Lisbon – Day One: Decadence and Decay
The time had come to escape the freezing London cold; the dark afternoons and the desolate faces; the post-winter desperation of the human races; coughing and sneezing spread between packed commuters on the tube; time to head south for the sun, for warmth, for good food. Swapping London for that other great European ‘L’, we abandoned the swift descent into winter and gathering approach to Christmas. We have come to the land of rich tawny-deep port wine, the ceramic cockerel and the vibrant yellow tram; where life is a little slower and architecture decadent and tired. We’ve come to Lisbon, the rolling, rambling hilly maze of streets which adjoins the grand Tagus river and sits at the heart and soul of Portugal as its capital.
As a regular to the Spanish side of the Iberian peninsular, there is something familiar about Portugal, which I now visit for the first time, but also something tangibly different. Wafts of garlic, of almonds and the thick smoke of strong cigarettes fills the air as it does in neighbouring Spain. However here there is something altogether more hardened, more real; you look into the faces of the Portuguese and you can read a thousand tales, of toil and struggle, of monotony and difficulty; you feast upon the pungent flavours of the food, noting the strong, crudity of the elements, the untempered brilliance of the colours, and the sharp contrasts of the flavours. In Lisbon, the Portuguese do not so much fiesta by night – rather, walking the streets of Lisbon at night, as we did shortly upon our arrival, we felt there was something close to menace in the air – something unsettling and almost unforgiving or discordant echoing off the cracked decaying buildings and shady streets.
Lisbon’s streets are littered with photographic inspiration…
I could not help but notice on our arrival a resilient attitude and a robust confidence, as though the country, which stands on the edge of Europe has hardened itself to the battering forces of the Atlantic ocean spread all along its Western coast. Portugal’s struggles are not just geographical however. The well-known financial woes of the country are tangible all around its capital. We were immediately struck by the huge number of empty properties right in the centre of town. Huge decadent palaces, abandoned to disrepair; once gloriously colourful tiles chipped at the corners or missing great sequences; elegant iron balconies left to rust, and plaster, paint and concrete cracking and falling apart; many of the buildings are covered with graffiti, and some have been left to the elements to such an extent that grasses and moses have started growing over the walls and in between great cracks growing deeper every day.
This is the Lisbon of today, a city of fading grandeur, whose geographical location and undulating topography provides a breathtaking backdrop to a European city which was once, clearly, a city of exceptional elegance and architectural glamour, but which in time has been left to slowly deteriorate and wither, a once pert fresh rose left to stagnate in the brown waters of a once crystal clear vase. But for all this, Lisbon has lost very little of its beauty. In its fading glory, it is a withering beauty, a tired duchess whose wrinkles grow deeper everyday, but whose innate elegance is lost on no one. The bigger the cracks, the more excited I became – for my camera, this decay is like a gold mine of sparkling inspiration, and Lisbon lets set to provide plenty of that.
Lisbon’s glamour is not all faded…
But for all the sadness, the financial misfortunes and the architectural deterioration, Lisbon is a city with a strong undercurrent of creativity and panache. We found this immediately in the guise of our hotel – the Lx Boutique Hotel, which exudes boutique sophistication from each of its photograph-covered, wallpaper lined walls. Our bedroom, with views over the Tagus, oozes Parisian chic, with oversized frames, velvet armchairs and wall stickers emulating contemporary baroque. Meanwhile our bathroom is a glass prism, stood, self-contained to one side of the room, complete with handy blinds set within the glass for the purposes of a little privacy. Meanwhile, conveniently located adjacent to the hotel is the Restaurante Confraria Lx where we headed for sushi and where, feasting upon a plate of some 34 sushi pieces, we ate sashimi so fresh that the fish almost melted away on our tongues and evaporated like a cloud.
Day One in Lisbon is over, but already we have discovered the best of two worlds – decadence combined with contemporary style. Looks like Lisbon has vintage chic done to a tee.
More tomorrow! But in the meantime, here are my photos of the deterioration visible on many of Lisbon’s streets, from graffitied walls and filled in windows of empty houses, to marble monuments left to turn a slimy shade of green – yet through it all there is beauty and character – the great contradiction of decadence and decay.
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