Saturday, 7 September 2013

The pulse of Lisbon

Lisbon is alive.

The city has a pulse.

It bounces and sways to a sweet, slightly off beat tune, captivating people, both locals and visitors.

As a coasty girl; someone who has lived by the sea all of her life and has gravitated towards the water and nature coves for getaways and holidays, I was intrigued when people I encountered near and abroad sang the praises of Portugal’s capital Lisbon. People’s enthusiasm and passion for the city ranged from  “You can’t help but fall in love with Lisbon”, to “It’s grungy, it’s honest and it’s hypnotic”, to “ Lisbon has a history to tell and a deep creative vein” to other extremes like “See Lisbon or die.”

Put bluntly. See it!!
Over the past couple of years, I have grown to appreciate ‘concrete jungles’ after living in Sydney, but I haven’t necessarily felt connected or completely at home in the hustle and bustle to be honest. This got me thinking about why people felt a connection to this city.  What makes Lisbon tick? What’s the city’s draw card? What makes it sparkle?

I was curious to say the least and wanted to taste some of this urban magic.

What does the old proverb preach, something along the lines of… ‘curiosity killed the cat’. No, no I disagree. The latter saying ‘… but satisfaction brought it back,’ rings true here. Some very friendly and open Lisbonians – who - like the 500,000 plus other residents and 2 million visitors each year – share their tales of being drawn in by Lisbon’s magnetic force.

Tram lines zig zag their way across the city and are best seen when the sun retires for another day 

“Lisbon is like a slutty Cinderella,” our walking tour-guide Taylor Holding, 27, from San Fransisco put frankly. “During the day, she is classy, even pretty some would say, showcasing her fashion, art and design. But then come night, she is where the party is at. People spill out of the small bars and cafes onto the streets often drinking the local cherry infused liquor called ‘ginja’. Drug dealers whisper ‘hashish’ or ‘coke’ to street folk and music is at a constant hum through to the early hours.”

Comical cinderella to capture Taylor's twisted yet true description of Lisbon 
Taylor first arrived in Lisbon 2.5 years ago when his plans to travel east were interrupted by strikes in France. “The friend I was traveling with at the time suggested we go to Lisbon in the meantime as she had heard it was much like San Fran. We rocked up at the Oasis Hostel and within 2 days I was offered a job as a bed maker. I cancelled my already booked plans for festivals and skiing elsewhere in Europe and stayed in Lisbon for a month and enjoyed every minute of it. Then I forced myself to return home but I couldn’t forget Lisbon. I started feeling home sick for a place I barely knew despite in actual fact being in my home.” Over the next 7 months, Taylor worked 4 jobs to save enough to return to Lisbon indefinitely and has been there since.

“I just love this place. It’s real. Pretentiousness is cut down by the honesty and no bullshit approach of the people. The Portuguese are a very proud people and in my opinion, are more unified than other European countries. But they also have humility and are always chuckling and making fun of themselves.”

Lisbon is described as a city of neighbourhoods, where the rich and wealthy live side by side the poor and homeless. It’s a city of contradictions and absurdity, but at the same time, makes just so much sense. There are 7 hills that divide these communities and iconic trams which motor their way from one to the next. Graffiti, murals, art displays and messages cover government commissioned spaces on the sides of public buildings and sidewalks. It is also home to the emotionally rich folk music of Fado. Fado is typically sung by a man or woman who has experienced a deep sorrow and tells of stories of lost love, monumental life mistakes and tragedy. Not necessarily uplifting stuff but as Taylor puts it, “If there is a painful experience in life, the Portuguese don’t cover it up. They wear it like armor. It is part of their story and I love that. This is called Saudade in Portuguese and it means nostalgia but with immense loss.”

The beautiful city by the water as a talented musician creates a sublime viewing soundtrack
This sense of struggle is a reality for most residents of Lisbon. It has historical roots despite the peoples’ festive spirits, and is given the name Luta. A monumental earthquake, which reached 9 on the richter scale demolished the city and surrounding areas, killing some 100,000 or so people in 1755. A corporatist authoritarian regime by the name of Estado Novo, which denied people of their civil liberties and political freedoms for 48 years, came to a bloody end in 1974. And right now, Portugal is experiencing the brunt of the economic turbulence that has thrashed parts of Europe.

“But this is what makes the Portuguese, and the people of Lisbon in particular, so unique. They live with great acceptance of their past and their present, and grin with sly optimism,” remarked Taylor.

Taylor runs a walking tour Monday - Friday from 12pm at the Oasis Hostel to expose some of Lisbon’s secret quirks. If you’re in town, do make time to jump on board. You won’t regret it.

