Fernando Pessoa’s Lisboa

You might not think to ask a man who died in 1935 to be your guide round a busy city of today. Unless, perhaps, the city is Lisboa and your prospective guide is the poet and writer Fernando Pessoa.

Fernando Pessoa wrote a guide book in English around 1925 specifically to fight what he called Portugal’s “demotion” from great European capital to small-country city. However, he never published the book; it was uncovered in 1987 among the thousands of folios of his works at the National Library.

Lisbon publishers Livros Horizonte are responsible for this good looking 1992 edition in English and Portuguese, published with financial support from Lisbon City Council.
Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisboa in 1888 on the fourth floor flat in the Largo de São Carlos, just off the Chiado. His father died when Fernando was five years old and he moved to South Africa with his mother when she married the Portuguese Consul in Durban two years later. It was in Durban that Pessoa learned English.

Pessoa returned to Lisbon in 1905 and never left. In her informative preface to the book, Teresa Rita Lopes writes “For Pessoa, Lisbon was more than a city – it was a country in condensed form. After dropping his anchor there in 1905, he never left again. So much did he dream of Lisbon and – far away (when in Africa) mythify it, that he felt forsaken by its reality when he eventually came back – eternally an orphan and without a country. But he never stopped seeking the body that eluded him.”

Seekers of a lyrical description of Lisbon will be dissappointed by Pessoa’s plain style. The text is the work of a journeyman carpenter and not the master craftsman. However, accepting his intention to guide visitors up and down the streets from church to theatre to monument, the book is almost as relevant today as it might have been if published all those years ago. Not very many of the important sights to be seen have changed although there are many improvements to this Lisboa landscape but the pace of life and character of the city are altering daily and the visitor’s first impression has changed radically.

“For the traveller who comes in from the sea, Lisbon, even from afar, rises like a fair vision in a dream, clear-cut against a bright blue sky which the sun gladdens with its gold. And the domes, the monuments, the old castles jut up above the mass of houses, like far-off heralds of this delightful seat, of this blessed region,” wrote Pessoa on the opening page of his guide.

Almost all today’s visitors arrive in this “blessed region” by air; dropping out of the sky to notice, not the city’s domes and monuments, but its sprawling suburban housing blocks. Pessoa’s Lisbon stopped far short of today’s city limit; he describes the zoo as being outside the city while it is now just a metro station (Sete Rios) on the line to Colegio Militar.

It is curious to wonder how the balance of space for each subject might reflect Pessoa’s own priorities; the Baroque extravagance of the Church of Madre de Deus (in Xabregas) is mentioned in only four lines. The Artillery Museum (located next to Santa Apolonia station and now called the Military Museum) gets one page. The Alfama is mentioned for only one paragraph.

The book is sprinkled with gems of little-known human interest which no visitor should be without; that the Bishop of Lisbon Dom Martinho Annes was thrown from one of the towers of the Sé (Cathedral) during an uprising in 1388.

For the evening, Pessoa suggests visitors should go to the “Clube dos Restauradores, better known as Maxim’s.” This restaurant was installed in the Palácio Foz, the red and black building, the location of the tourism office. The palace was built in the 17th century and renovated by the Marquis da Foz in 1870.

In two pages of description, Pessoa takes us through the “ample vestibule, sober and full of dignity” and up the staircase of Italism marble. “The handrail of the staircase, richly decorated in copper and steel, opens with a sheep’s head in shinning copper. Other decorative motives follow, with the crest of the noble family of the Marquises da Foz. This admirable work – the handrail – was executed in Paris and cost no less than £9,000.”

Next time you are walking up the Chiado take a good look at the statue of the poet Chiado in the Largo das Duas Igrejas. Notice that he’s so excited in whatever he’s declaiming that he’s about to fall off his stool. Pessoa comments of this fellow poet: “poet Chiado is the name popularly given to a 16th century friar, António de Espirito Santo, who abandoned his habit to become a sort of embodiment of the rollicking spirit of the times and to develop into the favourite popular poet; his extant poems show considerable merit.”

Pessoa makes no mention of the Brasileira café, where today’s romantic tradition pictures him with friends or sitting alone and where, of course, his own statue sits outside mingling with tourists who may be reading his book written for them. Such is still the world of Pessoa’s Lisboa.


Lisboa, What the Tourist Should See – O Que o Turista Deve Ver” by Fernando Pessoa. Published by Livros Horizontes, Lisbon. Available in most bookshops.

Steve English