The last time I saw Lisbon
It has been exactly a year since I last saw Lisbon. I arrive on a wet, miserably cold evening that is typical for January in the city. Our taxi can’t find our hostel but drops us off close enough. A short walk, in the horizontal rain , feels like an eternity, each drop of water scoring our skin like a razorblade.
Hungry and feeling miserable, for a brief moment as we walk outside, I feel that temporary state of panic that sets in when you set foot in a new destination. Had it been a smart idea to come to Lisbon in winter? I park my thoughts and alongside Sabrina, brave the swirling rain, to find a place to eat. It’s past 10 but we’re lucky to find a pasterlaria open on Rua Augusta, just a block away from the hostel. Through the sheet of rain, I can make out the faint silhouette of the triumphal arch of Rua Augusta, the gateway to the city. It’s late.The chef is about to leave the restaurant when we enter. However, there is still soup. A winter classic, Caldo Verde. In Portugal, few things in life you can be sure about. One of those, is that you will always find a good bowl of soup, even in the humblest and most obscure places. A waiter in a pristine white waistcoast, pours us a small glass of port and gently places it us beside our piping hot caldo verde. I raise my glass to Sabrina and our kind saviour. The port instantly warms our bones, the soup soothes our weary soul. I smile. I back in Lisbon, the land of my dreams. I’m home.
The next day, I remember opening the window and feeling a chill down my spine as I gazed up at a perfect, icy blue morning sky. I spot a bunch of pigeons huddled together for warmth on the beautiful street lamps across the road. There is a brief shaft of morning light spilling onto the beautiful patterned pavements. We grab our trainers and decide to go for a run. Running , first thing in the morning, for the last 2 years has been my new drug. I can’t think of a better way to start the day, to clear away the cobwebs and worries that each dawn often brings. We slowly jog down the narrow cobbled streets, slowly running towards the light. I sniff at the distant whiff of freshly grounded coffee that always follows you wherever you are in Lisbon. I feel an instant surge of electricity. The closer we come to the waterfront, the golden morning light grows brighter, fiercer, engulfing us, like a warm welcoming embrace. After months of eternal winter darkness in Berlin, it feels like a hug from my mother. I feel a teardrop or two crawl into my eye when I finally arrived in the beautiful broad expanse of Praça do Comércio. It is one of my favourite parts of the city. I love the bright yellow colour, the beautifully shaped arcades and symmetry of the buildings lining the square. I also love how the rectangular shape of the square opens onto the broad expanse of the deep blue Tagus. It is the closest thing to a perfect vista. You can see the sky and sea in perfect harmony while standing by King Jose on his horse, symbolically crushes the snakes on his path. We run by the river, drinking in the beautiful coastline and that gorgeous morning light bouncing off the water. We run that morning as far as I legs take us. It was one of those days I could have kept on running forever, to see what other, invisible worlds we would discover. On colder mornings since, especially in these tough times, I often revisit this morning in memory.
I always have a particular route I like to walk, every time I’m back in Lisbon. It usually starts in the neighbourhood of São Bento, west of Bairro Alto. I stayed here a few winters ago in a simple but beautiful flat. As is typical with most Lisbon houses, there was no central heating. I would be fine during the day but in evenings and early mornings, I would be dependent on an electric heater that would blast warm air until you can’t breathe. I would prefer the more rustic method of a glass of red wine in the evenings instead to warm myself up. After a glass or two, early every evening before sunset, I would always go for my evening stroll. I would slowly edge up the hill, along the long snaking Rua do Sao Bento, passing the odd coffee shop, convenience store and tiny antique shops that slowly seem to disappear every time I return to Lisbon, replaced by some hip smoothie or craft beer store that you seem to find mushrooming in every city across Europe. The cobbled streets here are reassuringly still unloved with grass growing through them. I watch my step, dodging the dog poop in pockets everywhere. Somethings, strangely never change.
It depends on the time of the day but you’ll always find the odd local, popping their head out of their tiny windows of their house, puffing on a cigarette and stringing up their laundry or just staring at every passerby or if they are in the mood, indulging in a bit of banter with their friends across the road. Somethings, never change.
I always pause in the fork of the road at the intersection of Rua Polais de Sao Bento and Rua do Poco dos Negros. It is a perfect spot to admire the iconic yellow Tram 28 rattling down the hill from Bairro Alto. On certain days, I love to stop for a quick bica at the fabulous Mill cafe but on most days I push on up the steep hill. This section of the street, Calcada do Combro, nudging Bairro Alto, is a killer and often has me out of breath by the time I reach the top. I’ll often pause at the Igreja de Santa Caterina to catch my breath. The plain facade is unassuming but inside, this church is a stunner. I love the stucco rococo ceiling and the monumental organ here. This church was one of the few buildings that survived the 1755 earthquake. Once I get to the top of Calcada do Combro, I love to get another glimpse of the tram thundering down the hill. Within every ritual, there are always mini rituals, each, satisfying in their own aspect and life reaffirming. My walk from here can change. Sometimes, I love edging to the top of the hill and onto Largo Calhariz. I love to pause here. If I’m hungry, I love snacking on the piadina, from La Bottega Piadina, an authentic slice of Emilia Romagna in the heart of Lisbon.
