"IT'S BASICALLY THE NEW BARCELONA - minus the Brit stag and hen parties." was how the Evening Standard recently described Lisbon, the hilly coastal city that enjoys an average of 2,800 sunshine hours per year. The westernmost capital city of Continental Europe, Lisbon is also one of the most affordable, offering a standard 500 ml serving of beer at 2 Euros or less. Numbeo.com unfortunately doesn't list an official average price for a glass of house wine but I can at least say from experience that you don't need to overspend for a decent red or white.
Having lived three and a half years in Barcelona, and visiting thrice before doing so, I did find many similarities between the Catalan city and the Portuguese capital; Lisbon's Marquês de Pombal particularly reminded me of Barcelona's Zona Alta, which is still sometimes home in my night-time dreams. But it was precisely the similarities that made the differences more apparent. Lisbon is distinct from Barcelona, and any other city I've visited, in its use of decoration. Whether embellishing surfaces or configuring the city's actual topography, adornment seems inherent to the Lisboeta, lending pattern, color or texture to every step, glance or panorama.
The hand-lain calçada portuguesa pavement decorates sidewalks and squares with patterns in black and white stone. Ceramic tiles or azulejos, in colorful geometries or religious and historical depictions, cover both building façades and interiors. Sumptuous Manueline ornamentation, incorporating oceanic, maritime, botanical and Christian motifs, texturize churches, castles, convents and the fortified Belém Tower. Even the buildings cascading down Lisbon's hillsides appear like ornaments on the slopes.
While too much embellishment can be tacky, what Lisbon seems to have mastered is harmony. In "Art: Perception and Appreciation", the authors assert that harmony may be achieved through repetition, and indeed Lisbon's colors, patterns and details are so regularly repeated that they manifest as texture rather than independent elements.
Considering that eighty-five percent of Lisbon's buildings were destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755, with a subsequent fire burning down surviving churches, palaces, hospitals and the opera house, most of what can be seen in Lisbon today are no more than 250 years old. Home to two World Heritage Sites and a plethora of hand-worked embellishments, the city is undoubtedly committed to its aesthetic aspects, with relative devotion to its crafts.
But is it in fact "the new Barcelona?" To most visitors, perhaps. Adornment after all is also one characteristic of Barcelona's Modernisme. Personally though, I have a much too superficial experience of Lisbon to compare it to a city that is still subconsciously home to me. But for imparting the familiarity I secretly long for, and for delighting me with a new perspective on decoration, I couldn't have been happier to be there.
Alfama, Chiado, Rossio Square, Praça do Comércio, Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara and Torre de Belém, Lisbon. Photos by Lady San Pedro and Jaime Sese.