As a longstanding resident of Lisbon, it’s been harder to ignore in recent years just how popular it has become as a city-break destination. Of course, when I first arrived, I also hung out in Chiado, visited the castle and gorged on Pasteis de Belém. It’s what you do in Lisbon. As the years rolled on, I did much less of this, although I delighted in showing friends and relatives around the beautiful city I was beginning to call home. I’ve always been aware of the visitors, but a few weeks ago I found myself feeling somewhat alarmed as an entire herd advanced towards me in a narrow back street not far from where I live. Why were they here of all places? Perhaps they were lost.
In the early years, back in the mid-noughties, Lisbon was an intoxicating mixture of authenticity and faded, old-world charm. There have always been beautiful buildings to look at and picturesque squares in which to enjoy a leisurely and fairly-priced coffee. Eating well-cooked, no-frills food in traditional restaurants (often illuminated by fluorescent strip-lighting) was very affordable.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when, but not so long ago, it became abundantly clear that Lisbon was being heavily invested in. Buildings that had long stood derelict were being restored, and meanwhile property and rental prices in the centre rocketed. Lisbon is booming….but this doesn’t necessarily have a positive impact on the locals. Many Lisbon natives are now priced out of the market and find it impossible to live in the more traditional neighbourhoods, perhaps even ones they grew up in. These days, if you find yourself fancying a little coffee (“bica”) in the centre, you will probably pay far in excess of the 70 cents you know you should.
Eating out has also changed. These days, there is far more emphasis on international cuisine, which was not easy to seek out in the past. Swanky restaurants serving a modern take on old-fashioned Portuguese fare have also sprung up left, right and centre. It’s hard not to notice how self-consciously styled and polished these eateries are, presenting a neatly-packaged version of Lisbon’s food heritage. As a food-lover I appreciate all of these developments, but there is also a part of me that feels relieved that I can still eat a delicious steak in a restaurant adorned with tiles dating back to the 70s, under unflattering lighting, should I wish.
I am thrilled that others see my point of view. I LOVE this city. I thought the rumour that Eric Cantona lives here was an urban myth until I had lunch with him a few weeks ago. By that, I actually mean that he was sitting behind me while I ate lunch with two friends from way-back-when in a local chichi deli. Confirmation that it was indeed him were the presence of a retro zip-up tracksuit top, a magnificent bushy beard and being able to distinguish unintelligible, but distinctly Gallic utterances. We didn’t introduce ourselves – more out of an acute awareness that we risked appearing to be a trio of giddy, middle-aged women, rather than any desire to give him personal space.
And now Madonna has made Lisbon her home! The grapevine informs me that she has bought a property literally round the corner from me. As discussed with a student recently, it’s obviously only a matter of time before we meet. But I’m not “In Bed with Madonna”. She got into my bed – I was here first.
I suppose my main preoccupation is that as Lisbon evolves, it loses some of what made it so attractive in the first place. If I see another overpriced retro-styled tin of sardines I might scream. If another tastefully restored building is painted a subdued shade of grey, I will feel sadder. The point is that Lisbon is all about slightly gaudy shades of yellow, pink and green. Not grey, never grey.
Recently, I met an American friend (not Madonna) in the centre and she walked with me to the tram stop before she went on her way. As the #28 trundled towards us, stuffed to the gills with tourists, she exclaimed in astonishment “you’re not seriously considering getting on that, are you?”. The fact is, I was, and as a non-native local, believe it only right that I should. The trams are a bona fide form of public transport across the city. But more and more, it is harder to travel unimpeded, without an iPhone being shoved under your nose, or worse still, being able to understand EVERYTHING your fellow travellers say. I never have that problem on the buses.
So what’s my point exactly? As a foreigner, I don’t really have a leg to stand on. And yet, I inhabited the city before it started becoming “Disney Lisboa”. I see what is being gained – and lost. All this said, if that lovely young man Ryan Gosling ever decided to make his home in Lisbon, I’d be more than happy to show him the hidden gems of the city. And failing that, I’d invite him round for *Toad-in-the-Hole, followed by a nice cup of tea.
*British culinary classic: Toad-in-the Hole