Saturday 29 September 2012

Lisbon diary

Of all the cities in Europe I always wanted to visit Lisbon has long been top of the list. Perhaps it's the melancholy writing of Pessoa or the fascinating history of this country. Last year I visited Porto and fell in love with the language and the feel of the city: laid back yet organised, small yet big enough to have a fantastic concert hall and a beautiful city centre.

Now it was Lisbon's turn and I was not disappointed. In fact, I have rarely seen such a wonderful place for living and working. The city is big but not overwhelming, well run and clean. It has charm (and beautiful people needless to say), yet also retains a feeling of normalcy that makes it appealing and exciting at the same time.

The memorial dedicated to the discoverers in Blemel

Yet, the most fascinating aspect of Lisbon and Portugal may be its rich and exciting history. In particular, the last hundred years offer fascinating insights into the clash of modernity with pre-modern elements of life. If you look for manifestations of the recent past, you don't need to look further than Lisbon's trams. Although the city has a functioning and spacious metro system, it also kept its tram lines above ground which still prove a magnet for tourists.

Lisbon's tram

Perhaps the most intriguing detail of Portuguese history however is an aspect that is little discussed: the long 'freeze' under its last dictator, Salazar. The sheer length of his regime provides some staggering figures. Having come to power in 1929, he lived and ruled Portugal until his death in 1970. Although brutal at times, his rule distinguished itself from the previous regime, the last turbulent monarchic rule of Portugal followed by a brief interim republic, and laid the foundations for a semi-modern economy and society.

In a sense perhaps Salazar's dictatorship saw Portugal's slow transformation from a largely aristocratic regime into a modern republic, something that infuriated some because of its slowness and protracted nature, while being admired and envied by others who experienced radical social and economic transformations at the beginning of the 20th century leading to internal strife and civil war. Whatever the lessons of his long rule, Portugal is now fully integrated into the European Union and Lisbon is the Iberian pearl on the Atlantic.

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