Lisbon in the Time of Corona, Cholera and Cocaine

Zur deutschen Fassung.


“All roads lead to Rome,” the saying went when I was young. But in the centuries since, Lusitania has won its freedom, and all roads to and from the Azores lead through Lisbon. And so it happened that I found myself in the Portuguese capital for a few days on the outbound trip in March as well as the return trip in June 2020. In March, the wider public just began being concerned about the corona virus. In June, I returned to what looked like a different city. Two years later, this is nothing special anymore, but you will see that I could not completely ignore the subject in my travelogue.

Now please come along and join me on my walk around Lisbon!

Because this walk has become a bit longer, I have introduced numbered chapters. So you can easily find your way back into the text when the kids, the pizza delivery guy or the boss interrupt your reading. Or if you feel like going for an actual walk in between.

1

People seem to have become more cautious, because even at the beginning of March 2020, I was unable to find a Couchsurfing host for a few days.

So I ended up in one of those AirBnB rooms, which I try to avoid. Especially in popular cities like Lisbon, these short-term rentals destroy the urban social structure, displacing locals and traditional shops and bars, attracting ever more tourists instead.

I got lodged in Campolide, a working-class neighborhood, a bit run-down but not unappealing at all. In such an area, gentrification shouldn’t be a big problem.

Or so I thought. At the entrance to the building, there are six key boxes where tourists can code their way into the apartment without ever coming into contact with the owners, who are earning themselves a fortune by doing nothing. Only the Ukrainian cleaning lady, who has to live in the basement like in the movie “Parasite”, comes upstairs once a day to replenish the toilet paper.

And then you can’t even sleep properly, because the airplanes are roaring from early morning to late at night, and another guest in the next room snores like a leviathan.

2

I had planned to spend the sunny morning in a park and read up on Portuguese history, but as if guided by an invisible ghostly hand, I find myself standing in front of the Cemitério dos Prazeres, the Cemetery of Pleasures. Just outside the graveyard, there is a small park with fitness equipment and with a few pensioners sitting around and smoking, apparently waiting for a vacancy. Those who want to hasten their death are jogging between the graves, hoping for an early heart attack.

Others, who want to stay alive a bit longer, are dozing in the sun, like these two cats.

In the cemetery I learn that it was in fact established – a bad omen – because of a corona epidemic, in 1833. Or was it cholera?

The cemetery is like a small city, with tree-lined avenues, with places to rest, with views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and with social stratification just like during the inhabitants’ lifetime. Some families build castles and palaces. (Seriously, if that castle person wasn’t a chess grandmaster, it’s really tacky.)

Other parts of town have been completely forgotten.

And in order to get to the graves of the poor, I need to squeeze myself between the megalomaniac mausoleum mansions of the rich. But then, the poor at least have fresh flowers on their graves. The children of the rich don’t have time to come to the cemetery, they are too busy counting the money earned through AirBnB.

Even the air-traffic noise is just as bad here as it is in the city.

3

Neither the window panes nor the coffins are made for eternity. Several times, I hear the sound of a coffin lid swinging open. The smell of corpses wafts through the air, and here and there I stumble over bones.

If I don’t have corona, I am going to get cholera in this place.

4

Two shrines leave me somewhat perplexed.

First, can anybody read what is written here?

Second, how can a single person be a poet, playwright, educator, historian, member of parliament, director of the National Library and a physician, volunteer for the Western Front in World War I although Portugal was neutral, lead the (unsuccessful) rebellion against the military dictatorship in 1927, flee twice (first from Portugal and then from France in 1940 to escape the Nazis), get arrested several times and still publish 57 books?

Impressive how much you can accomplish when you don’t let the internet distract you all the time.

5

Streetcar no. 28 is waiting in front of the cemetery. It looks like a museum piece, with wooden paneling, leather from cows killed in bullfights, brass operating levers. The windows in the wooden frames are pushed up, the wind is blowing through the dinky vehicle.

6

Only a few stops further, I get off at Basílica da Estrela. As the old women go into the church, I walk off in the opposite direction, in search of the temple of my religion. In Estrela Park, there is the smallest library in the world.

I’m a well-traveled specialist for loitering in parks, I would say, but I’ve never seen a library in a park anywhere else. From now on, no city without such infrastructure should even think about making it onto those lists of most livable cities.

A statue apparently shows a feminist hero, because only women kneel and sit around it in prayer.

An artisans’ market is selling all sorts of trinkets from pottery to wooden stamps to black-and-white photographs. Although nobody needs any of this, it finds more appeal than the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Initially, they are positioned in two pairs in two different places, but soon enough, they become so bored that they agglomerate in one place in the shade, eating ice cream and waiting for the end of the world. If only they realized that this park is already a paradise.