I’ll then stop, admire the bright yellow Bica funicular perched precariously on the top of the steep Rua da Bica de Duarte Belo. It always attracts a gaggle of people, from the tourists furiously snapping photos of loved ones, trying to freeze the moment for eternity to the drug dealers, casually slipping you a menu of every drug under the sun. It is a scene that never changes, no matter how much Lisbon gentrifies or grows older. I’ll continue sometimes to Baixa Chiado but in most times, I’ll never make it to the top of the hill. Instead, I shift right onto the sloping cobbled alleyway of Travessa da Condessa do Rio, plastered with snazzy graffiti.
That brings me onto the Rua de Santa Caterina. First thing I spot as I turn onto the street is the reassuring view of the towering palm tree that stands in the garden of the beautiful Oasis Backpackers Hostel. Oasis was one of the first hostels I stayed in Lisbon back in 2012 when I started my Luxury Hostels project. It is a beautiful building, a century old mansion , with that warm honey yellow facade and sludge green wrought iron balconies that would not look out of place in Paris or the French Riviera. I haven’t been back to the hostel since. It kinda faded and slipped in standards over the years but I’ve always wanted to go back, just for old times sake.
I like to finish my walk in Miradouro Santa Caterina which is right next the hostel. The view from here is probably my favourite view of the city. You have the shimmering waters of the Tagus river and the towering Ponte de Abril suspension bridge. I love spending sunsets here. The city kind of unfurls itself from this viewpoint like a finely embroidered bedspread, a beautiful melange of terracotta, yellow and pinks and that unforgettable Lisbon moody blue. It is a popular spot for sunsets with locals and tourists alike. Plus, you always meet a bunch of characters here, from poets to pimps. The other key feature I love here is that it has one of the classic Lisbon beautiful ‘quiosques’ where you can buy drinks or snacks at pretty affordable prices. At one point, an obsolete and forgotten feature of local streets culture, these beautiful quiosques, combining a mix of oriental and art nouveau styles have been making a comeback and have now restablished themselves as a staple part of local life.
The last time I was in Lisbon, the miradouro had just been rebuilt and opened to locals and tourists again. Few of the original green benches had been removed. I was a bit sad to see them gone as I had a lot of memories sitting there, watching the sunset. My favourite memory of the square was back from 2012 when I had the amazing fortune of bumping into the Austrian actor, Bruno Ganz who at the time was filming ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ movie in the city. ( Few key scenes are filmed right on that square ) It was a quiet June afternoon. Hardly any tourists in sight. Keep in mind that Lisbon was still relatively undiscovered at this point and slowly emerging as a tourism hotspot. I had just ambled out of the Oasis hostel, a book in hand and the idea had been to enjoy the view from the square with a coffee. When I saw Bruno Ganz, sitting there, quietly enjoying the view, it was a kind of surreal moment for me. I am a huge Wim Wenders fan, his earlier stuff especially. Growing up, I must have seen his films on repeat a trillion times. One of my favourites was the ‘Wings of Desire’ , in which Bruno Ganz stars as a guardian angel who wishes to become human when he falls in love with one of the humans he looks after.
I remember smiling at him and admitting how much I loved this movie of his. He probably had heard this a million times in his life but he was kind and thanked me. In fact, he was kind of enough to talk me to for almost an hour on that bench. We talked about Wenders, the movie he was shooting at the time and even indulged in a spot of politics. Contents of our conversation, I shall keep private but it was indeed an experience, I will never forget. He sadly passed away the year before. My memory of meeting him will now forever remain intertwined with Lisbon and that spot, even if the bench is there no longer.
By the time we were wrapping our trip in Lisbon last year, the disease had started spreading like wildfire across Europe. Little did we know what was ahead and how the world around us, our live and that of loved ones, the way we travel and how places like Lisbon for example would hugely be impacted by this terrible disease. It is tough to predict the future but one thing I do know for sure, that when it is safe for us to travel again, I definitely will be returning to Lisbon.
While I am missing my annual January pilgrimage, I am happy to wait for Lisbon. All I have to do is close my ears and eyes and I am back there, walking the streets again. I can hear the passionate voices from the local tascas, the warm roasted smell of freshly brewed bicas and the vexed voices of silvery haired ladies rise, float into the seven hills above as they put their clothes out to dry on their rusty iron balconies. I hear those sounds and like magic, I see Lisbon again. I am running towards the golden light and the familiar embrace of an old friend.