I once had an unforgettable experience in a prostitute’s house in Lisbon.
It was no longer a prostitute’s house, the line was just for dramatic effect, but the experience was no less intimate for that. The building near Praça Martim Morniz was a quite special and exceptional fado house which was also the former home of Maria Severa, prostitute, the first fadista (female fado singer) in Lisbon and an iconic symbol of the city.
Severa was brunette and petite with seductive saucer eyes (I’m visualising a Maria de Medeiros type). As she had an equally seductive voice to match it’s no real surprise in 19th century Lisbon she was popular with the male of the species. One of the most interesting aspects of Maria’s story is her relationship with a nobleman of the city, Count Vimioso. Evocative images depicting the count and the prostitute are commonplace throughout the city, especially in the bewildering alleys of the Alfama district.
The count and the prostitute is a perfect metaphor for Lisbon itself; a down to earth woman from the lowly back streets confident and comfortable in the company of an aristocrat – a city of princes and paupers in all sorts of ways.
Lisbon is a city where noble squares and regal palaces are located a stone’s throw from cobbled streets populated by dusty bookshops and workaday cafés below weary period town-houses with peeling plaster façades and windows which look as though their mascara has run. Liberdade might be lined with opulent designer shops like Prada, but take a step back a street and there’s a parallel universe of ethnic shops, small neighbour supermarkets and unassuming bars and restaurants.
There’s something of the burlesque in those back streets which conjures thoughts of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. Wrong city I know, but it’s easy to imagine that in the darkened rooms glimpsed behind rusting, wrought iron balconies are Bohemians toasting truth, beauty, freedom and above all, love.
Lisbon’s streets are raw and ravaged by time, they’re not pristine and purpose built to please visitors who want a perfect shot of an immaculate façade. And they ooze personality because of it. These are neighbourhoods which have endured good times and bad, their story etched into the bricks, mortars and peeling paint. Whereas some cities strive to remain pretty boys, Lisbon is Terence stamp – the signs of a beautiful youth are clearly evident but there’s an attractive weariness in those crags and creases which makes it just that little bit more interesting.
In most cities graffiti grates and jars. I don’t mean the urban art created by a city’s equivalent of Banksy. I mean the illiterate swirls which deface buildings like a spray paint equivalent of a nail on a blackboard. In Lisbon for some reason it fits. I don’t know why, it just does. It’s the same in Porto. In most cities bad graffiti looks like nothing more than the destructive vandalism it is. But in Lisbon graffiti often feels an integral part of the city’s character. Once noble buildings scarred by the hand of the underclass, as though in an attempt to keep pomposity in check.
Like anywhere else, darkness brings a different life to the streets. The area around Dragon Square had a dubious reputation not so long ago, but walking through it at night, when daylight and most tourists had departed, we didn’t feel unduly apprehensive. For centuries, immigrants in Lisbon have made their homes in the alleys and streets leading from Praça Martim Morniz (its posh name). It gives the area a kaleidoscopic multi-cultural richness. It is there that Maria Severa’s house is located, reached via a dark alley. In many cities we might hesitate to wander up an alley such as that. Not in Lisbon. In truth we were more concerned we might encounter a fadista’s ghost such was the weight of atmosphere in the air.
There’s also nostalgic comfort to be found in Lisbon hoods such as the party loving Bairro Alto. In the heart of one of Europe’s greatest cities a sense of community seems to thrive. Walking down a vertiginous Bairro Alto street we passed a young man perched on a stool outside his apartment block engrossed in a book; next door up a bushy haired man strummed easily at a guitar. Opposite, an old woman appeared from a house that might have also been a bar with a just-knitted sweater which she handed to a young woman sitting on the kerb drinking Super Bock with her friends. In one urban scene there was literature, music and cottage industry.
In a sentence, Lisbon is classy, sassy and down to earth; exactly the sort of place where a count and a prostitute could meet and fall in love.
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Google+