Impressions of Portugal, Last Day in Lisbon

King José I, Praça do Comércio

King José I, Praça do Comércio

On our last day in Portugal, there was much to do: purchasing gifts for family and friends and a pilgrimage to the Café-Restaurante Martinho da Arcada. The café is another favorite Pessoa haunt, with a table reserved for him in perpetuity. As the café was in the Praça do Comércio, we decided to end our Portuguese journey where most tourists would have begun, in the Lisboa Story Center.

We walked past a statue, planted mid-block, of Camilo Castelo Branco, notable for his extraordinary moustache. Ahead of us stretched the vast expanse of Parque Eduardo VII, in front of which the Marquês de Pombal, a lion at his side, surveyed the city from a grand pedestal. The Marquês, despite his claim to dominion, was marooned inside a giant circle around which traffic swarmed. I had no idea, at the time, who these men were, why they’d earned the right to statues, or why one was the greater, one the lesser, in monumental regard. That would come later. For now, we were off to the café.

We sat at a table in the café’s small front room, as the dining room proper wasn’t yet open. We ordered a sandwich to share and the café’s pastéis de nata, which even the worldly wise Time Out Lisbon claimed as “renowned.”  As we sat, local business people swarmed in. Notably, none sat at tables. They stood at the counter, drank coffee to lively conversation, then swarmed out as quickly as they’d come in. As the young waitress ducked back and forth under the counter to serve us, we realized who the tourists were, and they were us. As our “cover” was blown (well, yes, we spoke no Portuguese and likely bore a host of other neon signs that helped identify us, too), I was emboldened to ask whether we could look in the dining room. “Of course,” came the smiling reply.

Pessoa's table, Café-Restaurante Martinho da Arcada

Pessoa’s table, Café-Restaurante Martinho da Arcada

I’m glad we arrived before the dining room opened, as we could peruse at leisure. We found a table reserved for the living painter Júlio Pomar, whose work we’d seen in Belém, and another reserved, presumably in perpetuity, for José Saramago. Artifacts and images of Pessoa abounded; we found his table tucked back in a corner. Arrayed neatly on the table, along with the accoutrements of coffee drinking, were three books: Lisbon Poets, in a bilingual edition, and two, in Portuguese, by Pessoa: O Conto do Vigário and Mensagem, the latter with an image of the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) on its cover. I made a mental note of the Lisbon Poets book, and we were off to the next tourist-obligatory stop.

Marquês de Pombal

Marquês de Pombal

The Lisboa Story Center dramatizes the long, complex sweep of Portuguese history from the vantage point of Lisbon in sometimes memorable, often kitschy, but always cleverly mounted, ways. Late in the exhibit, we faux-experienced the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755 that destroyed much of the city. In the next room we encountered the man who saw in that destruction an opportunity for renewal. “We bury the dead and heal the living,” he’s claimed to have said. The man in question turned out to be the fellow we’d seen marooned in the traffic circle: Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, better known as the Marquês de Pombal.

[The earthquake] was so devastating that the entire city centre, the Baixa, ceased to exist. From this chaos emerged the Marquês de Pombal who, with the approval of the King [Dom José I], immediately brought order and began to develop efforts to create the new Lisbon. The effort first focused upon the development of four options that included rebuilding the city as it was, reconstructing the city with minimal improvements to the street pattern, undertaking a total rebuilding effort or starting fresh on a new site. After considerable analysis, Pombal selected the option to build under the ‘clean slate’ option. After selection of this option, the planners created six detailed plans. . . . These six plans, designed largely by military engineers, were created with the intent of furthering Pombal’s goal of creating a city that reflected new values. The city was to reflect a society in which the citizen, the merchant and the bureaucrat took precedence over the crown, church and nobility. The results were indeed a new Lisbon. [The reconstruction of Lisbon following the earthquake of 1755: a study in despotic planning, John R. Mullin]

He was a towering, but also immensely controversial, figure, putting to mind Paris’s Georges-Eugène Haussmann and New York’s Robert Moses.

A Vida Portuguesa

A Vida Portuguesa

I spotted a copy of Lisbon Poets in the gift shop and snapped it up on the way out. No time, yet, to read, for we had one more stop: A Vida Portuguesa. I’m not much of a shopper, but this is one store I was loath to leave. The store’s own description puts it right:

Throughout the past few years we have searched, from the north to the south of the country, for products created and fabricated in Portugal. Products that have been handed down through generations . . . . They owe their longevity to their quality, which is, in some cases, outstanding (and recognized abroad, as well). With time, inventiveness and hard work they became perfect and indispensable. They are trademarked in our memories and represent a way of life. They evoke the everyday life of another time and reveal the soul of a country.

