Portugal: High society

By Peter Calder

Portugal's infectious cheerfulness works its magic on Peter Calder.

A monument in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo / Peter Calder
A monument in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo / Peter Calder

The nicest thing a local can say to you in Lisbon is "sempre para abaixo". In Portuguese, a lilting, poetic language whose consonants make it sound like Spanish spoken by a tipsy Russian, it means "downhill all the way".

That makes it a beautiful phrase in the Portuguese capital, since the inescapable fact of the city's topography is this: if you're on the flat, anywhere you go will be uphill.

Like Wellington, this is a city where you are caught between the devil of the steep streets and the deep blue sea - or rather the brown and muddy Tagus River which leads to the Atlantic. The place is so steep that huge outdoor elevators connect the inner-city heights with the centre below.

Help is also at hand in the form of one of the tiny 1940s trams - there are modern, air-conditioned ones on many routes - that navigate the winding narrow streets. Tram number 28 is one of those rare things, a part of the public transport system that makes avoiding the hop-on-hop-off bus tour, of which there is one, a no-brainer.

The bad news is that every tourist in town has read about it in a guide book, which makes it worth walking - almost on the flat - to the starting point, where you will be assured of a window seat.

From such a possie you get the double whammy of a cooling breeze (it's hot in Lisbon from May until October) and maximal opportunities for gawping at and photographing the riot of street life, laughing children and hanging laundry that is the fabled Alfama district.

As the trams wheeze and grind up the precipitous slopes, their wheels part-spinning in protest on the hot rails, domestic life is close enough to reach out and touch. What's more, it's better to arrive than to travel. At the top, in the cool of the pine-fringed courtyard of the 9th-century Moorish Castle of Sao Jorge, the view of terracotta rooftops, even through the heat haze of early summer, seems to go on for ever.

Within the castle I listened through tears of pure pleasure to a brilliant busking guitarist, Pedro Godinho, as he sat in the shade of an olive tree playing Bach. Rather than throw a euro in his hat, I spent eight euros on his handmade CD, a priceless memento of an unforgettable afternoon.

At the edge of the dry land, Lisbon's maritime heritage is everywhere apparent. Those of us schooled in the 50s and 60s learned about the great explorers Vasco da Gama and Fernao de Magalhaes, whom we called Ferdinand Magellan (no one told us about the Polynesian navigators who had sailed the vast Pacific at least 300 years earlier).

These men enlarged the world, charting the coast of Africa and, in da Gama's case, reaching the spices of India. They are remembered in sail-like architectural motifs in the Parque das Nacoes in Lisbon's northeast and in the impressive caravel-shaped Discovery Monument which looms over the estuary of the Tagus at Belem, west of the city.

Here da Gama is interred in a sumptuously gorgeous late Gothic monastery, where he prayed all night before setting sail in 1497.

But if history seeps from the very cobbles in Lisbon, it is also part of a modern Europe. Its economy, along with Spain's, has been damaged by the eurozone meltdown and recession has strengthened poverty's grip. Buying supplies in a supermarket, I was handed a bag at the entrance by a well-dressed man who asked me to consider adding a few items for hard-pressed foodbanks.

Yet Lisboetas' infectious cheerfulness rivals that of any nationality I've encountered. Waves of immigration since the early 1990s, predominantly from Portugal's former African colonies, have changed the face of the country. If, as an ethnic minority, Africans suffer the same low socio-economic status of African peoples anywhere, at least they enjoy the protection of anti-racism laws now 10 years old.

One of Lisbon's many charms is that it's a budget destination. Even before its indebted economy hit the skids, it was Western Europe's best-value city: €7 ($12.50) will get you a set menu in a perfectly acceptable restaurant. My generous-size room with private facilities in a clean pension in the middle of town was less than €50 a night, but much cheaper accommodation would be easily found.

Portugal may be famed for its port wine, though that is more associated with the second-largest city, Oporto, in the north, from which the wine takes its name. In Lisbon, the local drop is called ginjinha, a sweet but dangerously potent liqueur made of grape brandy infused with sour cherry and sugar. In the centre of the old city, the small, irregularly shaped square called Largo de Sao Domingos is the place to make ginjinha's acquaintance. Here, outside the hole-in-the-wall bar known as - what else? - Ginjinha, backpackers rub shoulders with well-dressed bons vivants as they congregate for a tipple at sundown.

The fact that the square in also the hangout for the menfolk of the immigrant African communities, who sit around animatedly discussing weighty affairs, adds to the charm.

On my last night in town, I bought one of these sweet, sticky drinks for a busker - whose dog rewarded the gesture with a snarl - and watched as the sky turned from blue to indigo above the terracotta roofs that spilled down the hillside.

I sat there feeling grateful to have got to know - if only briefly - this charming human-scale city. In a very short time, and in the nicest of ways, it got under my skin.

Peter Calder paid his own way in Lisbon.

- NZ Herald

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