Taylor in front of some of Lisbon's street graffiti 
A project that really touched my heart when exploring the streets of Mouraria – a neighbourhood of Lisbon - was by the very talented British photographer Camilla Watson who has been living in Lisbon since 2007. Bordering the entrances to houses and shops in the area of Beco das Farinhas are black and white portraits of elderly men and women, captured in moments in time forever. Some are smiling; others gaze with an intimate intensity. Her clever technique involves using a mobile darkroom to print the images directly onto the wall. Camilla’s idea was born from a place of gratitude and put on display for all to see in her creation called ‘A Tribute’  (See this video for an up close and personal snapshot). Camilla shared why she feels a strong connection to this community of people: “I was struck by the generosity and spirit of the elderly people living here in Mouraria. I imagined their images printed onto the old walls of their homes. Many were born here and it feels, at least to me, that it is their spirit that makes this place. It is as if they are part of the walls themselves… These photographs are a tribute to the elderly who have made Mouraria special.”

One of Camilla's beautiful portraits
Portuguese local and sociologist Vitor Ferreira, 43, also shared a deep connection and appreciation for this elusive city. Vitor originally came to Lisbon for his studies at age 15, but has since returned to make Lisbon his home. “I love big cities. All the buzz, energy and liberty they have to offer really intrigues me, especially the cultural activities, night life and that X factor that keeps you surprised and on your toes. In the case of Lisbon, I love the city centre, the mix of people and the beautiful Tejo River… There is also something special about the sky here and the architecture of the buildings (even if some of them are falling apart).” Vitor has been living in Lisbon for 12 years now and said that Lisbon’s appeal comes back to the city maintaining a community dimension while being a capital city. “This is what is best about Lisbon. The people are kind hearted and friendly, it is comfortable to travel around and the food is authentic to the area, but at the same time, there is cosmopolitan experiences available to all.”

Vitor who has called Lisbon home for over 12 years now
Second-time visitor Sarah Loftus, 20, from London, tried to nail what it is about Lisbon. “It’s hard to describe why I like it so much, but in the short time I spent there on my first visit I got infected with this amazing vibe the place had. It was so lively and friendly and I was pleased to find it only more vibrant than I remembered on returning this year. A man I met there said to me that he thought with his head but acted with his heart and it really feels like a city which has a big booming heart!”

Sarah, filled with joy
Now flip the coin and meet Igor Silva, 30, and Lidia Cunha, 28; a beautiful married couple from Brazil who arrived in Lisbon almost 2 months ago on an adventure. An adventure inspired by learning and reflection in a totally different context. Igor is an anthropologist who is doing his PhD on what it means to be a “backpacker” (wicked topic hey!) and is now in Lisbon to compare his findings in a city known for its tourist appeal. “My research has involved traveling with other fellow backpackers for 3 months around Brazil, working for 4 months in a popular hostel as a bar tender and receptionist in Rio de Janerio’s very famous Copacabana as well as studying the history of organized tours and their targeted clientele.” Now, as Igor puts it, it’s time for Exotopia. “It’s the process of stepping outside of your space or place to gain a new perspective. It’s a type of symbolic displacement where you are the foreigner. That is what I am doing here in Lisbon. Observing, meeting travellers and exploring the hostel scene here which globally has a very good reputation.”

Lisbon has a large Brazilian community, which has made the transition for this rad couple silky smooth. “There is a strong comradeship and friendship here among the Brazilians, but the Portuguese have also welcomed us with open arms,” said Igor. “It really is a paradise. The weather is always fine, transport is easy, living is affordable and you have the choice to travel to the mountains or sea in less than a few hours. It really has something special unlike anywhere I’ve been before and am so happy to call this city home for the next year,” added Lidia.

Igor and Lidia embracing their new life of living and learning abroad
On an afternoon walk I noticed a line of photographs and prints pegged to a thin rope boarding the entrance to a church. As I approached the pictures, I found a man and his two dogs sitting behind the display, set up with bed, utensil and canned food. I soon learnt that this man, who would rather not be named, was originally from Goa, India. “I arrived in Lisbon 3 years ago. I’ve moved from place to place for the best part of my life and made my way here by land. I was inspired by the city to take up photography and it seems the people of Lisbon also like my photography.” This man’s admiration for the city was obvious. “Lisbon is special to me. I haven’t wanted to change locations so much the past few years because I do feel connected here. Comfortable. Not judged. Myself.”

Home is where the heart is
Cities and urban centres have been likened to a living organism by authors and artists throughout history, described as having a heart, a soul and even a pulse. When I thought about this, it made me see Lisbon in a different light and experience the city in a different way. Oliver Theyskins said, “I see the city as a living organism, shaped through time by the little humans having habits and doing millions of stuff in and out of it”.

How about you? Have you felt connected to a city? Did it draw you in with its charm and warmth? Maybe you have felt compelled to return to somewhere after a short visit or maybe it’s your home – a place that just doesn’t compare to anywhere else you have been. Jump in the comment box below and please do tell!

Flamenco, the powerful Spanish folk music and dance routine, is all about connection. Connection to rhythm, the body, the story, the audience. All to be beautifully explored next my friends :)

Me lapping up the colours of Lisbon :)


  1. Love love love Lisbon and Portugal. I'm half Portuguese (not biased at all) Carla x

  2. Haha no, not biased at all! If I was Portuguese, I'd be singing my bias to the roof tops :) Lisbon is something else hey? Soulful, rootsy, grungy, real, are words that come to mind. The city definitely has a pulse! x


Leave a reply below: