about to succumb to the wants of yuppie-dom.

The original owners of these damp, obliquely-set doll houses don’t want to give their place up. In the middle of a city of one million people, this is one of the few places that still supports a neighborly feel – a place where the idea of a community has active support. Two of the local women chatter away on their balconies just over the square from the São Miguel Church, between piles of freshly-washed underpants and bed sheets that need to be delivered to a lady up the street. Close by, a pair of old sisters listen with baited breath; they’ve just hung their panties out to dry.

Oh António, find a man for me

Friday: Before lunch, we take time out to visit Santo António, the saint who is reported to have slowly wrested the task of playing Lisbon’s holy protector from São Vincente. António has something else Vincente doesn’t – he assumed responsibility over lost creations (always a handy thing to have…) but also over love and singles on the prowl. A middle-aged woman next to me whispers: “Oh António, find a man for me.” She’s burning an electric candle which matches the burning look in her eyes. Precisely how this 13th-century man became the unofficial Saint of Love is something not even the parish clerk can tell us. Santo António once said: “To want for holy things, is to be holy.” That would look great on a wall tile.

On June 12 and 13, the remembrance days of Lisbon’s patron cupid, couples wanting to tie the knot can be married free in the church – an event that warrants its own television broadcast. Alfama transforms into a big, open-air barbecue with tasty sardines on the fry and plenty of wine, and the poor soul who has not yet found his one true love by this time will be surrounded by enough love to last him a lifetime.

In a romantic mood (looks like we’ve been bitten by the António bug, after all), we decide to lunch at a nearby restaurant, Antiga Casa de Pasto Estrela da Sé. It’s the perfect place to ride out the love buzz, with its 19th-century love seats and private wooden booths. Each booth has a table inside and a curtain for privacy, so the enamored among us can gaze longingly into each others’ eyes, hand-in-hand, without fear of an unwanted or jealous eye upsetting our mood.

In the evening, another Alfama springs to life – that of the many restaurants and fado places littered about the place. As we walk along the streets, we’re no longer harassed by the harsh screams of the fishwives from this morning, but are instead escorted along by the lovely sounds of the guitarra and viola – but hey, not everyone can be Amália Rodrigues. We seek out a place where not only tourists, but also the fiery locals are taking their places for the first part of the evening.

Listening to the fado (Portuguese blues) is an activity done in an eerie, almost melancholy silence. Drumming away with your cutlery is a big mark of disrespect when a saudade – the most nostalgic and sentimental of songs – is gracing the room with its presence. It alludes to a feeling not quite equalled by its peers; the blues, the flamenco, the rembetika, or the tango.

Saudade is the Portuguese’s most magical word, as it describes that which embodies a fragile, sad soul singing its most beautiful song, almost touching a spot you can’t quite put your finger on, something out of reach and probably something undiscovered within yourself. We sit in awed silence as our sausages are roasted and we enjoy marinated sardines, diabos a cavalo (warm dates with bacon), and lots of wine by the name of ‘BSE’. Very fitting, we’ll be losing a few brain cells tonight.

The high point of civilized culture

On the way back to Lapa, we make a diversion into the chic night-spot Clube de Fado. Hearing these women belting out songs that originate somewhere deep in their throat is the high point of civilized culture. The lively Portuguese locals are again intermingled with the tourists here. One such local is a mature, elegantly (yet simply) clothed man eagerly awaiting the arrival of his blind date. Perhaps he was burning a candle to Santo António earlier this afternoon and his wish is coming true tonight.

And so she enters the room, glances awkwardly at the crowd inside, unconsciously tugging at her jacket spun from golden wool. Our man has spotted her already, there’s a smile on his face – she’s a catch! He pulls up a stool for her and with an elegant gesture, orders a bottle of wine. Just as his mouth opens to break the ice, the nightingales start up again, stealing the words from his mouth. Again, a silence usually reserved for a royal visit sweeps over the room – flapping mouths and fado don’t mix.

Undivided attention is required to fully take in its allusions to ideals and dreams just out of human reach, to allow the pain and emotion to carry from the singers’ hearts and into your veins. The well-heeled Portuguese are taught these techniques, and as we relax and breathe deeply we find ourselves feeling something deeper as well.

This may come from the fact we are already fans of fado star Cristina Branco, who lives just outside Lisbon, and whose music we have been listening to for weeks. On the album “Canta Slauerhoff,” she sings spine-tinglingly beautiful fados from the work of Slauerhoff, a writer with exceptional flair for the saudade: “I wander through afternoons with prados/And evenings I hear the fados/Working away until deep in the night/A vida e immenso tristura/I feel as if together bound/With the disease that waits its time.” It’s a truly wondrous thing how these musical works can make you simultaneously miserable and ecstatic.

The well-dressed shyster and his date still haven’t had a chance to speak, but instead lock their gazes through the music and the wine. They are instilled with the courage to stare deep into each others’ eyes, at least as long as the music keeps playing.

We Portuguese believe in inner beauty

Saturday: No mercy for throbbing Achilles tendons. “Whoever comes here expecting the grandeur of Paris or London will be sorely disappointed. We Portuguese believe in inner beauty, you see. Let go of your expectations and try to feel the atmosphere of the city. Only then can you enjoy her real beauty.” That is what an old bar fly told us in a pub on our first night here. Lisbon has its many treasures, but they can’t be appreciated by a shallow fool.

“Take the tram,” he told us. Not the most obscure advice but a ride is an experience in itself. The old wooden interiors that make each car a traveling museum, the street boys that hang out the windows in clusters and the surly, stoic driver who has mastered the art of not reacting and putting up with the chaos that surrounds him. Without so much as a muttered cuss, he rings the tram’s bell as he discovers a badly parked car once again blocks his path.

