‘Blue Sky; winter; who’d a thought!’ Scott’s Mancunian twang woke me up. I looked out at a square of sunlight geometrically inching its way across a washing filled courtyard. Lisbon! Guidebooks are always going on about washing in Lisbon and here it was! We skipped into town, under-dressed in the chilly morning air. We had packed like the ultimate British holiday maker stereotype going to the ‘continent’, confusing sunshine for heat, and shivering valiantly on deserted beaches whilst local people are wearing gloves and waiting for spring. Sunglasses in winter is a joyous oxymoron that eclipses all else.
Sharp shadows in the cold morning like an English autumn, and London plane trees, which always bring me ease. The spiky palms and distant glittering sea were exotic and full of promise. Lisbon was empty early in the morning. It was relaxed, taking it easy. We passed street sellers who tacitly agreed it was too early to hawk plastic sunglasses and sat around smoking. We passed drivers selling ‘Tuk Tuk Tours’, who equally agreed they couldn’t be hassled to hassle us. I often wonder where all these inventive transport ideas come from – wherever I go there is always some unexpected alternative to walking. These tuk tuks were shiny and swish – like the Essex boy racer version of a moped – and a million miles from the dusty necessities used in Asia. I remember cramming my newly pregnant body into one in Kathmandu, between five other people, gagging on the stench of rotting meat.
We walk down a wide plaza, through quiet, dignified, tree-lined avenues. Elegant iced-white buildings climb the hills. This city is comfortable being itself. Cheerful. It has passed its heyday in the eyes of the world, but it knows this is just fashion. Yellow and pink buildings, but bright – not like the mustard and grimy peach of east Berlin apartment blocks, where we live. A kaleidoscope of elaborate patterned tiles cover the buildings; grand naked bathrooms.
We met Ewelina in Rossio Square. She was a tour guide for ‘Discover Lisbon,’ a free tour. She had a bright yellow T-shirt and a bright yellow umbrella advertising FREE TOUR all over them. She explained that it wasn’t free and donations were expected. Hmmm… The tour was a walking tour around the Mouraria area, which was less popular than the other tours, but had ‘hidden charms.’ She was both shy and energetic, confident and modest. She explained that she was from Poland and had fallen in love with a Portuguese guy and come to Lisbon. There was something utterly unpretentious and winning about her – she was as sparkling and invigorating as the winter sunshine. We were sold. I got my camera out.
Ewelina wanted us to make friends on her tour- to ‘bond.’ The guy from Finland, the girl from Taiwan – how often do those cultures meet, she asked. Three Belgians – David the bitcoin trader and two quiet girls with singsong voices. They came from Assen, apparently famous for sing song voices. They didn’t talk much so I couldn’t judge. It was a good start to the free walking tour – bonding by a fountain with Ewelina.
I watched her as she told us about Don Pedro IV, Napoleon’s invasion, and the unknown statue above her head. Apparently the king was killed so it was re-used as someone else. They figured that as it was so high no one could see the features. Fair enough. She used her hands in dramatic gestures and brought the 1755 earthquake to life, showing us how the huge blocks of stone crashed on the heads of the congregation and how they thought Moses was at hand as the river emptied. Their joy was swamped by terror as the tidal wave rushed in, and a five day fire finished the job. Dramatic pause. I was right there with her. We left Rossio Square talking about the subsequent invention of Seismology and the Lisbon houses which shake but don’t fall. I had always found walking tours boring before. I had tried to avoid them, or wandered near them to listen in, feeling glad I hadn’t paid. Maybe this was the clue to a walking tour; it wasn’t facts that got me, it was her facts. Ewelina took us to an inconsequential cafe on a corner and stopped.
‘Here’, she said, flourishing the yellow umbrella, ‘Here, is where you can get the best Pastel de Nata. ‘ Scott and I squinted into the shop window and looked suitably impressed, but did not know then what she was talking about.
We had come to Portugal on a reconnaissance mission. Rather than become Brexit martyrs, we were deciding where to jump ship to for the last jump before the invisible wall went up around the UK. We knew we didn’t want to go back and get stuck on an island with loony Boris Johnson and strong and stable Theresa May. We knew that Germany was cold in the winter and my back condition didn’t like the cold. And we knew we were getting a little tired of always being wrong-according-to-Germans. In the last four years I have come to understand that there is a set of rules about how the world works, but only Germans know it. They like to help everyone else by telling us how the world works, but we just don’t seem to understand, so we keep making mistakes, which are kindly pointed out to us so we can improve. It was a bit wearing. They are probably right about everything of course – look at their cars. We wondered if there might be another rule book somewhere else with more accommodating rules, more aligned to our lax temperament. My attitude to life has always been say yes to everything, and believe everything, if at all possible. Not very German. Would the Portuguese suit me better? If nothing else, we would soon discover that Pastel de Nata tasted better than they looked; apparently only 5 people have the recipe for them and never travel together. German cakes look deliciously promising but taste of beige. She challenged us in a conspirational tone to guess the secret ingredient – I couldn’t care less what it was, but I was charmed. We tasted a Pastel de Nata and although it was early days, in terms of cakes at least, it was Portugal one, Germany nil.
