The Many Faces of Lisbon

For a city that’s only a few hundred miles from the Spanish border, Lisbon and its environs could hardly be less Spanish. I guess I naively went in expecting Portugal to be no more different from Spain than, say, Germany is to Austria, or England to Ireland. Once again, yours truly demonstrates his supreme capacity for some Langton-style bullshitting.

This is a very last-minute holiday, even by my standards. Bus tickets bought, hostels booked and maps drawn less than twenty four hours before departure. And this time I don’t even speak the language. Either I’m getting more confident or more careless. So far, so good, so I’ll assume the former.

Lisbon is really quite something. As capital cities go, it’s a treasure. It’s not too big or crowded so as to set a country bumpkin like me off, and it’s not too small so as to be lacking in life or things to do either. On the contrary, for its size, it’s positively crammed with interesting sights to see. And with the Lisbon Card on hand – a natty little device that gives you free access to all forms of public transport for one, two or three days – getting around the place couldn’t be easier. Heck, it’s even entertaining to ride the Metro just for the sake of it, with that kind of freedom.

It’s also a tantalizingly great location for one of my favourite hobbies: people-watching. Capital cities tend to have a wider racial mix than country backwaters, so this is something that never fails to amaze me, but Lisbon’s got a damned beautiful pot-pourris of ethnicities going on. West African immigrants, in all their multicoloured splendour, rub shoulders with Berbers from the Rif and the Portuguese themselves, who are surprisingly different from their Hispanic neighbours. Beetle-black eyes, lemon-gold skin and blonde hair are a lot more common here than the dusky Moorish beauty of the Spanish south. As in Extremadura, I find myself trying to imagine these people dressed in seventeenth century clothes, wandering the streets of a pre-earthquake Lisbon or setting foot on the shores of the New World and beyond in the Age of Discoveries.

Forgive me that splurge into racial obsession. I’ve always been hooked on the beauty of the various peoples of our world. For every shade except my own, in fact. A reverse racism in the truest sense of the word. Fortunately, I’ve since learned to love my own nation for all its flaws, recognizing my angst for what it was: angst, some dim leftover from when my ego was torn to shreds in the wake of my first relationship. The healing process sure has been long enough in the completion.

Lisbon, Benjamin. You’re supposed to be talking about Lisbon.

I took a train out of town to the former royal retreat of Sintra, up in the mountains above the city. Once again you’ll find yourself in a world away from picture-book Iberia: with all the pine forest-covered granite slopes and the pink and yellow spires of the Neuschwanstein-esque follies poking out of the trees like decorated Turkish delights,  you might as well be in Austria. That, and Portuguese sounds decidedly Eastern European with all those zh and sh sounds. The gigantic überfolly that is the Palacio de Pena, the last word in Romantic architectural orgasm, looked just too ridiculous to be true on arrival, so I settled instead for the Castelo dos Mouros, the old Moorish lookout sat astride the Boulder-strewn hill opposite. Sometimes it’s simply easier to stick to what you know.

Best moment of the day goes to my main reason for coming this far west: not for Lisbon per se, but the windswept cliffs of the Cabo da Roca, Europe’s most westerly point. The headland itself was crowded – it being a gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon – so I wandered off in search of one of the cliff top trails. But for a couple of abandoned motorbikes, a young couple braving the steep, winding track down to the beach and a man piloting his camera-drone over the cape, I had the coast more or less to myself. It’s funny how most people rarely stray beyond the main sights, especially when the outskirts are almost always far more rewarding. See below if you don’t believe me.

  

Stunning. The sunset itself, salmon-pink and ablaze, was twice as beautiful again. The trouble is, it’s one thing to look on such beauty alone and quite another to have somebody to share it with. Here at the Cabo da Roca, as in Sintra, and on the train, and the Metro, and the banks of the Tagus, and every row but mine on the bus from Spain, I find myself looking out on a world of couples from my island. A decent half-hour’s meditation on the clifftop helped to doctor my heart a little, but it’s an unavoidable fact that humans are sociable creatures. We’re not supposed to be alone. Traveling is my primary means of fighting back against a world that rejects or friend-zones me at every turn, but it’s not supposed to be that way. So there, high on the cliffs, I contented myself with writing an imaginary letter from my princess to her lover. One day, if I should be so lucky, I’ll find the One who’ll hit the road with me. One day

Lisbon, Benjamin!

Shaking off the loneliness birds, I decided to investigate the famed brilliance of Lisbon nightlife. It’s definitely worth sampling, if you’re ever in the area. I suppose it’s no different than what you might find in London or Paris, but it blew me away. And let me tell you, after two and a half months of Reggaeton, it was a dream come true to have some Justin Timberlake, Uptown Funk and Notorious B.I.G blasting through the speakers. I ended up in a dance-off with a group of Guineans and it was insane. You know you’ve made it in dance when a black guy commends you on your moves. Box ticked.

Oh! But here’s a funny story for you. This ought to lighten the mood. You see, in a town the size of the one I live and work in, everybody knows everyone else, and the general atmosphere is overall more familial than friendly. And since I’m a rookie to city-hopping, I’m guilty of several major faux-pas, like putting my shoes on the bed and ignoring traffic lights. But tonight’s really takes the biscuit. I decided to take a side-alley detour back to my hostel and, in doing so, wound up in a rather seedy part of town; the outskirts of the clubbing district, in retrospect. I found myself alone in the street and thought it odd enough until two women came about the street corner (yes, you can kind of see where this is going.  I, funnily enough, couldn’t). They looked a little lost, and when one of them waved me over, I took my earphones out and asked what I could do to help. The answer I got was a husky ‘babe, you’re so beautiful’.

I don’t think I’ve ever run faster in my life.

The bus is pulling into Coimbra. Aveiro can’t be too far away now; another hour and a half, tops. I’ll close this report for now so that I have something to say in my next post. Até logo, morangos. BB x

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