These are our products.
This is who we are.

Our last day in Portugal was coming to a close. We arrived back at the hotel and prepared to set out our things for packing. First, though, I took out Lisbon Poets for a read. In its pages, five poets, from Luís de Camões to Fernando Pessoa, sampled the historical sweep of Lisbon’s poetry. Cesário Verde strolled the streets of 19th C Lisbon, conjuring up its past from his present:

The caulkers are turning back up in clusters,
jackets slung over their shoulders, faces tar-stained, spent;
I brood through lanes and alleys of the harborside,
or stray by the wharves where boats are docked.

And I call up the chronicles of naval exploits –
Moors, vessels, heroes, all resurrected!
Camões does battle in southern parts and swims a book to safety!
Proud carracks sail away, whose likes I will never see!

[from The Feeling of a Westerner, tr. Austen Hyde, in Lisbon Poets, p. 71  (also available online in Richard Zenith’s translation; Zenith explains that, “When shipwrecked at the mouth of the Mekong River, Luís de Camões managed to save himself and his epic-in-progress, The Lusiads.”)]

I was reminded of Pessoa’s conjuring of the past in Mensagem, but I could go no further on that journey, as I didn’t have the book. I would buy it stateside, I first thought, but on searching for it online, I came up empty. I discovered a copy in English could be found at Bertrand’s. There was time, just enough, to take one last trip on the Metro before dinner.

Luís de Camões

Luís de Camões

As Verde had while walking the streets of Lisbon, Pessoa, too, contemplated Camões and all the rich history of Portugal that came before him. He wrote of Viriathus, chief of the Lusitanians:

If souls that feel and act have knowledge
Only by recalling what they’d forgotten,
Our race exists because in us
The memory of your instinct survived.

[from Viriathus, in Message, Fernando Pessoa, tr. Richard Zenith, p. 39]

António Lobo Antunes, in his novel, The Return of the Caravels, also invokes Camões. We find him first at the Alcantara docks in Lisbon, where he remained “for three or four weeks at least, sitting on top of his father’s coffin, waiting for the rest of his goods to arrive on the next ship.” [Antunes, The Return of the Caravels, p. 9] We see him later when he took a “bottle of soda water over to a corner of the table, grabbed the boneless attendant’s pen and notebook, settled better into my seat, leaned my left elbow on the tabletop, and with the tip of my tongue sticking out and my brow knitted with effort, I began the first heroic octave of the poem.” [Antunes, Caravels, p. 74] And we see him again beneath his own statue:

So I went along, mulling over heroic episodes, stopping to take notes by lighted silk shops, until I came out onto the square with my statue, Mother, with hundreds of pigeons sleeping on the balconies in ceramic positions and dogs who lifted their legs on the pedestal of my glory, and even though the liquor clutched at my legs and made me drag my feet in a thrombosis walk, I managed to reach a set of stairs between two alleys from where, simultaneously, one could see the monument, the trains to Cascais, and the fishing lanterns of trawlers on the river, and precisely at that moment, dear readers, the Rua do Carmo lighted up with a procession of torches and the laughter of apes, halberds struck the pavement, the adenoids of jennets snorted, and King Sebastian appeared on horseback surrounded by minions, archbishops, and favorites, wearing bronze armor and a plumed helmet, and he disappeared in the direction of the pillory by City Hall followed by a fright of police and night watchman on his way to Alcácer-Quibir. [Antunes, Caravels, PP. 136-7]

Camilo Castelo Branco

Camilo Castelo Branco

I wondered, once again, about the statue of Branco, that fellow with the fabulous moustache. I could find in English only a Wikipedia entry, yet, as the entry notes, Branco was “probably the most prolific of all Portuguese writers, his work including novels, plays, verse, and essays. . . . [He was] an admirable story-teller [and] brilliant improvisatore [with] a richness of vocabulary probably unmatched in all Portuguese literature.”

