Lured by Lisbon’s Lasting Charm


It’s been a full generation since Portugal’s revolution and no one seems to have given Lisbon a lick of paint in all that time. Grubbier and shabbier than ever, Lisbon comes as something of a shock to a traveler coming from other European cities – shock at the change of tempo from the push, swagger and verve of cities like Madrid and Paris; shock at the unkempt, peeling, tired old town that is Portugal’s capital city.

But it is a shock that lasts just 24 hours, until Lisbon’s inimitable charm takes over and dulls criticism.  Portugal’s coup in 1974, and the 19 turbulent revolutionary months that followed, eventually gave the country a parliamentary democracy and promised to change the face of the nation. While it did so in many ways, the pace and spirit of Portuguese life was altered far less than Spain’s were under a roughly similar timetable.

English: Monument to the Discoveries is a monu...

When Spain regained its democracy after the death of Dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco in 1975, it seemed to integrate quickly into the rest of modern Western Europe. Not so Portugal. Portugal has always been much closer to the Third World — to Africa — than to Europe. The revolution hasn’t really changed this. The contrast can be seen in the two capitals. Madrid, despite her flourishing and lively old neighborhoods, is still very much a modern European capital with lots of pizzazz, excitement and high-tension bustle. Lisbon, on the other hand, remains the same dreamy town of cobbled streets, slow streetcars, hole-in-the-wall shops and department stores similar to old-fashioned haberdasheries.

Part of the problem is Portugal’s deteriorating economy. Indeed, lengthy droughts, a strengthening dollar, a drop in tourism and a huge external debt of into the billions have not helped. But it is not only lack of money that makes Lisbon so different in atmosphere to Madrid. It is also because the Portuguese are a very different people from their fellow Iberians across the border. Foreigners often tend to lump the two nationalities together and they are often suspicious of each other.  Many feel that the Spanish — vivacious, brittle, proud, loud and fast of speech — look down on the Portuguese as poor country cousins. The Portuguese, who do tend to be slower, sadder, smaller in stature, more dour and introverted, suspiciously regard the Spanish as noisy, over-bearing and superficial.

Despite its shabbiness, Lisbon — physically — is a painter’s dream with its terracotta and sepia houses perched in a jumbled fashion over the hills overlooking the wide and beautiful Tagus River. The city it has an uncanny ability to charm and even those who are its harshest critics on arrival often themselves eager to return.

If you are in a hurry, the slowness can be annoying. Lining up with your bread bag — a small cotton bag with a drawstring for carrying bread — you wait your turn at the bakery while each customer chooses, rejects and accepts each of her dozen-odd daily rolls of bread.

“Too underdone,” ”Too small,” “It’s not worth the two escudos,” quibbles-each customer, in turn, and no one looks impatient, just simply interested.

At the butcher, it is just the same, with each sausage minutely examined before being accepted. On top of this, each customer stops to lazily exchange gossip about illnesses, deaths, weddings and scandals with each shop owner. And this is central Lisbon, not some one-store village.

English: The Tower of Belém, Lisbon, Portugal....

Other quirky differences between Madrid and Lisbon come to mind. Madrid is a city of gloriously singing canaries — Lisbon one of parrots. Every street seems to have its green Brazilian parrot perched on a balcony happily chuckling and screeching the days away.

Lisbon’s dogs are mongrels. Madrid’s are highly bred, on leashes, most of them with the frustrated look that apartment life can give animals and children. Lisbon’s dogs, on the other hand, are rather grubby mongrels. They tend to trot around the neighborhood visiting local cafes looking for handouts.  Many of Lisbon’s un-tethered dogs have limps from brushes with cars, but otherwise wear a serene, relaxed look.

So relaxed is Lisbon, in fact, that even when a careless driver parks the car too near the streetcar lines, the vehicle will be carefully lifted by the streetcar passengers and eased out of the way. If a car is left this way in Brussels, the owner would find it crunched to bits for, as in most places, streetcars have the right of way. Lisbon is different – and that’s what makes it so appealing.

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2 thoughts on “Lured by Lisbon’s Lasting Charm

  1. Great post on Lisbon! I love the city. Hubby and I were there over a decade ago and we stayed ar a hotel close to Belem. We had a great time, even had dinner in a restaurant with fado performance. I agree with you that Portugal is so different from Spain although geographically they are both on the Iberian peninsula. Even the food was different especially those rice with beans.

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