At the next stop, in a scrappy square, Ewelina told us about a massacre of Jews due to a misunderstanding about a sunbeam on a cross. She took us into Sao Domingos church and afterwards, she asked us what we had noticed. The Taiwanese girl said it had felt peaceful. The Finnish guy said calm. I looked at them in amazement. Did they not notice the darkness and horror of the peeling leprosy walls and the blood red ceilings?! I didn’t want to be teacher’s pet or anything but I said;
‘The walls are peeling like it’s got leprosy and it feels haunted.’
She beamed at me. It was called the ‘cursed church’ and has indeed got a diseased skin due to being melted by fire, suffering five earthquakes and sitting above an underground river, making it damp and unstable. There was even an Austrian bride whose wreath-style wedding crown caused bloody wounds like stigmata. She died at twenty-two. The disasters were so many that it was decided to leave the church to decay. I was rather thrilled and wanted to go back inside. To lift the gothic mood she took us to a Moorish hidden palace, behind an unassuming door…
Was it Lisbon that was so engaging, or was is Ewelina…?
For the second half of the tour we were told to prepare to climb and we did climb. The group wandered and weaved behind her yellow umbrella up and down winding cobbled streets, past murals of famous Fado singers gazing out at us with ‘beautiful sadness’. We stopped for expensive hot wine in a little cafe. She arranged for us to listen to Paula, an amateur Fado singer, who lived next door. She came in flourishing a red shawl and a little basket for money. Paula looked like Pennsatucky from Orange is the New Black and sang with a depth and broken sorrow that made me shiver.
At the top of the climb through Mouraria, our perfect tour guide pointed out a duck-egg blue building and told us she used to live there for the amazing view,
‘…but the landladies were terrible.’
The tour was over at ‘Our Lady of the Hill’, an obliging saint you could pray to for immaculate conception (if your husband was away). She giggled, and gave us a final piece of advice about not wasting our money on expensive tourist restaurants, and giving us the address of an illegal Chinese restaurant. I sensed Scott’s Manc-skills radar. ‘Cheap’ and ‘illegal’ are his trigger words. Ewelina thanked us for our engaging company and gamely mentioned money. The two Belgian girls went to find an ATM. We all gave her ‘donations’ as she shivered in the winter wind and sun, smiling for my camera. I was sorry to leave – would Lisbon still hold up without her?
In the evening we went drinking. First we had an expensive cocktail in a former brothel that looked like it used to be great fun, but now was just a bar. Secondly, we went to drink ‘grog’ in a Cape Verde bar. It is a cheap and hellish cocktail made of sugar beet. We then went to the fabulous Flamingo Bar in Alfama which belongs to Scott’s old flatmate’s friend Ana. She was a hoot. Finally we went to the Chinese quarter. The illegal restaurant was up some stairs in a grubby living room in an unmarked crumbling apartment. We ordered furtively. Next to us was a German guy who was blonde and dashing and well-dressed, like all the sexy German guys I sit next to on the U bahn in Berlin, but pay me no attention because German guys don’t flirt. I compared him to the hot African guy from the Cape Verde bar, strumming and singing to an empty room and directly to me, and gave Portugal another two points – one for the illegal Chinese, and one for the men.
Next morning I woke up and missed Ewelina. I wondered if she would be my penpal or if that would be weird. We trudged off to the train for Sintra where we were going to pick up a motorhome to drive up to Porto. Scott needed a haircut so on the way, we went to a barbershop called O Corvo, near the cursed church. Scott loves crows. ‘The Crow’ was as cool as a Berlin hipster, but more mysterious. We tried to get hairdresser patter from him , and when we did, it was about politics and the state of Portugal, with deep feeling for Lisbon and its future. I took photos of his dancing hands. I knew that under his trendy facial hair he had a sensitive face. O Corvo was another sign, an embodiment of gentle proud Lisbon, so we set off for stage two of the mission, with Portugal definitely in the lead.