The Lisbon Blues

With cities, it’s like with relationships. You see it for the first time, you like it, you want to know more about it. The spark bursts, and you move in.

Lisbon was built on seven hills, like Rome or Istanbul, and Baixa is the lower part between the hills, with its central square, Rossio.

You start to get along, you get accustomed to new habits. You also begin to dislike certain things, but you get accustomed to these to. Eventually, you wear each other out, and you move on. Sometimes you stay, but if you’re prone to travel, then you just move on to the next city.

For me, Lisbon was love at first sight. I first arrived here on a sunny day of late September of 2014, in Gare do Oriente, coming from a trip I started in Porto and continued through Aveiro and Figueira da Foz.

Lisbon’s Gare do Oriente, the work of Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, finished in 1998 for the Universal Expo.

My friends were waiting for me at the train station and, even if I only had five days in the city (we went south, to Lagos, to enjoy wide beaches and unspoiled nature), I loved everything about Lisbon.

Historical Lisbon is a maze of winding streets, stairs and houses. Large graffitti are also frequent, and one of the nicest is in the neighbourhood of Mouraria, on a wall next to the escadinhas de São Cristóvão, where an artists collective has created the Fado Vadio mural, a tribute to fado, Lisbon’s iconic music.

I loved the Elevador do Lavro going up and down, right below the window of my room.

Opened in 1884, Lavra is Lisbon’s oldest funicular, and was designed by the Portuguese engineer Raoul Mesnier du Ponsard. Initially moved by the water counterbalancing system, the funicular soon became steam powered. In 1915, it was converted to electrical power.

I loved the local bars and cafes with their eighties’ ambience. The smell of grilled sardines in the evening. The miradouros. The pastel de nata. The city pavement. The language.

Also in the historical part of Lisbon, next to Cais do Sodré, Rua Rosa was formerly the street of the prostitutes. Painted in bright pink, it is today the hotspot of Lisboense night life.

Two years later after this short visit, I arrived back in Lisbon, this time with the clear intention of staying here. I had my medium-sized suitcase and my laptop backpack, and some ongoing projects to keep me just fine during the first months – I work as freelance graphic designer and most of my work is remote. After only four nights spent in a hostel, I managed to find a nice room to rent, a big room in a beautiful house, a few minutes away from Avenida da Liberdade, and I moved in.

Avenida da Liberdade, the central boulevard of the city, was designed as an urban oasis, full of vegetation and original artworks. Because of its luxury hotels and fashion stores, it’s also considered as the Champs Elysées of Lisbon.

I started to discover the city on daily basis. It made new friends. Cooked dinners. Went out. Fell in love. Discovered Costa da Caparica. And Praia do Guincho. I enjoyed the local food.

The name for Portuguese appetizers, or tapas, is petiscos, and nothing beats Açores cheese, specialty beef and Alentejo wine. Here, at the terrace of Lost in Lisbon.

And I am still a sucker for a succulent and garlicky bifana, for cheese from Açores or for a bacalhau a braz – and especially the deconstructed version of local chef Marlene Vieira, which I tried at her restaurant in Timeout Lisboa.

Timeout Market is a carefully curated selection of Portuguese restaurants. The food hall opened in 2014 in the former Mercado da Ribeira, historical market hall built in 1890.

After a year, though, things changed for me in Lisbon. As a freelancer, my monthly income flows up and down as dramatically as the ocean tide, and for several months I was unable to find new projects. I was hoping to connect with local companies but, as you may already know, work is tough to find in Portugal. Not having many options left, I enrolled as volunteer for a permaculture garden, working 5 hours a day in exchange for room and food (and what a good food that was!) while taking two months to reconsider my options, or at least to wait and see if my luck changes somehow.

And indeed it changed, but not in the way I expected.

Costa da Caparica with stormy waves coming in. This is actually my last photo from my Lisboense residence.

From the idyllic garden, surrounded by nature and the ocean, where I was working, I decided to go back to a big city – the more the people, the more the opportunities, so I bought the first flight to Barcelona. With the help of my friends there, I found a room to rent. I started all over again – to discover the city on daily basis, to make friends, cook dinners, fall in love, find a project, then a better project and, in about one year, my monthly income was slowly becoming steady again. So was my confidence in myself.

Calçada portuguesa, or the Portuguese city pavement, covers most of the streets with intricate decorative designs.

Last December I went to Lisbon for a short trip, with a good friend of mine who travelled some 3,000 km for this adventure. I had almost three years since having left Lisbon but I immediately felt like home.

Lisbon’s district of Chiado is my all times favourite, full of history and stories of artists and poets, with every corner breathing bohemian ambiance.

I was delighted to say again “boa tarde, tudo bem?”, to walk the streets I love, to have a coffee at Copenhagen, a wine at Rio Maravilha, that awesome rooftop terrace of the LX Factory, to go again to Costa da Caparica, and to see again my friends there.

There’s nothing like the bright light of Lisbon turning to warm shades before the sunset.

I also started to ask myself – why did I actually leave? What went wrong? Should I come back again? I could not find any answers, until one early morning when I got out to get us coffee from the bar across the street. As I was waiting for the two coffees to go, and enjoying that specific ambiance of early mornings when cafes are full with neighbours of all ages, without thinking of anything in particular, the answers to my questions came effortlessly, as if they were in my head (or in my heart?) since forever.

I think Lisbon was my first true love – as a place to live, I mean. And when you love for the first time, just as in any relationship, you’re inexperienced. You rush things, you misjudge and, eventually, you lose. Back then, when I moved to Lisbon, I was not yet ready to commit to steadiness. I was a traveller – I had been a traveller for years, always on the move, impatient, changing cities and countries as I pleased, always renting for short term, easily moving in and out, thirsty for new adventures, and angry when waiting. So, I might never get back again to Lisbon to live here, again, just as I wouldn’t get back to the first love of my life and to try make it work again. But I will always have a special thing with Lisbon, and I will always go back there with great joy, savouring all the advantages of a love affair from distance, when you only get the good part.

Praça do Municipio has a pavement design created by an op-art Portuguese artist, Eduardo Neri.

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