Monday, March 26, 2012

An Italian Girl in... Lisbon

People sometimes think of Portugal as of an extension of Spain. Huge mistake folks! Why? Take a trip to Lisbon: a long weekend is enough to figure out the enormous cultural heritage that this extremely Western part of Europe has to offer.
I arrived in Lisbon in a mid-February morning. I took off in a foggy Milan to find a spring blue sky at my arrival. The first impact with Portugal could not have been sweeter. And "sweet" is probably the adjective that most suits Lisbon. Sweet is Fado, the town traditional music, sweet are the sounds of the Portuguese language, sweet is wandering through the allays and streets of the old town without a precise direction, sweet is relaxing at the ocean breeze caressing the city, sweet are - definitely - the pasteis de nata in Belem suburb: this is the city in a word and a bunch of must-dos.
The most interesting area of Lisbon is the Alfama, the old popular area, still inhabited by the working class. It stretches from the Saint Jorge castle down to the Tago docks. This is where Fado was born: it used to be sung in the streets, normally by a mandolin-like player (viola) and a guitarist (guitarra portugueisa) accompanying a female voice. Much like the Argentinian tango, Fado was about unlucky love stories and it's deeply connected to the town it was first performed. Nowadays it's very easy to find Fado nights in restaurants both in the Alfama and in the posher Barrio Alto: definitely an experience you cannot miss.
The central part of the city stretches from Praça do Comercio to Rossio (the main train station). Mind the architecture: you will find spots of Haussmannian-style buildings that remind of Paris. Indeed, Lisbon had his own Earl Haussmann: the Marquis of Pombal. He was the Prime Minister from 1750-1777. Beside reforming the society, he embarked in the city reconstruction after the terrible earthquake in 1755. The adjacent Praça da Figueira and Praça Dom Pedro IV are the best examples of XVIII Lisbon architecture. Some meters to the South, the Arco da Rua Augusta leads to Praça do Comercio. This is the heart of the city and it's best-known landmark: dominated by the statue of King Joseph I, it stretches to the waters of the Tago. Take a moment to enjoy the view of this square and for a coffee at Café Martinho da Arcada, one of Fernando Pessoa's favourite places together with Cafe A Brasileira in the Chiado.
As the night falls, the Lisboetas head to Bairro Alto for dinner or for a drink: after a couple of shots of Ginja de Obidos you'll feel very Lisboner as well and chances are that you'll start speaking a decent Portuguese.
Don't miss a trip to Belem suburb, a few kilometres out of the city: this village is part of UNESCO World heritage thanks to three outstanding buildings. The Mosteiro dos Jeronimos  a Manuelin-style monastery dating back to the XVI century, the Belem Tower, constructed in the same period as the monastery as a defence post and - last but not least - the Monumento aos Descobrimentos. This last - constructed in the XX century - is one of the best symbol of the past importance of Portugal: a marine power, a State of explorers which conceived the first journeys to the "New World". From the top of this statue, which honours the courage of Portuguese sailors, you can still feel that each single moment of a journey is a precious learning. And that on the other side of the "pond", there's America.

While writing this post, the most important Italian expert of Portuguese literature and culture, Antonio Tabucchi, passed. He was an outstanding novelist, well-known to the Italian audience. My journey to Lisbon would not have been so special, if I had not read twice his masterpiece "Sostiene Pereira". 
Adeus Antonio, Lisbona sfavilla sempre nelle tue parole.

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