I arrived at Lisbon with a backpack and a camera. A camera that weighs as much as my bones and whose presence I both treasure and dread. But just like gravity, once my body mistakens the camera as a constituent of my body, the weight melts away. Then all I’m left with is the gratefulness that I can capture what my memory fails to encode.
Lisbon is a city of ceramic tiles. Ceramic tiles flooding not only floors but building facades, mapping houses with soft brush-stroke masterpieces that other cities only recognize below their feet. Azujelos, they call them. Not because they reference the color blue in Portuguese, but rather their name stems from the Arabic meaning “polished stone.” The stone polishes the entire city into a colorful masterpiece.
The Lisbon metro is composed of and houses a medley of hues. I believe that one can derive a general scope of a city and its inhabitants through a trip in the underground transport. The means of transport itself bespeaks the structure and efficiency evident in the culture and style of governance. The people that one encounters also provide an overview of the populace and the social fabric that weaves a city together. The Lisbon underground transport, the Metropolitano de Lisboa, is known for its artistic value. Some stations are covered in a myriad of azulejos, while others like the station Olaias are the product of installation art by Portuguese painters. The embellishment woos not with imposing modern installations but rather with the deep-rooted artisanal warmth it irradiates, tracing its Moors Arabic past.
It was difficult to seize a concrete image from the populace, given that there seemed to be no consistent mold of skin colors or fashion trends in the Metropolitano. Unlike Munich, where I have the sense of grasping a detailed demographic in the U-Bahn, Lisbon seemed to encompass a scale of ebony and rusted flour skin tones. As for the tram, it seems like you could hear a single tramcar from miles away, heavy and steaming, roaring like it probably did back in the late 1800s. This makes me envisage a city not big on modernization, a society not too focused on technological advancement beacuse all the existing installations seem to work. In the same way that the Castelo de Sao Jorge was restored in 1938 to rescue ancient buildings and reawaken its past, it seems like Lisbon is keen in harnessing its past into its every pore.
I fell in love with Lisbon for various reasons. Maybe it was the fact that I went with the person I love, and when you are in the presence of love you displace it into everything you cross. But I can’t downplay the impact the city itself, the aesthetics of vibrant tiles and undulating streets that rise and fall like the tide, somewhat reminiscent of San Francisco. I was struck by the soundtrack of languages that floated like oxygen on every street corner. I was surprised by the wide expanse of teeth exuding smiles wherever we went, the two men on the adjacent table who offered us a sip of their wine to make our choice on the menu easier. The people irradiate so much figurative warmth that it’s hard to feel cold in the midst of a wind powered by the strength of the ocean.
Because the thing is, Lisbon combines the buzz and culture of a big city with the tempered coziness of a seaside harbor town. The food is beautiful, the Timeout Market turns the concept of a food court into a polished intercultural experience, and the Underground Market turns graffiti and trailers into the epitome of a trendy unconventional breakfast. The LX Factory is a haven for the foodie and the artist alike, a playground for explorers who want a cozy getaway of coffee shops paired with gastronomic as well as creative nourishment. The Castelo de Sao Jorge provides a magnificent view of the city and the free tour of the ruins reveals its Spanish and Moorish past. The Vegan Project offers mouthwatering dishes for the health-conscious while Tartine provides a brunch that can satiate until the dead of the night. If you’re a book-lover, immerse yourself in the pure bliss of the Livraria Bertrand in Chiado, the oldest bookstore in the world, open since 1732. If you’re one for checking things off, don’t miss the Ponto 25 de Abril, the longest suspension bridge in the world, spanning 2,277 meters.
But that sounds rather dull, doesn’t it? Seeing something for the pure initiative of checking it off a list. Walk from the Praça do Comércio along the harbor until you reach the bridge or an awe-inducing view. Get lost in the tangle of streets and barhop in the Bairro Alto while swimming off the silkiness of wine. Sometimes we’re too focused on checking things off, that a city just becomes a mixture of museums and churches that seem to blend in with all the other museums and churches planted on each corner of Europe. Breathe Lisbon in and walk until your feet are sore from the pure splendor they have traversed. Don’t forget the cultural musts and monuments, but don’t forget to indulge in what you as an individual treasure. Seek the places and ambiences you would normally dig out at home and experience them in Lisbon. That is what I did. Of course, I also encoded them as photographs. I hope they encourage you to visit the city of Fernando Pessoa and Goncalo Tavares and see if it inspires you in the same way. Or in a different way.