Wednesday 25 May 2016

A Week in Pessoa's City

Lisboa. Pessoa. They rhyme. They're related too. Fernando Pessoa is Lisbon's favourite son. A writer who lived, breathed and wrote the city. You will find bits of Pessoa everywhere you walk in Lisbon. The silhouette of his thin, sharp profile, hat on the head, is the face of the city - it's on posters and tea-towels, on the canvases of roadside artists, on t-shirts and old trams.

Pessoa was born in a fourth-floor apartment in the area of Chiado in Lisbon. Our apartment, through no crafty planning, was also in Chiado; and on the fourth floor. We were obviously following the right footsteps.

The apartment's long balcony looked down on Largo do Camoes, a patterned square that seems to frame life in the city. It's where people sit with their morning newspapers or hurry across to their day jobs, it's where Tram 28 curves on it's way to neighbouring hoods, where students lounge on stairs, an old woman feeds pigeons and where we ate our breakfast every morning; a breakfast of coffee and warm Pastel de Natas. We did not have a choice really, not when the best little bakery in Lisbon, Manteigaria, sat beneath our apartment and woke us up with the smell of it's famed tarts early in the morning.

Tram 28. It is an old, yellow, iconic box, trundling up and down Lisbon, on which we hop on after breakfast. It's oozing people - people going to work, ladies with coiffured hair and tall umbrellas that get in the way, toddlers throwing tantrums, mothers saying shhh. It's just right. Not a tram that's been relegated to tourist entertainment, but one that runs like a vein through the heart of Lisbon, taking its people where they need to be.

Lisbon is a city full of sharp inclines, with steep streets that dip and rise. The tram winds up these narrow lanes and takes us to my favourite area of Lisbon. Alfama.

Alfama is Lisbon's oldest quarter. A Moorish patch that sits on the hill looking out to sea. It's the old city, it's where Lisbon was born before it trickled down the hill and spread into the city it is today. Alfama with its old houses of thick walls was one of the few pieces of Lisbon that survived the great earthquake of 1755. And with it, survived its character, colour and soul. Once the neighbourhood of the poor, it is today full of artists and musicians - you can find a little shop tucked in the alleys where a lady called Maria sits and paints tiles with crushed minerals, you can browse the flea market of Feira de Ladra on a Tuesday or Saturday and walk past antique toys and handpainted ceramics, or you can step into one of Alfama's little restaurants in the evening to listen to the haunting sounds of Fado where musicians sit by your table singing tales of life and lament.

When you climb down from Alfama, you walk back into that part of Lisbon at level with the waters next to which it sits; at the open mouth between two curves of land where the Atlantic flows in and forms the Tagus River. Here, by the river, the city throbs with a different rhythm. Young, modern. Broad pavements and promenades, the chic food market of Ribeira, shops and restaurants, tourists and tricksters.

There's much to explore in Lisbon: Chiado, Baixo, Bairro Alto, and farther away, Belem with it's formal gardens, mansions and monastery. You'll have your favourite, just as we did.

Fernando Pessoa had an intrinsic similarity with the city he so loved. Pessoa was known as much for his poetry and existential musings as he was for a particular 'quirk' of his writing life: He did not write only as Fernando Pessoa, he created more than seventy versions of himself. He refused to call then pseudonyms - after all, a pseudonym is just a different name an author chooses to write under - Pessoa called his avatars heteronyms, for they were personalities in their own right. Each of these writers, which extended from Pessoa himself, were distinct in their character, appearance, even life and livelihood. In fact, his heteronyms often had views and opinions diametrically opposite to Pessoa's own.

Just as Fernando Pessoa was many writers, Lisboa is many cities. And each part, each district, has a different voice. As you traverse the city on tram and foot, one of these voices will speak to you directly, and that will be the place where you sit down, sip a drink and watch the sun go down.

Places to eat

These were four of our favourites in Lisbon:

Mercado da Ribeira A food hall with a difference, where some of the top restaurants and chefs of the city come together. Modern, relaxed and with the most tempting, confusing array of stalls and choices.

Cantinho do Aziz This family-run Mozambique restaurant tucked away in the alleys of Alfama gave us one of the best meals of our stay. Portugal's long liaison with Mozambique has given its food a unique richness and flavour that you won't find anywhere else.

Ramiro You might've watched Anthony Bourdain digging into his seafood here. It lives up to every hype, and serves everyone from local groups of grannies to some of the top chefs in the city who come here to get their seafood fix.

Manteigaria Forget about going all the way to Belem for the best Pastel de Natas. It's overrated. But what is not, is this little shop in Chiado, which rings a brass bell early in the morning when their first batch of Natas is baked. It's perfect.