The substantial crowd on board steps onto the street quickly and silently – no grumble, no fuss. Trams that get marooned halfway to their destination are a fact of life here, it’s not something worth getting worked up about. A little old man of 80 holding a cane nods off in his seat, unperturbed by the unrelenting bell. He’ll just sit out his time until the path is clear again.

When you’ve lost the desire to leg it up and down all those hills, get to the long boulevard along the Tagus. Take in the old buildings, squares with terraces or the Mercado da Ribeira, an old-fashioned covered market with such delights as half cows carried around on shoulders, armies of cats eyeing off stray bits of swordfish, and stall-owners enjoying a bica (Lisbon slang for strong black coffee) alongside worn out club-goers in an almost brotherly ritual at six in the morning.

Baixa – downtown, flat and conveniently arranged – offers mercy for those throbbing Achilles tendons. This has been the commercial center of Lisbon since day one, but it does not expect to be made rich from the old-fashioned stores here. The residential and business rental prices are protected so you won’t find anyone willing to pass up their space. It’s another part of the city that allows you to taste its history. In a window there are ten ancient hair clips on sale alongside an old corset. In the back of the flower shop, led through by a respectable-looking lady, you’ll find ground rhinoceros horn to increase your potency and a small room filled with dried bacalao that stinks like a sewer. Just as colorful as this place is a ginjinha – a bar where Lisbon’s famous cherry liqueur is sold.

Have your shoes shined out front

Sunday: The oldest and most famous of these bars is to be found on the Largo de São Domingos 8, Baixa – it’s no more than a hole in the wall but fascinating nonetheless. If you find yourself captivated by the cranky tramps and suits knocking back one, two, three shots between appointments, then take the chance to have your shoes shined out front. Further on, we enter one of the big, brightly lit local restaurants for an extensive lunch of peixe espáda (swordfish) among hundreds of office slaves on their lunch break. Here, old-fashioned waiters in suits scream the orders through to the kitchen, and the clientele are hungry and noisy. Finally, we experience the lively Mediterranean atmosphere we have been looking for.

The “long side” of the river Tagus is the place to be for a Saturday night out in Lisbon. The Docas under the Ponte 25 de Abril is certainly a place to spend your dough, but the Avenida Infante Dom Henrique, opposite Santa Apolónia station is the ultimate in hip. At the in-house restaurant (Bica do Sapato) the staff and clientele merge seamlessly into its amazing design: tulip chairs, 1970s lamps and amazing photos blown up to gigantic proportions. Actor John Malkovich is said to be one of the moneymen behind this great place on the harbor. The food is international, with a strong whiff of Portuguese. A handy hint is to always carry a language guide with culinary terms to help you decipher the menus. There’s also a sushi bar, ideal for a pre-clubbing snack.

As most modern stores are open late, we start our evening with some window shopping at Loja da Atalaia, the second-hand designer store nearby. There are many classics here alongside some very rare items. And now “Let there be Lux!” Lisbon’s hippest disco beckons and we’re smart enough to get there before 1am, cleverly avoiding some very long lines – a wise move, given that this is widely known to be the coolest club in the city. The atmosphere inside manages to be easygoing, avoiding attitude or wealthy poseurs throwing their money in your face. This is a place where you make the party happen, whether you’re gay, straight, male, female, a dancer or a talker. You can bathe in the serenity of the harbor from the balcony, whereas inside, under the pretence of conversing with your partner, you can check out the crowd hugging each other and going mad on the dance floor. Attractive bar staff even makes hauling drinks a pleasantly flirtatious experience.

At 4am, against our better knowledge, we skip off to one of the many steamy African clubs in the city. The pumping zouk music keeps us going until sunrise.

The parks! Nothing helps you forget a hangover quicker than a leisurely Sunday stroll in one of the many green oases here. As hunger rears its head, we sail on in to the Estufa Real in the Jardim Bôtanico da Ajuda, Belém, for the ultimate Sunday brunch. It’s covered with an awning, as the Portuguese wearing their Sunday best would lose it if their hairspray was to melt in the sun. It is also a convenient place for cloudy days. The buffet is dressed exclusively in local specialties – lots of vegetables, fruit and fish.

Baked with a secret 140-year old recipe

We feel ready to tackle the day, thanks largely to a glass of Portuguese champagne. For dessert, we walk over to Antiga Casa de Pasteís de Belém, a place that attracts visitor numbers most museums here don’t. Between the antique azulejos, everyone comes together; middle-aged sugar-hungry ladies, students and tourists. The pasteís de nata (light pastry cups with custard filling) are for sale all over the city but here is where you’ll find the most exquisite. Still lukewarm, succulently tasty and baked with a secret 140-year old recipe. Only the three head chefs know the recipe, and they like to keep it that way, lest their ancestors come back to haunt them. The waiters, as antiquated as the interior, know full well that a second and third order usually follows the first – any delusions of dieting are quickly dispirited here.

Lisbon: the wondrous history of a former world power, a perished glory that, upon examination, is revealed to be alive and kicking in a different form. Sites such as the beautiful green art deco theatre on the Tagus are just one of the hooks that drag you into a love affair with this city within just a few days.

Lisbon is a busy city with an ambitious will to drive itself forward. But for us, the best of it was the serene, timeless atmosphere in the old areas where not one monstrous mirrored skyscraper is to be found. Give me the most abandoned quay, the meals cooked to age-old recipes in little fishing cellars and I’ll show you Lisbon at its best.

“This is where Europe takes leave from itself. Slow songs, gentle decay, great beauty…” Cees Nooteboom once wrote: it’s on that Lisbon that we pawn our hearts.

Other stories about Lisbon