I found my way to Lisbon in late 2012, by way of Faro, a city in the Algarve region to the south. The Algarve is known for having some of the best beaches in Europe and I’ve been told that in July the whole region fills with people on holiday, lazy bodies littered on the white sand, families swimming and taking sun, and then heading back to vacation houses to cook big, rollicking midday meals that are followed by equally impressive naps.
I wouldn’t know. I visited in December.
Words: Heidi Swift
The winter brings calm and quiet. The temperature drops. Cold by Portuguese standards, perfect for cycling. With the summer throngs dispersed, the roads are lightly trafficked. There is a lingering feeling of desertion and isolation, an inversion of the summer’s frenetic pace. You ride from the coast to the hills and back. You ride to the frontier with Spain. You cut down lanes and alleyways. You stop for coffee and sweets. You’re cheered on by old men with caps and canes.
Riding in a new country always guarantees adventure—unfamiliar roads and languages combine to deliver the unpredictability that wakes something up inside of you. I met Portugal with a wild heart and pedaled some of its loneliest southern roads before I flew north to the capital, Lisbon. I was traveling alone, as usual.
For all the cycling in Portugal, Lisbon is not a city that is easily traversed on two (human-powered) wheels. The seven hills on which the city is built mean only the very hardiest can make an honest go at commuting, and there is an urban downhill mountain bike race every year that is the stuff of YouTube helmet-cam fantasy, but for the most part you’re better off on foot, trolley or subway.
So, in the end, bikes brought me to Lisbon, but I didn’t actually bring a bike along for the ride.
A photograph: an obviously American girl with an oversized suitcase struggling down the cobbled streets of the Santa Catarina district in old town, trying to find the door to an Airbnb apartment.
The charm of Santa Catarina is in its patina: blue-yellow-and-white-tiled buildings crumbling at the corners, an old woman’s knickers hanging two stories above, a disgruntled cat calling out from a balcony, the winding stairway of a street plunging downhill in an unpredictable curving way. The buildings are tucked into the hillside on a maze of cobbled alleyways not accessible by car.
I found the apartment and the host named Carla. I learned how to use the old skeleton-style key. As soon as she left me alone, I managed to blow a fuse and kill the electricity to the entire unit. She had to come back and teach me how to turn it back on.
The apartment was miniature. I had to stoop to take a shower. The galley kitchen was a sliver tucked into 40 square feet nearest the door. My heels hung off the end of the bed so I slept diagonally across the mattress. The silver-haired widow in the unit above me sang in the evenings, always wore black and carried a blue umbrella. I felt shy around her, having previously noticed and catalogued her knickers in my notebook. My favorite part of the day was greeting her in the morning.
Architecture…art…food…sculpture…culture…history. I did my best to make the rounds, due diligence for city exploration, but I ended up consumed with people watching and found the elderly the most fascinating. Living anachronisms with habits and clothing carried forward from decades past. Black dresses to the mid-calf and comfortable shoes, a head scarf maybe. Bright housedresses on others, hair pulled into tight, white buns. Men in slacks perfectly pressed. Member’s Only-style jackets or fading blazers with elbow patches, thick glasses, ears grown large and ineffective. They waved newspapers at each other and argued. They stood on street corners and chatted. They walked slowly, using canes. If you saw an image of them against the stone-and-tile buildings of old town, you’d have trouble guessing if it were taken today or 50 years ago.
A photograph: a hunched and frail woman in black dress and white bun shuffling up the cobblestone stairway in the rain. She is carrying a blue umbrella.
In the Mouraria district, I discovered an English photographer who’d taken residence there roughly eight years prior: Camilla Watson. The Mouraria is a medieval-era neighborhood—one of the oldest in Lisbon—with the sinuous, narrow “roads” to prove it. These roads, let’s call them pathways, snake up and around one of the seven hills leading eventually to São Jorge Castle. Along the way, if you pick the correct route, you pass Watson’s studio. Around this same time, you begin to see her portraits, which she prints directly onto the exterior of centuries-old buildings using liquid emulsion and a mobile darkroom made from black plastic and an iron frame. The collection of images is called “A Tribute” and portrays the neighborhood’s oldest residents, many of whom have been there for their entire lives.
I stood in front of the portraits for a very long time. I went to Watson’s studio. She wasn’t there. I waited. She didn’t turn up. I bought a photograph that had been printed onto a piece of Portuguese tile. It showed a grandmother and grandfather walking down one of the nearby streets, swinging a tiny child between them. I went back into the square and sat for a while. Watson has written that she made “A Tribute” because she believes that it is the spirit of the elderly that makes this place. She was talking about the Mouraria. I am talking about Lisbon.
I shot a lot of film. I shot so much film I got worried about taking it all back on the plane, so I jumped on the subway and went to a photography store in a neighborhood on the edge of town. I asked for negatives and scans—I didn’t want to wait until I got home to see what I was dealing with. Two days later, I made the hour-long round trip and rushed back to the miniature apartment to put the CDs into my superdrive.
Nothing earth shattering. Buildings, stairways, bridges, the sprawling mosaic of red-tiled rooftops I’d seen when I finally made it all the way through the Mouraria, past Watson’s portraits and up to the very tallest tower of São Jorge Castle.
Then I opened the last folder and I didn’t recognize the photographs. They had a cool tone that was unlike the Portra I preferred to shoot. They had a vintage quality
A photograph: two men chatting on the cobbled sidewalk. One is sitting in a chair, the other standing. The standing man smokes a cigarette and smiles down at the sitting man.
The other images in the set follow a family and feature the youngest son prominently—half-naked as a toddler on the beach, perched on the hood of a vintage red car wearing a lime-green short suit (this photo is soft and the scan has an eyelash in the lower right corner), standing behind a donkey cart with his father, feeding a giraffe at the zoo, standing by a white-tiled bathtub with a towel draped over his head, and sitting under a beach umbrella with his older brother.
There is an image of the father sitting on top of a white horse (light leak in lower right obscures the front legs of the animal). The family sitting on a dock near the water. The family playing in their living room. The oldest son posing in front of an overlook, in the background a highway, a port, a cargo ship, a large red crane. At this last photograph, which showed a long line of period cars, I realized that the photographs didn’t just look old, they actually were old. 1970s? I wished I knew more about cars.
A lost roll. The photographer’s dream. I studied the scanned images for a long time, then rifled through the negatives to be sure I hadn’t been given those in error as well. They weren’t there.
That night I dreamed about the father in the photographs. In the dream he is old. I see him in a coffee shop. The toddler is with him, but hasn’t aged a day. The toddler is wearing the lime-green short suit. The man has grown the long, ineffective ears of old age. The two are frozen in a moment, mid-laugh.
A photograph: an old man laughing with a toddler boy, somewhere in a coffee shop in Lisbon. Date unknown.
Keep with Swift online at thisisswift.com