7

“You are writing?” an older gentleman asks me, and there is no point in denying it. The pen is still smoking, the ink on the paper too fresh. We can’t have a profound conversation, because although he understands me, I don’t understand him. That is the downside of Portugal, where they speak such broken Spanish that since 1668 even Spaniards don’t want to claim it as Spanish anymore. So the gentleman apparently understands my Bolivian Spanish just fine, but I have to guess what he’s trying to tell me.

Something about a writer. Or about several writers. His house or their house or their houses is or are supposedly around the corner, just past the English cemetery. Or the cemetery of angels, I am not even sure about that. Anyway, I should follow him, he bids me. Well, I have nothing better to do anyway.

The gentleman talks himself into a rage, he seems horrified by my ignorance. He spouts off names as if we were visiting a whole colony of writers. We walk up a steep little street, past a pharmacy, and stand in front of a big block.

Que pena,” says the gentleman, and that even I understand.

Several banners announce that the house of Portugal’s greatest poet and the library inside are under renovation.

“No problem, I’ll come back next year,” I console my guide, who walks away hunchbacked and broken, disappointed that the master is not at home. And about not being able to introduce us.

But the name Fernando Pessoa is written on the house, so I can do some research in the evening and come across a rather interesting personality. Even the many names make sense now. Pessoa lived in Lisbon until 1935, the last 15 years of which were spent in the house to which the poet’s friend so kindly led me.

Pessoa was a writer, lyricist, poet, translator, and apparently had too much creativity for one human life alone. In addition to his own name, he wrote not only under pseudonyms; he created heteronyms. That is, he invented persons, to each of which he gave their own curriculum vitae, personal handwriting, distinct style and even a horoscope. Some of those wrote in Portuguese, others in English. To keep the invented characters from getting bored, they wrote letters to each other. And to make things even more complicated, some of the heteronyms invented yet more pseudonyms for some of their works, which they then wrote to literary journals about, critiquing each other’s work.

All in all, Pessoa wrote under 73 different names. When, after Pessoa’s death in 1935, a chest containing 24,000 texts was discovered, giving experts their first inkling of the extent of Pessoa’s literary universe, the Nobel Prize Committee imposed a 60-year moratorium on Portuguese writers, as a matter of precaution. They didn’t want to accidentally honor someone who wasn’t even real.

Perhaps Jaime Cortesão, the jack-of-all-trades from chapter 4, was just one of Pessoa’s creations…

8

The next day, I meet Romeu and Mafalda for lunch.

For me, the two are inseparably linked to Lisbon since I first came to the city in 2017. Until then, I only knew Romeu from the internet, but of course I suggested a meeting.

“Yeah sure, I’d love to,” he wrote back. And, as non-committal as young people are these days: “Just let me know when you are here.”

That’s when I had to enlighten the always-and-everywhere-connected youngsters that this wouldn’t work, because I would be coming by ship from Colombia. Two weeks on the high seas, without internet, without telephone. But I already knew that I would arrive in the port of Lisbon on May 25th, at noon, I told Romeu. And if not, it would certainly be in the newspapers. Like the Titanic. Or, more appropriately for Portugal, the Lusitania.

Even across the transatlantic distance, I could tell Romeu thought I was pulling his leg. Setting an appointment so far in advance? And then two weeks without any means of communication? In the 21st century? Romeu and Mafalda, I should mention, are working for some dubious internet company and therefore can’t imagine life without the interweb.

So I arrived, as reliably as is only possible on the good old steamship, at the port of Lisbon at 12 o’clock sharp. And lo and behold, while most passengers were met by coaches or drug-sniffing dogs, my two new friends, Romeu and Mafalda, were there to welcome me.

9

Fast forward to March 2020. I’m back in Lisbon. Calling on old friends. Appointment for lunch at the pizzeria “Bella Ciao”, the name bringing back memories of Bari.

“I reserved us a table, because at lunchtime, they are always crazy busy,” Romeu had said. But when we arrive, on time like an ocean liner, at 12 noon, the restaurant is empty. The waitress and the cook are close to tears.

“What happened?” we ask.

“We’ve had hardly any guests for a week. Because of this virus in Italy, no one goes to an Italian restaurant anymore,” the waitress explains the non-existent connection.

“And it’s so silly, because we are from Brazil,” the cook exclaims in despair. “I’ve never been to Italy in my life!”

We don’t discriminate against anyone and are happy to take a seat.

10

After the Brazilian lasagna, Romeu and Mafalda lead me up and down so many stairs and backyards and rooftop terraces that I wouldn’t know my way back on my own. I only know that we are relatively close to the port, the castle and actually quite central, and I am all the more impressed by how quiet and relaxed some of the alleyways seem.

