Autumn came too bloody quickly, I wanted more summer than England could ever muster and I felt the compulsion to give my carbon colossus wings. And so I jetted off to Lisbon for a long weekend and a last bit of European sunshine in early November.
Hell I’ve wanted to see Lisbon for ages & have heard lots of great stuff about it. Off to explore the city with a friend I’m meeting there who I’ve not seen for a while. What could be better?
I set off early to Heathrow, the flight is delayed, never mind, I am cosy reading my guidebook which authoritatively tells me that Lisbon averages 5 1/2 hours of sunshine per day in November and that a good few days in the month the temperature rises well beyond 20 degrees. Bring it on.
Just an hour late we soar up into the air and my sour London demeanour is left behind at Heathrow as we climb up into bright blue skies. 950 miles and two and a half hours later the pilot’s voice announces that we are beginning our descent into Lisbon. The plane arcs right and with it a burst of sun hits my window, I could be forgiven for my naivety with that sun, little do I know it’s the last I will see until I leave Lisbon in four days time.
The plane descends into thick cloud and the pilot ominously advises that a storm is blowing in from the Atlantic.
I meet up with my friend at the airport and take a taxi to Barrio Alto, a rather funky quarter of Lisbon with cobbled streets, old houses and a myriad of bars & restaurants. It hasn’t quite had the gentrification as much as some areas, and so its still there old Lisbon, laundry hanging from iron balconies, old ladies hobbling along the cobbles, still there.
We arrive at our home for the next few days, a loft apartment fixed up by an Architect, it’s cool. Never mind, who needs good weather, this is an adventure.
So before I came I had read about Lisbon, the farthest west capital of Europe, with it’s feet dangling in the Atlantic and it’s eyes looking out onto endless ocean.
Portugal’s entire population is just a little more than that of Urban London and yet this little country of comparatively few has made a big mark on the world.
The Portuguese ventured out from Lisbon right across the planet, before any other Europeans thought about it, by the early 1500’s the Portuguese had settled footholds stretching from Southern Africa to India the Far East & the Americas. You name it they’ve been there. And whilst any colonial power of which Portugal is no exception has dark histories and crimes to answer for in the enslavement and subjugation of fellow human beings you have to admit that within their history was the strongest desire to explore the unknown.
Down by the waterside theres a wide square, here once stood the Royal Palace and a library of more than 70,000 books, both were utterly destroyed by an earthquake in1755 which reduced the city to rubble. At the edge of the square is a little pier, the Cais das Colunas with steps leading down to the river Tejo, two pillars are at the waters edge, said to be modelled on others from Solomans Temple in Jerusalem. Between these two pillars passed generations of explorers who ventured to new worlds. For me thats something I find pwerful, and greatly admire, the drive to risk everything and to step out into the unknown.
Portugals long history of exploration is also tempered with another side, which is a kind of direct opposite, a kind of old fashioned and prim and proper way of behaving, and you have the idea sometimes that Portugal hasn’t moved so far at all, some people seem distinctly prudish. On sunday afternoon my friend and I booked ourselves into a spa, ( it was raining cats & dogs and the thought of a sauna was rather compelling). It was a swanky kind of joint, for Lisbon, we have a swim and then sauna. My friend – a German lays herself out on the sauna decking, tits out, after all it’s the most natural thing in the world, isn’t it? But then I notice that the other guests, male or female, young or not are staring, every one of them is wrapped up, flesh covered, even in the sauna. I dont quite get it, if it’s about God then surely he gave us what we have?
If its about awkwardness, or prudery, well that’s another thing all together.
I’ve wanted to hear some Fado music, I’ve only ever heard it canned, never live and so I’m excited when we head out on saturday night to a Fado joint. We trapse across town and up too many hills, finally we arrive at the venue, I am sweating, despite the chilly weather, and my feet hurt, to be honest I am a bit of a wreck, and whilst I don’t want my friend to recognise my state she does, remarking that I need to take care of myself and adding for good measure that I am fifty five, not sixty five. I have known it for a while, but hearing this from her brings it home so much more clearly.
The music kicks in and a young woman accompanied by guitar sings her socks off.
Fado is a melancholy kind of music and whilst I understand next to no Portuguese as I sit there & listen I imagine the lyrics are about a girl who lost her man, to the sea or to war or to competition, its a pretty safe bet and whilst I like a bit of melancholy this particular evening it’s a bit heavy for me. As I look around the restaurant everyone seems quite old and staid and rather well to do. If there were an Portuguese Daily Mail they would all be avid readers. I feel a little uncomfortable, then I glance at my friend and notice her smiling, her eyes are fixed on the table behind me which I cant see, but I remember a bunch of guys at that table. Then I realise she’s got a thing going on with one of the fellas at the table, furtive glances from time to time, it winds me up something rotten but I say and I do nothing.
I sit there and try to work it through. I recognise the little boy in me that wants her to be making eyes at me, not at the fella on the table behind. And I detest that needy little boy. I wish he would fuck off & grow up.
Fado translates I believe as something like destiny, or fate. Another word that describes it well is saudade or longing. My Lisbon days are about saudade & sightseeing. Long conversations with my friend in the evenings that I haven’t had with anyone else in ages, cathartic, powerful and for me moving. After months of feeling stuck within myself a few days in the rain in Lisbon and talking with her was what I needed most.
Four days go by so quickly, I do a fraction of what I had intended on the trip and before I know it it’s time for us to leave.
We stand outside the airport entrance and smoke one last cigarette before we head to our different terminals, the sunshine comes out from behind the clouds for the first time in four days. We say our goodbyes and head in opposite directions, me & the little boy I need to take care of to London, her to Germany.
If anyone asks me about Lisbon I will say to them go, its a great city, just make sure you go when the sun is shining, it makes a big difference.
And maybe I will also say see Lisbon with someone that brings sunshine to your soul, that makes the most difference of all.
But take an umbrella, it may come in useful.