Night Train to Lisbon.
“By day Lisbon has a naive theatrical quality that enchants and captivates, but by night it is a fairy-tale city, descending over lighted terraces to the sea, like a woman in festive garments going down to meet her dark lover.”
― Erich Maria Remarque, The Night in Lisbon
In some small way, this city and I have shared a bit of history and so, what better way to see how both of us have weathered the intervening years than by taking the night train to Lisbon.
Arriving by train, anywhere, early in the morning gives a visitor an opportunity to observe the city and its commuters as they wake. Stazione Santa Apalonia, the city's oldest station, funnels the morning rush-hour through its imposing front doors and onto the street - actually, 'the morning rush hour' is a bit of a euphemism really as Lisbon seems to enjoy a good lie-in most days.
A five-minute taxi ride will bring you to Bairro Alfama , the oldest district of Lisbon whose name comes from the Arabic, Al-hamma, meaning "hot fountains" or "baths."
This part of the ‘old city’ is made up of a series of winding, cobbled ‘travesas’ or laneways making their way through pastel coloured houses that rise to no more than five floors. At street level, an endless array of restaurants, bakeries, small supermarkets, wine shops and countless bars line the narrow spaces all of whom seem to offer similar produce or the promise of an evening of ‘Fado’ (traditional Portuguese music)
These older areas of the city are undergoing a massive transformation with ageing apartments being snapped up by entrepreneurial developers, gentrified and then and turned into ‘modern’ suites. A thriving Air B&B market caters to the ever-growing tourist numbers, much to the consternation of many of the locals, who feel that this form of alternative tourist accommodation is devouring the culture of the districts. In amongst the masses of graffiti that seems to cover many of Lisbon’s buildings are scrawled messages that read, “Fuck Air B&B or “tourists go home.”
As one bar owner ruefully remarked, “Look, Air B&B is good for business but soon we will be so overrun with tourists that they will outnumber the old families and then, what we will end up with is tourists looking at other tourists.”
Portugal and particularly the capital Lisbon was, until just three hundred years ago was one of the mightiest empires on earth. Its colonial tentacles stretched across three continents, its ships bringing home untold riches beyond their wildest dreams.
Lisbon is a place that has endured more than its fair share of disasters, both natural and man-made. From Imperial riches to fire, plague, a devastating earthquake, a tsunami, revolution, coups, a royal assassination, abolition of the monarchy and, for a few decades a period of savage dictatorship.
As if that wasn’t enough, in 1987 along came the global financial crisis, which practically brought the country to its knees, making it teeter on the edge of bankruptcy for almost a decade. On the surface, it appears as if Lisbon is still suffering a few side from all those calamities.
Lisbon could be compared to a punch drunk boxer who refuses to stay down after copping a savage beating. It staggers to its feet and flails ineffectively at the next crisis that seems to come its way with frightening regularity.
If ever there was a place where one could tell the exact time and date when its fortunes began to decline, this is that city.
In 1755 when Lisbon was at the top of its game as the pre-eminent colonial power when, one fateful Sunday at 9.40 am, as its citizens were attending at worship, two massive earthquakes levelled vast areas of the city, killing an estimated 250,000 souls.
If that was not enough, a giant tsunami tore through the ruins later that same day inflicting even more devastation and then, almost adding insult to injury, three days later the shattered metropolis was consumed by fire!
Lisbon today is still a charming, vibrant city even though parts of it look a little ‘shop soiled’ but, given that it predates the likes of London, Rome and Paris by hundreds of years its perhaps a little understandable. Wandering the cobbled streets one can feel its antiquity seeping out of the walls and clinging to every building, especially in the districts of Alfama and boho Bairro.
Of the seven hills on which the city is built, the loftiest is in the Moorish Alfama neighbourhood which practically surrounds the Arabic-cum-medieval castle that looms over the terracotta rooftops that seem to be tumbling down to the waterfront.
To avoid the climb, century-old wooden trams and iron funiculars carry passengers to the top of even the steepest of the hills as they lurch and rumble their way up and down the tiny streets. They're not exactly the most comfortable form of transport for, as someone once said,” its like travelling inside an antique wardrobe on wheels.”
At the imperial Praca do Comercio, Portugal’s grandiose history is certainly on show, replete as it is with a giant statue of King Jose1st sitting nobly atop his trusty steed Gentile. The square is surrounded on two sides by magnificent baroque buildings, perfectly framed by the stunning Arco de Rua Augsta arch, built no doubt on the profits of one of the most ostentatious colonial empires in history.
Lisboetas (natives of Lisbon) are by and large nocturnal creatures for, once the sun goes down they seem to get up!
A night on the terracotta tiles begins with a raucous dinner in one of the bar-filled cobbled lanes of boho Bairro or Alfama before moving from bar to bar until the last slow hours of morning.
What is infinitely pleasing was to see is that Lisbon is still a major literary city as attested by its citizens sitting on chairs outside coffee shops, bars or in parks reading their books, shaded by jacaranda trees in full bloom.
The public is well served by bookstores but a must visit is Bertrand in the centre of the ‘new’ Lisbon’ as it is the world's oldest bookstore. You can also find the world's smallest bookshop, Livraria do Simão, at just under four square metres in size into which some dedicated soul has managed to squeeze in around 4,000 books!
One thing the Portuguese do brilliantly is sausage. On the Praca da Figueira, on some days, food stalls fill the air with the aromas of everything from chorizo and rich black pudding to farinheira, a smoked flour sausage, and alheira, a chicken equivalent… they are, simply to die for!
If you feel the need to escape the city it is certainly worth visiting Sintra, an aristocratic hill town replete with fairytale palaces, manicured floral gardens and wild woodlands.
There is also Cascais, which was a minor fishing village, until King Luís I (1838 - 1889) chose it as his royal summer retreat. It’s a charming little town with its elegant fusion of decorative 19th-century architecture, and its beautiful cobbled streets, packed full of rather trendy restaurants and bars.
After a few days here I feel that Lisbon and I have perhaps once again bonded which isn’t that hard really as she is ever such a charming mistress.
Paul v Walters is the best selling writer of several novels and when not cocooned in sloth and procrastination in his house in Bali he scribbles for various travel and vox pop journals around the world.