11

Lisbon is a city that really thinks about its citizens – and visitors.

Free water dispensers everywhere, so that no one keels over.

Green parks to rest, in case you keeled over nonetheless.

Great museums at affordable prices. (With an additional 50% discount for students.)

A public transport system that not only gets you from A to B, but is a treat and an experience in itself.

12

And outside the public toilets there are waiting areas for the friends or relatives of those who can’t skip a toilet while traveling (usually the cell phone addicts, sneaking away to post on Instagraph and chat on WhatsUp unobserved), where you can use the time to get immersed in Portuguese history.

Affectionately illustrated, even when Lisbon is once again laid siege to.

And darker chapters are not spared either, like pogroms against Jews, after they had already been forced to convert to Christianity. (More about this in chapter 30.)

This humorous, self-critical and irreverent presentation of history is much more appealing to me than national bombast like at the Discoverers’ Monument down by the river. But you already know that from my history series “One hundred years ago …”. Which has an episode about Portugal, by the way. Well, at least it ends up in Portugal after my typically long-winded arcs of history.

As I ask inquisitive questions about each of the panels on the mural, Romeu and Mafalda are probably thinking: “Geez, why can’t he just ask where the best ice cream is to be found, like other tourists?”

But they patiently explain the points of contention between absolutists, constitutionalists, Cartists and Setembrists, the 32 coups and 17 revolutions, and the influence of historical levels of unionization on contemporary socio-economic development in different parts of the country.

Only when none of the three of us can answer why, despite neutrality, Portuguese soldiers fought on the Western Front in Flanders in World War I (which I learned from the gravestone in chapter 4), does Romeu apologetically say: “You know, we’re not really historians We actually work at Google, and at the office, we are allowed to use their search engine for free. That’s the only reason we know a little bit.” But now they are working from home, and the young people are cut off from swarm intelligence.

13

“But that’s not a problem,” I reply, “I wanted to go to the Aljube anyway.”

This museum in a former prison is, as it turns out, practically around the corner, and so Romeu comes along. Interestingly, many people, myself included, have been to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem or to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but don’t know the museums in their hometown.

Mafalda makes use of the opportunity to elope.

“Are you a feminist?” she asks, as we say goodbye.

“I’m still in the process of becoming one,” I reply.

“Good. Sunday is March 8th, International Women’s Day. We’ll meet at Largo de Camões at 3 p.m. for the demonstration.”

A whole square full of women? To that, I’ll say yes for completely unfeminist motives.

14

But now to the prison. To the museum, I mean. It will close at 6 p.m., so we only have two hours to visit several floors. Plus a roof terrace with a café and a view over the old town.

There are museums where you walk through once, stop dutifully in front of a few paintings, think “hm” and never come back.

Aljube Museum is the exact opposite.

Interesting, enlightening, informative. Alternating between great history and individual fates. Again and again, I think “now I finally understand” and hope that I can remember everything. It’s a museum where the ticket should really be valid for three days, so that you can take enough time to ask more questions and think about everything.

I keep glancing at the watch nervously, all the other visitors are overtaking us, but in every room, Romeu knows more to explain about every topic.

Portuguese history in the 20th century is really exciting.

Germans pride themselves on all the chaos and mayhem in the 1920s and 1930s, but Portugal leaves nothing to be desired. Revolution in 1910, escape of the king, then a coup d’état, a putsch or a new revolution every few months. The low point was the Bloody Night of Lisbon in 1921. Oh, by the way, Portugal got involved in World War I because Germany had declared war on it. (Pretty stupid to declare war on a peaceful, neutral and likeable country. But that’s Germany.)

Military dictatorship from 1926, then another dictatorship under António de Oliveira Salazar from 1933. Aljube, the house where we are now, was one of the prisons of the secret police PIDE, which received its lessons from the Gestapo, among others. Just as the guards of the Portuguese concentration camps were trained by the SS. However, as harsh as they were, one must not equate the Portuguese concentration camps with the German ones. The death toll was in the hundreds, not the millions.

Perhaps for this reason, the past does not seem to play the same role as it did in Spain or Germany (although, admittedly, both countries took their time with addressing their dictatorships). “A few years ago, there was a show on TV,” Romeu recounts, “to vote the greatest Portuguese ever. Salazar won with 41%. Many people just see the time as the ‘good old days.'” In second place, with 19%, was a Communist leader, and only in third place a diplomat who had saved thousands of refugees from the Third Reich. After that, it was all kings and seafarers.

Portugal also remained neutral during World War II and was the destination or transit point for many a refugee from the Nazis. The Nazis, of course, had already made plans to conquer not only Portugal, but also the Atlantic islands of Madeira and the Azores. But you already know that from my groundbreaking research from exactly those islands, in which I also uncover the connection between the Nazis and Atlantis and the Holy Grail.

