Archive for July, 2006

Comparing Lisbon

Friday, July 21st, 2006

Lisbon's ancient castle Lately I have been in contact with several young people staying in Lisbon for an extended period of time, either studying or in a long work-related visit. They come from different countries, from Poland, to France, to Spain, to Italy. We’ve exchanged thoughts and opinions on Lisbon, which got me thinking about the Portuguese capital in comparison with other great cities.
The first comments from these visitors are always comparisons with their home cities or with other capitals they’re familiar with. All of them, though, seem to do a Lisbon vs. Madrid comparison. It is understandable how the first capital they compare Lisbon to, would be its Iberian neighbor, but in my opinion that is like comparing apples with oranges in the sense that these two cities have very different histories and topographies.

Architecturally for example, Madrid is not an Iberian city (Seville for example, is classic Spanish or Iberian). Madrid is a city influenced by the Austrian Habsburg dynasty that ruled Spain for centuries, with practically no buildings pre-dating the 17th and 18th centuries. The Habsburg imprint is clearly seen in the Gran Via (which wouldn’t be out of place in Vienna), or in the Almudena Cathedral and Plaza Mayor, for example.

Madrid is also not an ancient city like Lisbon. It was born in the 16th century to become the nation’s capital in the middle of the Spanish territory. It was built specifically as an imposing capital very much like Vienna. Lisbon on the other hand, is a city that was formed over the centuries, with several incarnations, first as a Phoenician trading port, then as a thriving Moorish city, then the capital of the first great modern empire, to a city isolated by dictatorship for much of the 20th century. It is a city that has been destroyed by battles, by one of the greatest earthquakes ever recorded in human history, by tragic fires. In short, Lisbon was not “made” but rather a city that has adapted for better or for worse, to its turbulent and remarkable history. Lisbon has grown and evolved from its conversions of cultures through the centuries and that, together with buildings dating from almost every century (a mosque-turned-cathedral, typically Mediterranean pastel-colored houses, one of the world’s most impressive modern bridges, etc.) and its slightly disorganized urban landscape is what makes it such a unique place. It is a city that is not meant to be imposing, but a place that is truly seductive.

Typical old Lisbon street There is a touch of Paris in the Chiado and Baixa districts, perhaps a little of Rome in the churches of hilly Alfama or even of Morocco’s Fez in this ancient medina, a little of Seville in the exotic architecture of the famous monuments of Belem, and a side of any great modern metropolis in the Parque das Nações district. Others recall San Francisco when looking at 25 de Abril Bridge and the colorful trams, but Lisbon is not comparable to any other city. Perhaps the most comparable to Lisbon would be Naples in Italy or even Istanbul in Turkey, in that it is rather exotic in the European context; a city to be appreciated for its details, in its alluring characteristics and hidden delights, and not to marvel at its made-to-impress buildings. It does have its impressive monuments (the Jeronimos Monastery and Belem Tower, recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, never fail to impress), but Lisbon’s lasting mark in visitors’ minds are its sensuous mix of colors, architectural styles, steep staircases, pathways, and alleyways framing unexpected views of the river, and sea of rooftops, church towers, and domes. It is in the unique colorful tiles decorating old façades, in the drying laundry hanging from wrought-iron balconies, in dilapidated buildings that hide sleek bars and cosmopolitan restaurants, in its contrasting sides, from the village-within-a-city that is Alfama to futuristic Parque das Nações.

I understand how visitors used to the pompous organization of Paris or to the more cleaned-up-for-the-tourist-to-see cities of Spain, would be rather surprised to find Lisbon so “decadent” at first sight. But after talking with these recent “temporary Lisbonites,” I became certain that Lisbon never fails to seduce – those who don’t understand it at first, come to appreciate it as a great authentic city, with its flaws and greatness; filled with charm and surprises. Everyone who experiences it, ends up falling for Lisbon and wishing to stay longer or to return.

Praia da Comenda

Monday, July 17th, 2006

I spent Saturday afternoon on a small beach called Praia da Comenda, at the foothills of the Serra da Arrábida, close to the city of Setúbal.

This area is popular with families, since there is a large picnic area, through which the smell of charcoal and grilled fish pervades as the sun starts setting and the evening meals are started.

The beach is formed by the banks of the inlet of a small river, the Ajuda, which flows into the larger Sado river, on the other side of which the more popular beaches of Troía can be seen, together with the ferries which take day-trippers from the Troía peninsula back to the port of Setúbal. The nearby Palacio da Comenda provides some architectural interest.

Palacio da Comenda

It was a nice, relaxing afternoon, allowing us to cool off in the water and escape the much higher temperatures in the city and inland. Afterwards we headed into Setúbal, to one of the hundreds of excellent fish restaurants lining the waterfront. We shared a dourada de mar (sea bream), accompanied by some refreshing white Sado wine, then headed back north to the heat!

England vs Portugal

Monday, July 3rd, 2006

OK, this was the plan:- Arrive in Lisbon on Saturday at 14:20h local time, head to my girlfriend’s house, sit down with a beer or glass of wine and some good food, accompanied by girlfriend and friends, all fervent Portugal supporters, and watch England take revenge for losing to Portugal on penalties in Euro 2004, spending the rest of the afternoon smugly basking in the glory of yet another epic victory of the English national side.

I should have realised my dream wasn’t going to come true when I arrived at Madrid airport only to find that the TAP flight to Lisbon was delayed by 40 minutes. I can tell you now, a delay of just 40 minutes would have been wonderful! I was already sensitive to airline delays having arrived in Madrid 3 hours late from Paris just the day before. So when we finally started boarding the flight after it’s scheduled take-off time, waited for half an hour, were told by the captain we’d be leaving 10 minutes later and then 20 minutes later the crew started serving food because we’d be stationary at the gate “probably another hour”, I was fuming! I wasn’t even going to get to see England’s most important football game of the World Cup!

Finally we arrived in Lisbon at around 17:25h – 3 hours later than scheduled! And this for a 1 hour flight! My girlfriend was waiting to meet me and I urged her to find the nearest possible cafeteria to see what I still hoped would be the dying moments of England’s monumental victory. We had a coffee and watched a bit of the game, but realised that extra time was likely so decided to risk driving to her house where her friends were waiting, hoping to see the extra time and maybe the penalties.

I jumped into the driving seat and sped over the Vasco da Gama bridge towards Moita. Confirmation that the gods were against me on this day was the fact that, 5 minutes from her house, we ran out of diesel! We managed to get the car started on the last dregs and made it to a petrol station. We filled up and at last made it to her house.

Of course, we all now know the ending of this particular sob story: I sat down in front of the TV, beer in hand and a plate of “gambas” before me, only to watch England fail to get through the quarter finals once more and submit to defeat by Portugal in the penalties after time, a repeat of the result 2 years ago at the European Championships.

Of course, all around me were jumping in the air, shouting, screaming and singing. In the street, car horns blared and people were at their balconies smiling and waving flags of all sizes at each other in a nationwide celebration of victory over the English. And yet they still don’t consider it revenge for 1966 🙂

Oh well, just another 4 years to wait!