Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbon

This is Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbon. You might not think to ask a man who died in 1935 to be your guide around a busy city. Unless the city is Lisboa and your prospective guide, the poet and writer Fernando Pessoa.

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

Lisbon publishers Livros Horizonte are responsible for this good looking 1992 edition in English and Portuguese. It was published with the financial support from the Lisbon City Council.

Pessoa’s life

Fernando Pessoa was born in Lisboa in 1888, on the fourth floor flat in the Largo de São Carlos. His father died when Fernando was five years old. 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.  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.”

The Guide

Pessoa’s style is plain. Seekers of a lyrical description of Lisbon will find it dissappointing. The text is the work of a journeyman carpenter and not the master craftsman.  His intention is to guide visitors up and down the streets from church to theatre to monument. The book describing Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbon is almost as relevant today as it might have been if published all those years ago.

Not many of the important sights have changed.  You can see nowadays improvements to this Lisboa landscape. The pace of life and character of the city are altering daily and the visitor’s first impression has changed radically.

The ‘Blessed Region’

On the opening page of his guide Pessoa wrote as follows. “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.”

Almost all today’s visitors arrive in this “blessed region” by air. From the sky noticing, 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 – it is only in Sete Rios.

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 has only four lines. The Artillery Museum, located next to Santa Apolonia station and now called the Military Museum, gets one page.  Alfama only has one paragraph.

The book is sprinkled with gems of little-known information.   Like the Bishop of Lisbon Dom Martinho Annes. In 1388 during an uprising the Bishop was thrown off from one of the towers of the Sé Cathedral.

Clube dos Restauradores

For the evening, Pessoa suggests visitors should go to the “Clube dos Restauradores, better known as Maxim’s.” The restaurant was established in the Palácio Foz. It was built in the 17th century.

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 of the handrail was executed in Paris. It cost no less than £9,000.”

Poet Chiado

Next time you are walking up the Chiado take a good look at the statue of the Poet Chiado. Note how excited he is in whatever he is claiming that he is 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. He 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. You can find his own statue sitting outside mingling with tourists who may be reading his book written for them.

Such is still the world of Fernando Pessoa’s Lisbon.

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