“The real hero,” Romeu says dryly, “was the chair from which Salazar fell in 1968, suffering a brain hemorrhage.” Because it was assumed that the 79-year-old would not live much longer, a successor was installed. When Salazar’s condition improved, however, no one around him dared to tell the old man that they already had a new prime minister. So they let him continue to hold cabinet meetings and sign orders until he finally died two years later.

Sometimes, you don’t quite know what to make of Portugal.

It’s 6 p.m., we are still on the 2nd floor, in the former cells for political prisoners. A guard kindly reminds us that the museum has to close now. Too bad, because the 3rd floor would be about the colonial wars, the Carnation Revolution of 1974, and how it all relates to Salazar’s ban on Coca-Cola (which is in turn connected to Fernando Pessoa, the writer from chapter 7). Romeu starts to explain yet more things. The guard tries twice again to get us to leave, but very cautiously and politely. (In Germany, we would long have been shouted at, in the USA we would have been shot.)

Well, I have to return to this museum for a second time anyway.

15

Amoreiras Park is beautiful, the writer Adolfo Simões Müller got a statue here, and a young woman is sitting on a bench, studying for university. But all the children who got laid off from school because of the virus are also frolicking here. People in Portugal are very nice and polite, which you have hopefully noticed by now. Only the children are a bit misbehaved. They run around and engage in ball games and other mischief.

16

That is when I spot a small museum, the one for Arpad Szenes and Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, where I seek refuge from the rowdy hordes. They were painters, a couple, and mainly painted each other, just like contemporary couples, whose couplehood often consists of little more than photographing each other.

Whenever Arpad wanted to paint something different, Maria would make a scene: “What is this?” “I don’t like it at all.” “Nobody will buy that.” And so on. Out of defiance, he painted in an increasingly gloomy and illegible style, thus unintentionally establishing modern art.

And when Arpad refused to be painted, Maria designed an underground station instead.

17

I am just happy that Fernando Pessoa from chapter 7 didn’t illustrate any metro station, otherwise it would change its name seventeen times a day. It’s bad enough that I keep confusing Areeiro and Arroios. Several times, I get off at the wrong one and walk the one kilometer between the two stations, past the massive illuminated fountain on Boulevard Dom Afonso Henriques.

This is one of those structures where you don’t even have to look up when it was built, because it oozes dictatorship from every pore. The park at the foot of the fountain is, by the way, the only place in Lisbon with somewhat dubious characters hanging out at night. (And the prison hill from chapters 22-24, possibly, but I guess no normal person would go there anyway.)

18

My next stop is the Botanical Garden behind the Natural History Museum. “Admission with ticket only,” it says on the barrier, but the nice lady in the ticket booth says I can just walk in. These are the small joys of the low-budget traveler.

Botanical gardens are my recreational tip for any city. An oasis of calm, a green lung, a little natural jungle in the midst of the urban jungle. Here, you hear neither cars nor airplanes, and even the people who were hectic and stressed on the street are suddenly calm and relaxed.

When a very emaciated and disheveled cat rushes by, wailing in despair over lack of mice, I notice my own hunger. Opposite the Botanical Garden is the “Real Principe” bistro, enticing me with delicious-looking sweets in the shop window.

19

While ordering in front of the Cockaigne of sweets, a lady next to me helps me to choose: “You really must try pastéis de nata!” I gratefully take up the suggestion, interpret it as flirtation and place myself and the full tray at her table.

Carolina quit her job as an accountant because it was too stressful and too boring at the same time. A combination I know all too well, and one reason I no longer work as a lawyer. Ever since, she has been moving around the world, without a permanent job, without a house and without a mortgage. That’s wonderful, because for once I don’t have to explain myself. No stupid questions like “But what will you do when you’re old?” or “What about retirement?”

She finds Lisbon “cute, but a little small,” which comes as a shock to me. For me, Lisbon is so big that I already decided on the first day to restrict most of my exploring to the neighborhood I am staying at. But Carolina comes from Buenos Aires or New York, so of course she’s used to somewhat bigger places. (Which reminds me of the Chinese lady who considered Vienna a small town.)

In my exuberance, I piled so much cake on the tray that it will keep me busy all afternoon. Which is bad, because I wanted to be at Camões Square at 3 p.m., for the rally for International Women’s Day, heralded as as a women’s strike. Sadly, that doesn’t make much sense on a Sunday, when on Monday all the ladies will be back to work at the supermarket checkout, at the hospital and in the library, even though they earn less than their male coworkers.

