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Notes from Lisbon

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If I could dream up the perfect holiday destination, it would be just like Lisbon. the weather, the food, the wine, the architecture, the people, the sea, the soul of the city – everything was to my liking. This was also the first time that I travelled alone for a holiday and the experience of bonding with myself was extraordinary. Perhaps that’s also why Lisbon was such a personal experience – I spent a lot of time enjoying the mental silence, exploring my thoughts, and “talking” to my notebook. Somehow I feel that, because I was alone, I’ve experienced Lisbon more intensely. There was an honest, raw freedom in being a sole ship and venturing into unknown.

Below are a few reflections I plucked from my notes from the trip. They’re not very practical as a guide but they may provide a feeling for Lisbon if you’re thinking of going. (And you definitely should!)

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Padrão dos Descobrimentos portrays some of the most courageous people in the history of the world. I definitely felt an affinity to them on this trip!

Light – Luz

The very first thing that struck me about Lisbon was the light. From pockets of sunshine above little alcoves at the airport, to the grey-cream grille reflected on the concrete wall at the Cais do Sodré metro station, the city seems to constantly be coquetting with the sun. And, indeed, even I spent my days here performing an intricate dance with the golden orb – alternatively hiding from it and seeking it out.

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Somewhere in Chiado.

People – Gente

The Portuguese seem to lack any kind of airs. In a world saturated by flashiness and vulgarity, the Portuguese are refreshingly normal. They smile without grimacing, they’re relaxed without being sloppy, they’re dignified without being uptight or superior. They’re friendly but not intrusive. They’re just – wonderfully okay.

I made a friend in Lisbon. We hit it off the minute we met, talking about music, Salvador Sobral, movies, books, feminism, PMS, heritage, and relationships. In under one hour, an entire life story was poured out for me to savour, and I tried to remember the last time that I’ve been that open with anyone. I live in a country and work in an environment where we are all very guarded. There may be various reasons for this, but it was valuable to be reminded that I cannot make human connections unless I open up – and not by broadcasting to all the world what I had for lunch that day, but by actually baring my soul before a fellow human being.

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Somewhere in Bica.

Rooftops – Telhados

Lisbon takes dining ao ar livre to a whole new level – literally: up! Somehow, it doesn’t make sense in this city of seven hills to be anywhere but on a miradouro or a rooftop. Thus, I spent most of my time in Lisbon atop its countless peaks, sipping coffee at the ubiquitous Quiosques and staring our into the distance. I didn’t even want to read my book, although I occasionally noted down impressions.

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Portuguese afternoon tea Hotel do Chiado with a view of Castelo de São Jorge.

Trams

I had no grasp of the true meaning of the word “rambunctious” until I rode one of Lisbon’s old trams. You can hear them before you can see them, approaching from behind a corner sounding like Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. They clang and clatter, rumble, rattle, wheeze and sigh, they squeak and squawk (yes, they do) and putter, and I even detected a suck-pop noise, like when something is taken out of a tube with no air. They also shake violently and tremble menacingly, they pull and tug and halt and start… and not infrequently feel like they are on the verge of transforming into a different machine altogether, about to fly off the rails and into another dimension.

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This is actually a funicular (Elevador de Bica), not one of Lisbon’s iconic trams.

Custard Tarts – Pastéis de Nata

Some people will argue, but I will adamantly defend Pastéis de Belém as the best pastéis de nata in all the world. I’ve tried several others – a very mediocre one in an unnamed location in town and a decent one from Pastéis de Nata at Time Out Market, which I was told were better than the ones in Belém but found to be too sweet and corrupted by too much cinnamon sprinkled on top.

Now, the ones at Belém are a whole different story. Here, they are served without the cinnamon (leaving you with the option of sprinkling as much or as little as you like from a shaker placed on the tables), allowing the quietly comforting taste of the custard to wow you. The moment you take your first bite, the delicate, paper-thin crust succumbs to the pressure of your lips and breaks to expose a warm, unctuous custard that carries only a hint of sweetness and an echo of something I identified as vanilla. (But who knows?) One was definitely not enough – but at least I have reason to return.

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Pastéis de Belém.

MAAT

This – the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, designed by British architect Amanda Levete – is my favourite building in Lisbon. It’s an extraordinary example of modern architecture that rises out of the ground and flows along the coast and undulates so organically, like a wave immobilised at its crest. It has an inner dynamic, yet it’s calming somehow – just like the waves of the ocean. I appreciated that I could climb literally all over it and photograph it from all the angles – all of which seemed to be designed with the eager photographer in mind.

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MAAT, by Amanda Levete.

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MAAT, by Amanda Levete.

Silence – Silêncio

The topic of silence seemed to accompany me throughout my stay in Lisbon – and it was quite a coincidence that I came to Lisbon to find the blessing of silence, even though the purpose of my visit was noise (or rather, music). I was introduced to the Portuguese take on silence on my very first evening, at a fado performance.

Fado lives and thrives on the weight of words; it feeds on that poetical charge that fadistas balance and share over melodies often very simple. Breath, pause, the emphasis that every fadista offers to verses sung one thousand times before has to match perfectly with the soul. And for that to happen it is very important what is left to be said: the unspoken word that only can be felt. In short, silence.

This silence must be welcomed with silence, so that this liturgy of feeling can happen in its full splendor. But this respect is mostly for those who are hearing, so they can experience every pause, every phrase, every estilar and let it break into their hearts and leave a mess.

When somebody says “Silence, please. Fado is about to be sung!” (“Silêncio que se vai cantar o fado!”) don’t take it as an order. It is, in fact, the most beautiful of all invitations.

Nuno Miguel Guedes
journalist and fado lyricist

While silence is central to fado, which relies on it for dramatic effect, it also seems to be an important concept in Portuguese zeitgeist. It was mentioned by several people I encountered, and audiences not just of fado were thanked for their silence. I found Portuguese silence very welcome – akin to that moment in yogic breathing where you pause your breath for a moment after exhaling – a soothing break in the wild rhythm, a space for everything to stop… until it all begins again.

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Somewhere on the Tejo (Tagus River).

Saudade

It was Salvador Sobra’ls victory in the Eurovision song contest in May 2017 that made me look up his concert dates, buy my ticket, book the flights, and actually come to Lisbon physically and not just in my mind. My Lisbon experience wouldn’t have been the same without him. Sobral is a phenomenon – exponentially better live than he is on the screen or even on Spotify – insanely creative, playful, touching, exulting.

He talked quite a bit during the concert, speaking of many things and peppering his speeches with little jokes, charming the audience into giggles and applause (I understood some of it – such as that his Facebook “statoosh” is apparently “available” and that he has a very comfy bed – a subtle invitation to the ladies following a sentimental love song), but one thing he said struck me particularly. He was referring to the skill of his extraordinary pianist – Julio Resende – when he said tht the man could make you feel immense joy as well as immense sadness at the same time. And it occurred to me then that it was the precise sentiment that Salvador Sobral’s music evoked in me and that, incidentally, this sentiment was also, for me, the definition of that quintessential Portuguese state – saudade. Although I did listen to fado earlier during my stay, it was Salvador Sobral who made me grasp what saudade truly tastes and feels like.

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The view from my room at Ribeira Tejo Guesthouse.

Thank you for reading all the way here! A more practical blog post with concrete suggestions for places to see and things to do may – or may not – follow. I’ll see how I feel. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to respond to your questions and comments below!

{all images by Blue Jay & Bumblebee}

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