Mid-Spring and I’m on my way to Portugal for a conference. I’ve one whole day and a morning in Lisbon, which I’ve visited before, to look forward to and three whole days in Coimbra, where I’ve never been. In fact I’ve only ever been to Lisbon.
My plane takes off from Pisa, Galileo Galilei Airport. A low cost flight with Easyjet. I peer down apathetically from my window seat. We cross the Mediterranean and eventually strike out across the eastern portion of the Iberian peninsula. The landscape starts off mostly dreary and somewhat monotonous. There’s the Pyrenees standing sentinel at the edge of the horizon, staring down at the dusty red plain below as if they were acting as both as judge and jury. The guy next to me sprawls casually over the top of his plastic pull down table making himself much too much at home. After a while the view starts to get less tiresome and the landscape takes on the visual contours of the backdrop in a spaghetti western — as seen from a great height, obviously — dust, clay brown and marbled ochre, the earth stripped bare like a painted diagram in an old geology text book. The cunt behind keeps shuffling and maneuvering his knees forward into my chair and cannot seem to put himself at ease. “Sir, you do realise that you’re kneeing me in the lower back?” I wish I had the courage to say. A greyish turquoise lake that resembles a rat-faced-three-limbed spider squatting, hanging back and waiting on its quarry. Then after an interval it gets heat-hazy and the view becomes sparser and sparser. Nothing much stands out, until we hit rolling green hills and are close to the other coast. I speculate about how hot it must get down there in the desert, and how that kind of blasting head-in-a-heated-oven door heat tends to affect the human consciousness: do you have to ration your thoughts down in the desert, and pare your ideas down to the bare essentials? That’s where abrahamic religion came from, the desert.
Lisbon can come across as rather dishevelled (but not necessarily squalid or seedy) with its irredeemably dirty cobblestones — the ubiquity of cigarette stubs, spilled beer, urine, various other shades of liquid waste and dogturds, that evidences a vigorous, zestful but ultimately negligent attitude to life among the natives — and, when you look up, its ranks of rotting, mildew stained tenement blocks to gawp at. On my first visit to the city, back in 2008, Lisbon had presented me with a vision of shabby, old-world decay that appealed to my most deep seated aesthetic sensibilities — and which, in terms of the picturesque, only a subsequent visit to Naples a few years later had been really able to improve upon. This time around though the streets are a little bit tidier and the buildings less dilapidated, but the strong odour of rotting food is still everywhere. I arrive in the centre around midday, and in the vicinity of Rossio station, wheeling my hand luggage over the filthy cobblestones as I try and figure out the whereabouts of my hostel; I’m clutching a sheaf of low resolution google map printouts and my hostel reservation in my other hand for assistance.
It’s pretty quiet out on the street, and it looks like it might be siesta time or whatever the equivalent in Portuguese is. Eventually, after asking a taxi driver with skin the colour of tea-stained mahogany and who was sitting in his car at a nearby taxi rank waiting for clients to turn up, I manage to locate my hostel. It turns out it’s actually inside the Rossio station itself; the key to the puzzle being the fact that the word estação, a prominent part of the address on my booking form printout, means station in Portuguese: stumped by those two nasty diacritical marks, the cedilla and the perispomene, and that first letter ‘e’, the cognateness of the two words had been beyond my linguistic deductive skills. Finally then I’m able to dump my sweaty luggage and go and get something to eat, and because I’m so hungry and I’m tired I try and reign in my usual fastidiousness when it comes to restaurants and find a place as quickly as possible. For lunch then I choose the Bom Jardim restaurant that’s just across the road from the station — and having waited the customary eternity that it takes in Portuguese restaurants for an order to arrive I tuck into a plate of bacalau with a side dish of creamed spinach. I always make a conscious effort to eat as much bacalau as I can whenever I’m in Portugal. This habit is due in large part to a rather memorable conversation that I once had with a Portuguese flatmate of mine, a specialist on the great Basque-born existentialist writer Miguel Unamuno; it took place about three or four years ago back when I was still living in Nottingham. Now, having heard something of the deep love and esteem that the Portuguese nation has towards bacalau from another Portuguese flatmate some months prior and finding myself intrigued and wanting another opinion (since personally speaking salted codfish doesn’t sound all that mouthwatering a proposition) I asked Emanuel, that, if he had to choose between a particularly succulent steak — rare, medium-rare, however he wanted it — a meal of roast chicken, lovingly prepared and with his stuffing of choice, or, instead, a dish of bacalau, which would be his preference? Without missing a beat and without having to think about it, he straightaway replied “bacalau” and I’m 90% sure he wasn’t just having me on and that the instantaneity of his response bespoke an affection that was deeply ingrained and even largely irrational (if such a thing as taste or affection can be said to be rational or irrational); but still I was very intrigued, and resolved to eat as much of the stuff as I manage the next time I was in Portugal. The bacalau at the Bom Jardin isn’t half bad either, though not so impressive that I finally start to ‘get’ what all the fuss is about. I can only manage a few spoonfuls of the creamed spinach after finishing the cod, it seems that they were very generous with the cream and so it’s much too heavy for me.