Unfortunately, no one has the courage to go on a really long strike anymore. And those who did, well, they disappeared in prison or one of the camps. Or were deported to the Azores, as I learned in the Aljube Museum (chapter 14). Maybe I will bump into some of the old exiles on the islands.

A pandemic, which will paralyze everything for the next two years or so, would be the perfect opportunity to pause and to reflect on what kind of economic and social order we really want. Get off the hamster wheel. Take a break. Produce less, consume less, hurry less, spend more time sitting in the botanical garden. Sing. Write. Read. Or paint, for that matter.

20

In the early morning, the city is still asleep. This is the opportunity to finally investigate the question that has plagued me on each of my walks through Campolide: Where does the aqueduct, which appears and disappears everywhere and around every corner, actually lead to?

Having poured over maps, explored the topography, and studied the history of the Roman settlement of Olisipo, I believe I have found the right point of entry into this water pipeline.

21

An old woman is carrying a water canister and a huge package of toilet paper up Rua Professor Sousa da Câmara. I have to let her pass, then I hop over a wall, drop down a shaft and land in the water. In fresh, clear drinking water, the same water that gushes from the fountains in every park, free of charge (see chapter 11).

The tunnel is long like infinity and rather horizontal, which surprises me, because I thought that I had entered the aqua distributor at the highest point. Where can this possibly lead to?

I am wading in the direction from where the water is flowing. Light comes into the above-ground tunnel every 50 meters or so, but the windows are between 3 and 4 meters above me, so I can’t peek out. Besides, the exit would be barred by iron grates.

True to the motto of an underground communist newspaper I saw in the Aljube Museum (chapter 14), there is only one way: Avante! Forward!

I notice that the thick walls prevent cell phone reception and GPS tracking, so I don’t know where I am, nor could I tell anyone that I don’t know where I am and that I won’t die of thirst, but will probably starve to death at some point. Besides, I couldn’t even pee in here because it would go directly into the drinking water.

But then, in one of the towers, the grate is missing. There are enough protruding stones as well as fractures in the masonry that I can climb up, albeit with great difficulty, and lift myself to freedom.

It is, as total freedom is, a breathtaking and frightening feeling at the same time. I am high above the city! Atop an aqueduct that has stood for 300 years, surviving even the great earthquake of 1755. It’s one hell of a view. Any stumbling, any tripping, any blow of the wind would be deadly now. A sign proudly points out that I would drop 65 meters from this point.

But because the readership keeps demanding photos, I have to climb recklessly from one side to the other. (Honestly, this photography thing is going to drive me to the grave one of these days. Can’t you accept that I’d rather just write? When the aqueduct was built, no one took photos either, and everyone was happy.)

Fascination triumphs over fear, and I am now walking outside, on the wall, westward, where I see that the deep valley is rising and reducing the distance between the Earth and this feat of engineering. I almost run, as if I could reduce the danger by spending as little time as necessary at these dizzying heights. On the last meters, where the aqueduct merges with a wooded hill, I abandon all caution and sprint to the safe shore.

22

Not many people make that crossing, it seems, because the mountain is eerily unpopulated. A police car sometimes races along the roads. There are vantage points with shelters, parking and barbecue areas, but everything looks a bit dilapidated and abandoned. The rest areas look as if they are being used to execute prisoners.

Sometimes, there is a lonely motorcycle or a car hidden in the bushes, and when I walk by, I am eyed with suspicion. This must be where the drug dealers meet. And the girlfriends who cheat on their boyfriends, and the men who cheat on their wives.

Again and again, I come across towers in the forest, indicating that the aqueduct runs underneath. Or one of the aqueducts, I should say, because the total length is a widely branched out 58 km. I am so lucky I found the exit; from those towers, I never could have escaped. And after a few days wandering around the aqueduct maze, you probably go nuts.

23

It’s a strangely haunted place, this Monsanto Mountain. It probably looks nice and green in the photos, but I have a strange feeling that I don’t usually get in nature. The birds may be chirping, the yellow flowers may be blooming, but there’s vileness and cruelty in the air, I can sense it. There may even be snakes.

I climb on one of the abandoned concrete bunkers, which is child’s play after the aqueduct adventure, for a spectacular view over Lisbon. Only now do I see the aqueduct in all its massive glory. Wow. Maybe the idea of crossing it was slightly bonkers indeed.

24

As I approach the summit, I spot a few buildings. At first, I suspect a farm, then a monastery, but finally I recognize it: It’s prison. And next to it the criminal court. So secluded that the right to a public trial exists merely on paper.

Now I know where the negative aura was wafting from all the time.

Let’s get away from here, as fast as possible!

