He didn’t say much. Well, nothing at all in fact, but in my mind he was calling me out to sea. Sitting at the feet of Prince Henry the Navigator, at the tip of the Tagus River where the Atlantic invades Lisbon, I contemplated a past when Portugal ruled the waves. Here, under the Monument to the Discoveries, topped by Henry’s proud, feather-hatted form, I convinced myself you could almost smell the tropics.
At not quite 20 years old I was little travelled, the New World just a promise on a map. Yet here, at the defiant fringes of Europe where early explorers had turned their back on the old world to sail into the unknown, Africa, Brazil and The Cape were, I imagined, no more than a sniff away on a perfumed wave.
This deep sense of yearning fitted neatly into that oh-so-Portuguese condition of saudade. This melancholic, bittersweet state of longing that underpins everything, from Portugal’s poetry to its fado music has it roots, sages have mused, in the country’s early history of sending its people out to sea — many of whom would never return. Thus, for me, Lisbon began as a promise. It was as much a place in and of itself as it was somewhere defined by big ideas, by the continents and countries conquered by its explorers: de Gama, Cabral, Magellan and my current Age of Discoveries crush, Prince Henry.
It was to the 15th-century navigator’s monument that I’d come and sit when I’d tired of pounding the cobbled backstreets of Lisbon’s central Barrio Alto, Baixa and then-edgy Alfama neighbourhood. I’d rattle out to the naval barrio of Belem on the number 15 tram to commune with the chap in the funny, feathered hat, who stood proud over Lisbon’s oceanic river like the nautical figurehead on a stone galleon.
Back then, the city’s waterfront wasn’t really the place for navel (or naval) gazing. Windswept and largely deserted, daydreamers here were sitting ducks for dockside loafers with an eye on backpacks and back pockets. Today, this area will still relieve you of your cash — by way of a hipster market where food trucks sell reimagined Portuguese petiscos (tapas), minimalist warehouse bars and determinedly indie shops among which I recently found Loja das Conservas — a kitsch grocers selling nothing but cans of premium Portuguese sardines and tuna in retro-designed tins.
Evermore frequent waves of gentrification are washing over Lisbon’s dockside districts, where a multi-billion euro cruise terminal is now imminently expected. It’s already spruced up the crumbling red rooftops of Alfama, the barrio that sits under the Moorish gaze of Sao Jorge castle whose turrets, ramparts and sprawling gardens are all now ticketed, guarded and cordoned off from casual wanderers.
There’s no doubt that Lisbon has had a bit of work done, and such heavy-handed clinical improvements can make a girl uneasy. But, on the other hand, no longer does the budget traveller have to hot-foot it through needle-strewn, unlit backstreets to find a functioning ATM to get funds to pay for the once ubiquitous cash-only guesthouse (and risk getting the cash nicked on the journey back).
Now, travellers check into smart, pre-paid Airbnb apartments where their host gives them the key to their home and an insider’s take on the city. More clean and serene it may be, but Lisbon is still a place that sings to its own tune. Cast out on the edge of Europe, it’s part of Iberia yet is anything but ole! Its politics are about as leftist as Europe gets, after spending half the 20th century under the nationalist Salazar dictatorship. Anarchic graffiti, arts co-ops and community circus schools, not banks and bland franchises, shape Lisbon’s landscape.
When the mayor noted the failing Mouraria district a few years ago, he moved his entire office to this old, medieval barrio in the shadow of Sao Jorge, to work alongside the latest wave of immigrants, thus shifting the city’s power perspective.
A major makeover it may be experiencing, but Lisbon is still one of Europe’s cheapest and most multicultural cities. Come here to find Haitians, Cap Verdeans, Brazilians, Angolans… what feels like all the world’s peoples trading and learning to coexist. It’s a place I came to once, expecting to see and sign off on it, but have returned to time and again. It’s a place of rare, briny energy, a poem of a port city that shifts and ebbs with tidal surety and cares not what it should be doing. Lisboa, eu amo-te.
The March issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK) is on sale now.