After lunch, I point my feet in the direction of the castle and then start walking; there’s no need for a map at this point, I have the whole afternoon to spare and intend to get a little lost on the way. African street hawkers promenade their wares, laid out on cardboard box suitcases, all along the cobbled piazza of Largo São Domingo by the Jewish memorial sculpture and across from the city’s number-one ginjinha stall. Ginjinha is a sweet ginja berry liqueur, well-nigh iconic in Lisbon, that’s sometimes served in little thimble sized chocolate cups, though that’s not the case at this stall where it’s served with the minimum of frivolity in shot glasses and the liquor itself is poured from a great glass amphora teeming with whole ginja berries. I polish off a glass of it myself to sweeten my tongue and sweeten my senses before I head off to explore the town.
I cross the Praça da Figueira, after which the ground begins to rise abruptly and the town to stack up on itself. The streets, more like alleys, get narrower and steeper the closer I get to the old town and its castle-nucleus. Calçada do Marquês de Tancos. The weather is breezy, it’s late Spring easing off into Summer. A couple of German tourists take photographs of a house the narrow facade of which has a clothes line strung across it, mainly baby clothes — because, well, it’s such a picturesque scene of Southern domesticity. And all things considered it is a rather picturesque scene, but taking photographs here feels a little like an invasion of these people’s privacy and in some sense also quite patronising. But then you’re reading this just a few paragraphs after me confessing to the hard on I got from seeing the dilapidation and the mould on Lisbon tenement blocks the first time around? OK I admit to not being entirely rational here. But in retaliation, I start to take photographs of the German tourists taking photographs of the washing line. The Germans are in abundance here, they peer over walls and around corners and brusquely wave away offers from restaurant touts to eat at authentic portuguese dining establishments with authentic fado music playing inside.
I reach the Largo de Santa Luzia, an attractive colonnaded terrace, arrayed in azulejo ceramic tiles and decked out in flower beds, that overlooks the Tagus from the heights of the old town and which thanks to its superb prospects over the river and the rest of the city serves as a popular beauty spot. It’s where Fra and I chose to rest our limbs midway through a similar hike up to the castle, four years ago, and where she took those photos of me, cross legged on the parapet with my long, lank hair plastered to my forehead and the azure river crawling behind me, that always spring to my mind when I think about Lisbon; the photographs ensuring that one set of memories of the city would always be so much more vivid than the rest. I climb back up onto the stone parapet with the long precipitous drop down to the terracotta roof tiles below and where I had posed for the photographs years before. I sit and look over the water and ruminate. And when I get tired enough of gazing down on the river and cogitating I turn to look over at the pergola where the tourists are mingling with the vendors selling tiles and souvenirs.
A few feet away from me I see an African street hawker approach three girls in their early 20s busy taking selfies with each other in a somewhat celebratory mood. He asks them in Italian if they’re Italian, prefiguring the answer somewhat. Yes, they reply, slightly surprised, how did you know? He says he’s overheard them calling each other’s names, names that he instantly recognised as Italian. Maybe it’s that they’re intrigued about being approached in their own language, or maybe they’re just tipsy with the joy of being young and carefree on a warm spring afternoon in Lisbon — but his opening gambit works and instead of shooing him away they get into conversation. The girls are completely at their ease and unselfconsciousness as they chat away with the street hawker; they exude that native warmth and geniality that seems to come so naturally and easily to Italians — and the street pedlar, well it’s whole his trade to charm people into handing over a few euros to purchase things they don’t really need, and so he’s also laying it on thick. And it’s a joyful thing to see such agreeable, amiable folk interacting together: indeed it’s so agreeable that I stay on the parapet a while longer than I had planned to just so that I can sit and watch the charm offensive proceed back and forth. The girls it transpires are from Genova and are just after finishing a semester of Erasmus in Portugal and are about to head back to Italy. He tells them in a voice warm with nostalgia about his time as a ‘vu compra’ in Venice, a city where he lived for years; and he says that he was so popular and so at home there that they used called him the black Venetian. They’re impressed with his language skills and so he tells them with no little pride that along with Italian he is able to speak English, French, Portuguese, and some German. What is a skillset, I think to myself as I sit there eavesdropping. They ask the street vendor to take a photo of the three of them and he obliges. I get off the parapet and continue on my way. I didn’t stick around to see if he managed to sell them anything in the end.
Passing by the doorway of an organic cafe a little further on, I see a pretty girl waving a laminated menu to chase away a downtrodden looking dwarf from the narrow interior of the cafe; the girl is laughing all the while as she does this, presumably because she appreciates how absurd the scene is. If she had been beautiful the scene would have had much more of pathos, but as it is it just seems ridiculous. The harassed dwarf, plastic bag slung over his shoulder, hikes across the road, an exaggerated frown on his Jeremy Clarkson looking face and enters another cafe, to seek a more sympathetic response to his indigent requests for food.
Later on, on my way back from the castle to the hostel, the dusk getting increasingly dim, I wander around the Largo de Santo Estevo and hear snatches of singing from the open window of an apartment on the first floor. The streets are relatively subdued at this point and the singing punctures the silence of early evening. I make an important realisation after an afternoon spent trekking up and down the steep cobbled alleys of Lisbon, namely, that the cobbles are there to stop you from sliding down the street: to help you get a literal grip. I’m sure this is so obvious it doesn’t even figure as an insight for most other people and that it’s scarcely worth the effort of dwelling upon. But I enjoyed the moment of appreciation for human ingenuity that it provoked.
At a certain point I’ve walked too much, and the trudge back to the hostel feels like a punishment for my foolhardiness. I head out again later when it’s dark in search of food.