25

Having seen the bird’s eye view of the route over the aqueduct and admitting that it was a bit reckless, I am sensible enough not to provoke gravity a second time. There must be another way back to Lisbon, I think to myself, and walk off in the general direction where I suspect the city. And then, I stumble upon a truly paradisiacal place. A meadow, lush, green and peaceful. Warmed by the sun, not brutally and mercilessly as the sun shines elsewhere, but gently and tenderly. And the meadow is dotted with trees. Beautiful trees, of a kind that is quite rare. My favorite trees.

Where there are cork oaks, people make wine and pinboards. And what else would one need?

26

Only in the evening, it occurs to me that I still have to fly to the Azores. After all, I am expected for a house sitting there. Now, even I have to rush a bit: Find the way back to the city somehow, take the first bus whose destination seems familiar, pack the backpack and off to the airport.

I had been warned again and again about pickpockets, but on bus no. 426 a woman gets on at the stop next to the prison (a different one from the secret mountain prison; I mean the one in the middle of the city that looks like a castle) and tells the bus driver that she has left her handbag on the bus earlier today.

“Oh yes, I’ve got it here,” he says, handing her the leather bag.

27

At the airport, the first passengers are already in full-body protective suits against the virus.

And then, I am off to the Azores.

Romeu, Mafalda and Carolina each had only two statements to make about my destination: “They have the most tender meat, the best cheese and the tastiest milk” and “They speak such funny Portuguese that we have to subtitle them on TV”. Like Switzerland, basically. Only in the middle of the Atlantic.

But for a hot-shot reporter, three months are enough to prove that there’s more to the Azores than mumbling people and happy cows. Soon I’d be surviving exploding volcanoes, bloodcurdling robberies, sinking ferries in the storm and torched monasteries, I would infiltrate secret brotherhoods and carry out espionage in the offices of the German-Atlantic Telegraph Company. (The latter story is so secret, I haven’t dared to publish it yet.)

28

Fast forward: three months later.

The time off in the Azores was wonderful, but eventually flights were operating again, albeit with detours, and I had to return to the mainland. As noted, all roads lead through Lisbon, and so I have to hang out for a few days in this pretty city in June 2020 as well.

But it’s a different city than usual.

In March, as we were walking across Praça do Comércio, Commerce Square, Mafalda had exclaimed in amazement: “I’ve never seen so few people here!”

Three months later, in June, Lisbon’s most popular square looks like this:

Three months ago, articles about overtourism were all the rage. Now, the city isn’t completely deserted, but it is no busier than an insignificant district town. Lisbon hasn’t been this quiet since the Vikings destroyed it in 844.

29

On bus no. 736, the driver shouts to admonish a passenger, reminding him to wear his protective mask properly.

He sounds angry, but he just means well. Because a policeman is about to board the bus.

30

I have to stay in Lisbon for a few days before I can fly to Germany. (Cross-border train service has been suspended. Hitchhiking during a pandemic is not impossible, but Lisbon-Amberg is a bit far under these circumstances.)

This time, I even have to get by without Romeu and Mafalda. In Portugal, people take the health and welfare of their fellow human beings seriously. They stay at home. There are no riots here like in other countries, no short-sighted egoism. There are protective masks for everyone, delivered to your home free of charge. Vaccinations for everyone, perfectly organized. Working from home, but with protection against the boss annoying you outside of working hours.

Portugal is how the world imagines Germany to be: well-organized, solution-oriented, practical. Except that here, it’s true. What’s more, the country is friendly, warm and human. Without fanfare, without pretentiousness, without grandstanding. It’s a country where the president buys his own groceries at the supermarket and patiently waits in line.

Or goes swimming every day and sometimes saves people from drowning.

I have to mention one more thing to illustrate how Portugal works. Do you remember the anti-Jewish pogrom in chapter 12? It was not the first one. In 1492 and 1496, almost all Jews were expelled from Portugal (and from Spain). Thus far, nothing special, unfortunately; there is no shortage of pogroms in history. – But since 2015, as restitution, Portugal has been granting Portuguese citizenship to the descendants of those expelled in the Middle Ages. Without too much bureaucracy, because over 500 years, one or the other birth certificate can easily get lost.

And if you can no longer stand living in such a friendly country and turn to drugs out of despair, you are not punished and locked up, but receive medical and psychological help.

31

Speaking of drugs:

The drug dealer at the corner of Rua da Vitória / Rua dos Fanqueiros it so bored that, although by now he already knows me as a teetotaler, he tries to persuade me every time to relieve him of some hashish, mariuhana or cocaine.

“I’ll give you the first dose for free,” he begs. “You would really help me out with that. My business has completely collapsed.”

Yet another industry which will be overlooked in the small business bailout. And one that probably won’t make as much of a racket as the motorcade of carnival performers, driving around town in protest one evening.

32

It’s a good time for protesting motorcades, because the streets are completely deserted.

