Tiles and terraces and tired-ass legs: it´s my third day in Lisbon/Lisboa/Lisa, and she´s working her charm on me.
Portugal´s an intriguing country: it feels overlooked, almost forgotten to me, hanging on to the edge of Iberia, of Europe, like fluttering laundry. I never hear much about it, tucked away down there, in the shadow of both Spain and its dominating former colony. (Prior to my arrival, my only two words of Portuguese were Brazilian: “caçhaca” and “caipirinha.”) A small country, it´s hemorrhaged emigrants for decades, leaving the country a little empty and a little lonely. It´s bittersweet, and so far, I love it.
I´ve spent my days in Lisbon rather lazily, sleeping late, hanging out with my Couchsurfing hosts, lunching and napping and strolling slowly. It feels like a city to be taken in slowly, to be savored, and I´m doing my best to oblige.
My hosts tell me that Lisbon is the most underrated city in Europe; they´ve seen more than I have, but I´m going to venture to agree. They live in a comfortable flat with smooth hardwood floors and modern appliances, in the heart of the city—“In no other city in Europe,” my host told me thoughtfully, “would this be possible.” Rents are cheap, and abandoned buildings with boarded-up windows and cracked tiles line streets that in Paris or Barcelona would be bustling, booming, and demanding rents at least twice as high.
Lisbon is a humble city. Though complete with all the usual big-city stuff—busy metro stations and graffiti and honking snares of traffic—there´s a certain quiet underneath it all, a kind of yearning in the gleaming stone streets, the zig-zag of rust-colored tiled roofs. She´s filled with a brave nostalgia, this Lisa, with the rattle of yellow street cars that young boys cling to the sides of, hooting and yelling, sharp limbs hanging in a bravado that feels old, a relic from another time. Her seven hills rise and fall sharply, like breath; steps are carved into the sidewalk. The hills don´t slope gradually but seem too reach, almost hungrily, for the water, too bright and sparkling for blue eyes to bear.
Today I wandered around Alfama, the old Moorish neighborhood, a European version of a medina—tight alleys that twist and angle and dead-end into the sides of terracotta buildings dripping with flowers and bushes and colorful plastic streamers. The streets are so narrow that old women can lean their full arms against the wrought-iron railings and gossip between the buildings, between the lines of laundry, laughing and shouting in their flower-patterned aprons. In little squares, trees jumble the black and tan stones that have been worn smooth—by Romans and Moors and Crusaders, by my thin-soled Toms that make me slip from time to time, lose myself amid it all.
It sounds sentimental, and it kind of is. It´s a city like that—with soul. And tonight, I´ll go to hear the sound of its melancholy mourning, its bittersweet longing, its Fado. I think Lisa´s prepared me well.