Our tour began in Praça do Comércio, a vast square surrounded by mustard yellow buildings. Just as Inés had made art come alive for me, Rita brought buildings to life. We walked through the downtown area, completely enthralled by our history lesson. This tour was enough to make anyone an avid history learner. Each building's history was as rich as its facade was attractive. I found myself falling deeper and deeper in love with Lisbon for its quirkiness. I mentioned death earlier, and I was alluding to a couple of things. The first is that there was a notable massacre in 1506. A drought was plaguing the city, so the priests of a central Catholic church advised their congregation to go slaughter Jews in an attempt to please God. Thousands were murdered, and the drought did not magically end. The church later suffered a fire, which is apparent in the crude texture of the walls. Its interior is now painted red to commemorate both the fire and the blood shed in the massacre. There are also two monuments erected in the square where the church lies, expressing the church's regret.
Also, Lisbon's downtown is dying. People aren't moving away, and people aren't moving there. A freeze was put on rent prices some 50 ago, so now the rent is literally as low as 10 euros. The population is old because no one wants to move out — so they live there until they die.
This being said, the vibe in the neighborhood is anything but stale. The streets are loud and vibrant, just like the people. The layout of the city appears to be without rhyme or reason, but this is not the case. Portugal's leader of the mid-1700s, Pombal, was a prime minister who sought the powers of dictatorship. After the great fire of 1755, not wishing to compete with either the nobles or the Church, he mandated that every residential building be rebuilt identically. In Lisbon, historically stern (but now charmingly decrepit) buildings line the streets. The rhyme lies therein. No government money was allotted to the rebuilding of churches, and only very few were allowed to rebuild on their original holy ground. One particular church that was granted this right boasts its original ornate beauty, but lies directly behind Pombal's new, Stepford-similar buildings. And therein lies the reason for the apparent randomness.
Rita also described the buildings as "dancing." Having been built to withstand both earthquake and fire, the architecture was constructed very specifically. Over the decades, people have subtly—but possibly fatally—been altering the structural support of entire buildings with their minor remodels, such as the tearing down of a wall.
We gave up our search for the bacalhau when we discovered a confectionary shop. An overly-enthused Serge ordered four recommended Portuguese desserts that we all shared with forks.
That night we enjoyed a home-cooked meal of sausage, cheese, and bread at our hostel. We filled ourselves to the brim and then traveled in an eager pack to the bars. We enjoyed yet another night of dancing and mingling, meeting people from all over the world. Jackie and I met a gentle Norwegian boy with whom we discussed love and other elusive topics.
About This Entry
You are reading "Dying Downtown and Dancing Buildings", an entry posted on 22 July 2009 by Jackie Steves.