I am all alone in the parks, usually full with tourists and those trying to make money from tourists.

The trams are reliably making their rounds, all but empty.

The lift at Santa Justa is going up and down empty.

You remember the photo of the airport in chapter 27, the one with the hooded guy?

Three months later, the airport is deserted as well.

And all alone, I commemorate the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazi fascism. Because Coca-Cola was banned during the dictatorship (see chapter 14), in Portugal even communists can celebrate with this refreshing fizzy drink.

Oh dear, this is a photo that the tabloids will dig out in 20 years and use in a completely fabricated story to destroy my career. I can already see that coming. That’s why I won’t even bother about the career anymore. Not worth the effort.

33

“La Vita è Bella” is written on a closed restaurant, in a sign of defiance.

The center for traditional Chinese medicine is abandoned and closed. When things get serious, people prefer to go to real doctors, after all.

“Order and Work” is still emblazoned on the Hotel and Tourism School, but now is the time for an orderly retreat. Which isn’t all that bad, in my opinion.

34

On the banks of the Tejo, a bottle spills onto the beach. I remember the message in a bottle that I dispatched from the Azores. I wonder where it is now. It hasn’t been found yet. At least no one has contacted me. Will I live long enough to experience that? How many messages in bottles are floating on the oceans right now? And how many will be discovered?

“Hey, Andreas,” someone suddenly calls and jolts me out of my thoughts about oceanic currents.

Do you also have friends like that, who pop up all over the world, whether you’re in Vienna, Antwerp or Lisbon? In my case, that person is Johann, whom I’ve known since he invited me as a speaker to the TEDx conference in Târgu Mureș. At the time, we both happened to live in this lovely town in Romania, but we both seem to be more inclined to world travel.

What exactly he is doing in Lisbon, I never find out. But a few months later, a film comes out in which someone who bears an astonishing resemblance to Johann has managed to infiltrate the North Korean weapons industry.

Sometimes, it’s better not to ask too much.

35

Oh, a great many people come to Lisbon to photograph tiles, it seems. I don’t know why. They are just tiles. Or ceramics. I don’t even know the difference. If you’re really into that, you need to go to the Tile Museum. Yes, there is such a thing. Some people really take these azulejos quite seriously.

36

And now you surely want to know where you can find them? Well, the last photos are from the garden of Palácio Fronteira. And because I already thought that you might like it, I have brought a few more impressions from there.

37

It has become late afternoon in the garden of Palácio Fronteira.

Under a canopy of wisteria, there is a girl reading a book. It is both a beautiful and a soothing sight. How nice that people find leisure to escape the hectic and stress of everyday life. How wise of them to rate solitary reading more highly than superficial socializing. Oh, if only more people realized that a book raises one’s attractiveness far more than expensive cell phones or shoes ever could.

Furtively, I take a photo.

Palacio Fronteira girl with book

I don’t want to disturb her, but the lady has inspired me, and the flowery roof hides the only bench in the whole park. Thinking of myself as quite considerate, I sit down at the very other end of the bench, taking out a book as well and reading the romantic ending of Remarque’s “The Night in Lisbon”.

We exchange not a word.

We exchange not a glance.

Although I am curious to know what she is reading.

Just once, I can hear her mobile-phone camera clicking. She probably took a photo of me, furtively as well, for otherwise nobody would believe her that there are more public bookworms. I pretend not to have noticed it and keep reading unmoved.

Thus, we spend half an hour in the sinking sun, not too strong after having blown most of its energy earlier that day, but still providing sufficient warmth. We soak up every ray and every page. Until the lady who owns the castle comes by and proclaims the imminent closure of the park as it’s shortly before 5 pm.

The girl walks through the labyrinth of hedgerows in front of me, turning around curiously just once as she steps through the grand gate onto the street. Again, I pretend not to notice it. Then she walks off into one, and me into the other direction.

Rarely do a man and a woman part so happily and fulfilled. Maybe all our encounters should be like this. Then we wouldn’t have a problem with overpopulation, either.

Practical advice:

  • You will find the entrance to the aqueduct in Calçada da Quintinha, open from Tuesday to Saturday, from 10 to 17:30. Admission 3 €. The aqueduct is part of the Water Museum, which also offers guided tours of underground tunnels, water reservoirs and pumping stations.
  • You should really take a couple of hours to visit the museum in Aljube Prison. It is an excellent introduction to Portuguese history in the 20th century. Open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 10 am to 6 pm. Admission 3 €.
  • Only later did I learn that there is not only the botanical garden near the Natural History Museum (chapter 18), but also one in Ajuda, one for tropical plants, and probably a few more.

