Confessions of a Topophile: Lisbon, city of hills
This is the first in a series of unashamedly adoring posts about Lisbon
Lisbon is famous for its hills. The tourist blurb sometimes claims the city is, like Rome, built on seven of them. But its reputation as A Cidade das Sete Colinas accords the Portuguese capital a kind of visual and experiential coherence it doesn’t actually have. More accurate, perhaps, is the geographical description of the city as built on ‘a succession of terraces’ cut into ‘a range of low rolling hills that rise from the banks of the Tagus River and the Mar de Palha northwest toward the Sintra Mountains’.
But that’s not quite right, either. The textbook-style characterisation doesn’t capture the sense of what it’s like to be here, or identify the particular characteristics which make Lisbon distinctively itself. Topographical character is, after all, the reason why people love to travel and have strong preferences for living in one place rather than another. In this respect, psychogeography - the hybrid discipline which combines lived experience with acute observation – provides a better way of writing about place. At its heart is an ambulant narrator intensely interested in where s/he is, one who takes the time to indulge that interest; impelling the writing is the drive to capture something of the truth of a place akin to that sought by an artist or archeologist.
The hard work of hills
The best way of getting around Lisbon, visitors are often told, is on foot. It’s a small city full of charms and curiosities, and it’s built on a human scale. Regulations designed to preserve the Moorish quarters and eighteenth-century Pompaline buildings have protected it from the colonisation by high-rise tower blocks that afflict many modern capitals. As a result, almost everything worth observing happens at eye-level – glimpses of the life going on in its tiny houses, cafe tables full of folk laughing under – just a gentle tilt of the neck required – big skies and hills topped with trees.
But once you shift from the relaxed pace of the flaneur into the city-dweller’s need to get around reasonably fast, the Portuguese capital becomes hard physical work. Despite having lived in hilly areas much of my life, nothing prepared me for Lisbon’s sheer verticality. I came up against it, quite literally, the night I arrived. Emerging from the Metro into a sea-level square, I needed to ascend the city’s highest hill, the Castelo de Sao Jorge, to get to my accommodation.
The directions I’d been sent involved taking two of the public elevators that make up Lisbon’s idiosyncratic infrastructure. But on that December night much in the city was shut due to Covid restrictions. And so, there being no taxis in that part of town, I began an arduous climb up Castle Hill with my considerable luggage. Consequently, the first impressions of my new home were incorrigibly physical: the stone steps under the lamplight were shot through with calculations about how much further I could push my burning muscles, while the minutes I spent admiring a pretty little square halfway up the hill came about because I simply had no more breath.
Two weeks later, my calves had expanded well beyond their former size. On most days several hours had been spent tramping up and down urban slopes in search of shops and I was learning the hard way that, while Lisbon is punctuated with vertical transport, individual pieces of technology won’t necessarily be working. Two escalators provide the most efficient way up Castle Hill but only run about one times in ten. Another escalator has been inserted, Alice in Wonderland-style, into a green slope at the edge of the Parque Eduardo VII. I’ve never seen it move.
Meanwhile, the undulating landscape turns attempts to walk as the crow flies into a over-hill-and-dale marathon taking twice as long as you expect. ‘We go round,’ my landlady explained after I got back, exhausted and complaining once again. ‘Even if it means going the longer way round.’
I was here nine months before I fully understood why my efforts at shortcuts were perpetually thwarted. Lisbon is spread around a valley the way many cities straddle a river, with the Avenida da Liberdade running like a spine between east and west. Crossing the centre horizontally takes you down a steep hill into a plain from where you must ascend again. The 3D model of Lisbon in the city museum gave this topography observable form. It showed why even cutting across the eastern quarters gave me more exercise than I bargained for: the landmass fans out into two hills, with the result that crossing at the widest point obliges you to mount one hill and traverse a dale before beginning the climb to your destination.
But when I step into one of the nineteenth-century funiculars that scale the steepest slopes, ascending an urban hill takes on a sense of ease and glamour. The gleaming wood interiors have an old-world elegance and, with the knowledge of the arduous alternative embedded in my bones, it’s almost a miracle to be hauled effortlessly to the summit.
The beauty from hills
Once settled on the top of one of Lisbon’s hills, everything changes.
There is nothing more restful than watching the urban landscape from a high point. Someone once told me that Van Gogh never tired of seeing the same hill in the south of France because, seen with an artist’s attentive eye, it was different every time. Transposed into the idiom of modern travel, this makes you more student, less tourist.
For the five months I lived on Castle Hill, I watched the view change daily, even hourly, according to the weather, time and season. The scene from the terrace where I lived took in two of the city’s best known miradouros (viewing points), each with its distinctive topping of pines. It features – I still go back, to see the view as much as the people – the white Baroque church of the Miradouro da Graça and a sweep of city housing below. The houses and apartment blocks aren’t particularly pretty or architecturally remarkable but, facing every which way, they have a kind of organic vibrancy as if sprouting from the ground. Painted in creams and dirty yellows with the odd splash of dusky pink or blue, they form a palette which varies according to the light, from the muted tones of a cloudy day to a troupe of dancing colours under a brilliant sun.
Sunset is the speciality of this view, with the Atlantic winds pushing the clouds across a sky of changing light, creating constant variations in form and colour.
Sunrise is the specialty of another of my favourite views. For six, somewhat expensive weeks I lived on Santa Ana Hill in a room that faced directly east. The head of the bed was aligned with the window, so every morning golden rays peeped over the Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte, hitting me in my freshly-opened eyes. Sitting in the window sill with the light coming from the opposite direction, I could study its shapes and colours and, looking right, take in a view of my previous home - a 180-degree canvas of always-changing, unique combinations of light, cloud, trees and buildings.
The festivity of hills
Is the desire to climb a hill a human instinct? I’ve always had a strong yen to get onto higher ground, whether to get a sense of perspective in times of stress or in a lighter spirit of celebration. What the climb demands in effort it rewards with a sense of accomplishment - elevation provides a robustly physical response to life’s highs and lows. Ancient humans must have felt the power of hills: hilltops such as the Glastonbury Tor are traditionally gathering places at solstice.
Lisbon’s miradouros are public spaces of relaxation and recreation. They’re the best places to watch the sunset, valued above the view of the sea, combining the need to mark the passing of time with the gentle socialising that forms the lifeblood of the city. They’re festive places, with buskers playing and vendors selling; later in the evening, they become the site of informal parties. During the times when the city’s bars and clubs were closed, they drew the young like a channel attracts damned-up water. At weekends, as I lay drifting in and out of sleep on one hill, I would hear laughing voices carried on the wind from the next.
At quieter times, the miradouros provide a different way of being in the city. The trees that grow on some – mediterranean stone pines with heavy, bowing canopies - create a place that is both elemental and urban. Viewed from the hurly-burly of the ground or another highpoint, these watchers of the city are reminders of Lisbon’s origins in nature, of the wood that makes its houses and furniture, the clay that forms its bricks and tiles.
But more of that in another post.