It’s early September 2010, and I am on a bus heading back to Lisbon after visiting my grandparents in the countryside. Upon arrival, the bus stops at Campo Grande station. One of Lisbon’s main entry points, from where a large and long avenue called Avenida da Republica darts its way into the heart of the capital. From Campo Grande, I could take the metro to get home. But the absence of clouds in the sky and the warm breeze of September makes me feel as though Lisbon is inviting me for a walk. And so, I decide to make my way home on foot.
Walking down the avenue, I go past the University of Lisbon, where I nearly get run over by the swathes of senior academic students who parade past in their traditional black cloaks called Traje. They guide first-years students in between the university buildings, subjugating them to initiation rituals known as Praxe, which often involve a lot of heavy drinking.
Arriving at Saldanha, the city’s financial district, the walk starts getting harder. Lisbon sits on seven hills and, from this point onwards, it’s all either up the hill or down it. But just as I decide whether or not to take public transport, I’m approached by a lost Austrian couple, holding a map with a puzzled look on their faces.
We get chatting, and I offer to give them directions, but as it turns out, they are not looking for any place in particular. Their aim is to get lost and search for the essence of Lisbon. What it is about; I had never thought about Lisbon in that way. To me, Lisbon is just Lisbon. Nevertheless, I tell them I’m heading downtown and invite them to tag along.
We walk from Saldanha to Marques de Pombal, the big roundabout with multiple lanes and exits that spirals onto Lisbon’s most fashionable avenue, Avenida da Liberdade, full of high-end cloth stores and lined with tree laden pavements. Later we stroll across the elegant, cobblestoned street Rua Augusta and onto the imposing Terreiro do Paço, a beautifully symmetric square, that fronts on to the Tagus river. The sunlight that bounces off it is almost blinding, turning patches of water gold, and the Austrian couple stares at them hypnotised. As we finally part ways, I wonder if they found the essence they were after.
Due to the detour that my walk has taken, I have to get home the long way around but, just as I head up the steep streets of the historical neighbourhood Graça, I hear a couple of friends shouting my name frow afar. Graça is so high up the hill that every corner turns into breath-taking sightseeing spot. And my friends are sitting on a bench enjoying the sunset beer in hand. With a view over all of Lisbon’s colourful rooftops, which are made all the more glorious by the red, 25 de Abril bridge that stands tall in the horizon, asserting itself as the frontier between river and sea. With such an epic sight and atmosphere, how could I not join them?
As the sun sets and the night falls, more friends join before we go on a bit of bar crawl. Later we end up at someone’s house for an improvised dinner, only to come back out into the night. This time in Lisbon’s bohemian district Bairro Alto, where we keep bumping into friends left, right and centre. We roam about the neighbourhood’s maze-like streets until we find ourselves in a dark, music venue where a man and woman play the guitar and sing from a small corner stage. They have glasses of wine by the feet of their chairs, which they sip gently in between songs. Cigarette smoke fills the air as costumers listen peacefully to their music, embedded in an atmosphere that feels as nostalgic as it feels poetic.
Twelve hours have gone by since I started my journey from Campo Grande, and I’m still nowhere near going home. Someone is getting us a cab. We’re heading to Lux, the most iconic night club in the capital. On the way there we make friends with the cab driver, who drives us through the vibrant night scene of Lisbon, making shortcuts until we reach the Santa Apolonia area. As we get out of the cab, a long queue stands between us and the club’s entrance door. But the city is small, and there is always someone who knows someone and sometimes that someone happens to be the bouncer who lets us skip the line to come in.
We drink cocktails on the rooftop and dance all night until the day breaks. After dawn, we come out and head to the little food vans, also known as Rolotes just outside Lux for some comfort food. Kebabs, greasy pizzas, or steak sandwiches, you name it. As we leave, some of us go home alone, others get lucky, and then some, like me, decide that just because morning has broken, it doesn’t mean the night is over. Santa Apolonia is close to Cais do Sodre from where we get the train to the beach in Carcavelos, nor far from Cascais. It’s now 11 am, and I am curing my hungover in the salty seawater.
As I float about in the ocean, I revisit in my head all the events of the last 24 hours and can’t help wondering what it would have been like, had I decided to get the metro home instead of walking. I guess that is the funny thing about Lisbon, how all you got to do is walk around with no plan for a plan to formulate itself. Because Lisbon, with its hills, colours, and steep streets that spread into so many different directions, is all about improvisation. And If only I were to bump into that Austrian couple again, I would tell them just that.