Links:

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Photography, Portugal, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Lisbon in the Time of Corona, Cholera and Cocaine

  1. Carla Madruga Gomes says:

    So sobreiros are your favourite trees? Good choice! :) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sobreiro_Monumental

    • And birch trees.
      But sobreiros even more, because I come across them so rarely.
      I remember in Sintra, there were plenty, I think around that spooky monastery in the forest.

  2. PedroL says:

    Só nice to read your experience here… and you even tried to went to Pessoa’s House eheh it is finally open, I went there the first week, it was really interesting :) all the best, PedroL

  3. dany sobeida says:

    Wisteria que hermosa es. Encuentro particularmente bellas las fotos, por ahí dicen que Portugal es el país de los mosaicos. Tu artículo en inglés es mas interesante. Quiero que termine corona. Podrías usar tus dones de medium y decirnos para cuando?

    • Pues, la Plaga de Justiniano tenía 17 ondas.
      Y después hambruna, fuego y azufre.

    • danysobeida says:

      Uff. Aquí vamos por la cuarta, debemos entrenar la paciencia ademas del sistema inmunológico entonces.

    • dany sobeida says:

      Y te pido disculpas si resulta un consejo demasiado personal, también creo que fumar ayudaría a librar las olas …cuantas vayan a ser. Debemos cuidarnos si la marea va a ser larga. Yo hace como dos décadas deje de fumar, tampoco era tan asidua con el tabaco y hace unos días una amiga me hizo pecar, después de tanto tiempo me resulto bastante pesado en los pulmones.

    • Ya estaba pensando limitarlo en verano, para ser más deportivo.
      Pero los habanos me ayudan leer más libros, ya es como un ritual diario.

  4. Pingback: Lissabon in Zeiten von Corona, Cholera und Kokain | Der reisende Reporter

  5. Alessio Salzano says:

    Hi Andreas! Somebody already asked about the mysterious message, the English translation is:

    “In memory of my beloved, dear wife, Adelaide Baptista Neves¹. She was born on the 27th of August, 1858 and lived 33 years, 2 months and 19 days². She passed away on 15th of November, 1891. This was built on behalf of her husband, Joaquim José Cardozo Neves on the 16th of November, 1894.

    Peace, pure soul.”

    • Ahh, thank you very much!
      That way, I learned about the pigpen or Masonic code. I could have guessed it had something to do with the Freemasons…

      Interesting also that the same vase is still there, but at a different position. Probably indicating different dead drops for another secret message.
      And maybe even the translated inscription is a code. Or why else would someone specify the age of the deceased up to the day? Very mysterious…

      I am so glad I stumbled across this grave. After all, it’s a huge cemetery, and I didn’t explore it in full by far.

  6. thetorzorean says:

    I have been living in clausura for the last two years, not by choice but because travel during this time has been, and continues to be, problematic, so it felt liberating and joyful to revisit Lisbon since the last time I was there in 2011 through your great photographs and background stories. Thank you.
    By the way, I have also just finished reading all your posts about your Azores adventures, too. I feel like I just got back from a long and satisfying trip even though I haven’t left the cozy comfort of my home. However, I am still looking forward to the day when I can also return physically to the Azores.

    • And just for you, I’ll get cracking on the article about Horta soon!

      Oh, and because you live in Canada, you may also enjoy my trilogy about crossing Canada by rail:
      https://andreasmoser.blog/2019/01/10/27-hours-train/

    • thetorzorean says:

      Thanks so much. Looking forward to reading your Horta article when you post it, hopefully soon. I need good reading material during these cold January days in Toronto! Not that there isn’t already enough on your blog to keep me busy reading for the rest of these winter months! I am going to have to give up my daily allotted time to Twitter in exchange for your blog! It’s refreshing to be able to spend time on things that matter more than Twitter (but I’d never say that on Twitter). lol

    • Oh, I understand you completely!
      I have installed a program on my browser, with which I can block Twitter, Facebook and news sites (as well as chess.com) for however long I want.
      Right now, I am on a 3-day break, for example, and it’s interesting how I miss it at first, but then I quickly notice that I have more time to read books, to learn Spanish, to write, to call friends. And most importantly, I feel much calmer.

  7. Thank you for all the photos! It was very kind to risk life and limb just for the sake of us readers.

    I love wisteria and that garden looks blissfully empty. My favorite kind.

    I once explored the storm drain tunnels but they didn’t have anything interesting in them. Of course California’s oldest buildings are Spanish Missions, so we don’t have great historical architecture. The Native population has wonderful stories, but they didn’t build monuments. They appreciated the ones built by Nature😉

    • I am still trembling now when I think back to the aqueduct. While I was up there, the excitement was so overwhelming, it wasn’t really that bad.
      But definitely one of those things I only did once.

Please leave your comments, questions, suggestions:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s