I thought my journey to Portugal was ending, but in fact it had only begun. I’d known so little of this country on starting out, largely from grade school, and whatever I once knew I’d forgotten. I still know little, but I now have images and words bound to an endlessly unfolding story. As I read passages from the books I’ve accumulated, I think of Verde. Verde is out on a stroll, where he finds Branco on a bench near the statue with its glorious moustache. They sit down together and gaze out at the statue of the Marquês de Pombal. Branco starts in telling stories, perhaps to Pessoa, perhaps to Camões, or perhaps simply to anyone passing by, as we did, that last day in Lisbon.

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Credits: The sources for quotations may be found at links in the text. The photographs, as always on the blog unless otherwise indicated, are mine.

10 thoughts on “Impressions of Portugal, Last Day in Lisbon

  1. shoreacres

    I know so little of Portugal that I’ve been constantly surprised while reading your posts. One of the surprises here was the Lusitanians. I’d only known of the ship, the Lulsitania, and truthfully had no idea why it had that name, or that there might be a historical referent.

    Another surprise was to find the Marquês de Pombal mentioned. The only time I’ve come across the name Pombal is in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. There, he was a French diplomat. I was curious about the name itself; it seems to translate as “pigeon house,” or something similar. That’s amusing, because Durrell’s Pombal was a bit of a fluttery sort — the name was well-chosen.

    I really enjoyed seeing Pessoa’s table at the restaurant. Good for you, asking for a chance to look around — and thanks for the poetry quotations.

    This really is a wonderful post. There’s something about leaving a place that can stir deep emotion. By the time I got to the end here, I was remembering leaving Liberia. Oh, there were tears! But a taxi driver told me, “You too sorry to be leaving this place? Then you will come back.’ And I did. Maybe you’ll return to Portugal, too.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: This trip was full of surprises for us as well, and the surprises keep on coming. It’s almost as if the trip gets richer in retrospect. I credit, particularly, all the wonderful literature and poetry to which I’ve been introduced. My comment “or so we thought” in the earlier post is one example: as the day unfolded, I was introduced for the first time to three new Portuguese figures, all in a way by chance: the poet Cesário Verde, whose The Feeling of a Westerner captivated me immediately (BTW, if of interest, Zenith’s translation of the entire poem is online at the link I note), the Marquês de Pombal, and of course Camilo Castelo Branco with his grand moustache. Portugal’s complicated history comes to life in extraordinary, unexpected, ways in its poetry and literature, utterly entwined with each writer’s sense of his own present, with Camões and Os Lusíadas as constant touchstones. Pessoa’s Mensagem is particularly poignant in this regard.

      Speaking of new discoveries, here’s one I encountered when writing this post: the profound effect of the 1755 earthquake on Voltaire.

      “The earthquake also pounded Europe’s political and cultural landscapes. The oldest and brightest light of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, quickly published his Poem on the Lisbon Disaster:

      Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
      Affrighted gathering of human kind!
      Eternal lingering of useless pain!

      “Voltaire reveals, from those opening lines, the despair of a thinker who’s stymied by the intellectual consequences of this event.

      “Soon after, he inserts the earthquake into Candide’s absurdly catastrophic life. From a ship in Lisbon harbor, Candide watches helplessly as the good drown and the wicked survive. His friend Martin concludes that if the world has any purpose at all, it is to drive us mad.”

  2. Steve Schwartzman

    It’s hard to convey the strangeness I felt in 1966, with the Vietnam War becoming more and more a daily presence in American life, upon learning that Camões had been shipwrecked off the Mekong Delta.

  3. David N

    For too many of us, Camoes is just a name and Saramago is the only Portuguese author we read. You’ve opened my eyes to others.

    Is it fatuous to compare the 1755 earthquake to Brexit and see in ‘We bury the dead and heal the living’ a phrase which doesn’t apply to us at the moment. The dead, the Pyrrhic victors, are still walking, and one (the ghastly Andrea Leadsome of whom most of us hadn’t heard until she put in such a feeble, slogan-laden appearance in a TV debate), may become PM. The living 48 per cent are trying to heal each other with solidarity, but so far there’s none of that from above.

    You will see from this that we forget about it for a while, but it’s an obsession for us in our talking hours.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: Many thanks indeed for your kind words. This has been, and continues to be, an extraordinary journey of discovery, so rich that it has felt nearly impossible, each step of the way, to set it down.

  4. hilarymb

    Hi Susan – you are so wonderfully thorough in giving us your insights into the places you visit … and most definitely when I get to Lisbon (time … ?!) I will be back to read … as you’ve highlighted some incredible places to see: I’ve only been to Porto – and really need to do that properly too … cheers Hilary

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