As the citizens of Lisbon face recession they find new hope in an old symbol.
The once busy harbour lies derelict on a sunny day, most of the piers are free and the busiest people around are the joggers. Restaurant signs welcome visitors, but lead them to closed doors. The only place to find food is the last, and lost, snack bar. Lisbon is one of the countries that has been most effected by the international financial crisis. The unemployment rate reached a staggering peak, the rate for people under 25 is at around 42%, and is expected to rise. In general, Portugal’s economy hasn’t grown significantly in the last few years. With its peripheral location it is one of the poorest countries of Western Europe. In the country as well as in the capital there have been deep cuts in public services. Assembleia de popular, 25 de abril, the date for a popular assembly, but also for a national strike and other political statements are sprayed on walls all over the city. Opposition against the austerity measures is growing.
Today the harbour is not the only lost place in the city, a short while ago the central area Terreiro do PaÇo, also known as Comercio Square, was adrift as well. It’s one of the largest public places in Europe, and used to be the location for the royal castle, as well as hosting many political and cultural events. For a long time this square was just a vacant parking area, but that has recently changed. On a Sunday in May it is full of colourful old-timers at the finish of the Heroic classic car rally, a tour from London to Lisbon, which ends here. Many people come to take pictures of the cars and talk to the owners. It shows that the Comercio Square is a stage again; a stage for important events, attractive cafes and hundreds of visitors.
The Lisboa Story Centre, a one-hour multimedia tour through the history of Lisbon, was also built here. “Nothing comparable was in our city before, it’s important to present the past of our city in a modern and quick way. It’s our story put in a nutshell,” explains Luisa Adelino, director of the Story Centre, elaborating on why they located an exhibition like this in the heart of the city. The Story Centre is one place of many, which shows that the people of Lisbon appreciate their city and their history. “For some years now there has been a trend all over the city to show historical things again or even in a new way. Many shops and restaurants went back to tradition,” states Adelino.
The last year around ten new tabernas were built in Lisbon, traditional places that offer petiscos, comparable to Spanish tapas. Every taberna has its own concept, offering the dishes in new variations, furnishing the restaurants with traditional inventory. Or, as taberna owner and cook Nuno Barros did, presenting something completely new and innovative. In his taberna, he had the idea of combining a restaurant with a supermarket, which sells only local products. Visitors of Mercado 1143, which opened last July, can walk through a small grocery store and look what they want to eat. “The meal they choose is getting cooked quite fresh and after their dinner, if they liked it, they can buy the ingredients and cook it at home in their own way,” Barros explains. “All products on the market were made in Portugal,” his smile lets you know that he’s convinced his idea is good, and so are the customers. “We like our country’s tastes,” explains Pedro Cordero, a Lisbon native, as he lunches with his colleagues at Mercado 1143. While years ago it was a sign of quality, if products came from elsewhere in Europe, in times of recession people like to support their country with concepts like this, even if they have to spend a little more.
It’s not only in the food and restaurant industry that tradition is back in vogue. Burel, a shop that opened five months ago in a side street of Lisbon’s Chiado shopping area, sells handmade Portuguese products like pillows, bags or housewares. To produce their products out of special wool material, they revived production of the material in the nearby mountains. “We discovered this old plant and we love our national heritage,” and that’s how the owner Isabel Costa got the idea to open this shop. While handing a red carpet over to two well-established Lisbon women, she explains that, “there is no reason why something, which worked in the past, shouldn’t work again.”
A concept similar to that of Catarina Portas. Two streets over and around the corner is one of her shops, which also sells only traditional and national goods like cosmetics, kitchen or office supplies. “We believe that there is a future for old Portuguese products,” she says. And her idea – with which she seemed to be the trendsetter – has been working for seven years. Later, when the trend seemed to approach its peak, she expanded and bought three of the historical Quiosques de Refrescos – commercial stands from the 19th century that are located at public places in the city. There, enjoying traditional drinks like leite perfumado, milk laced with cinnamon, lemon and sugar, people refresh themselves. “Why drink Coca Cola if you are able to support your own country so delicious?” Asks customer José Silva as he enjoys his beverage.
Even if the situation in Lisbon seems desperate from the outside, inside, the city has a different vibe. All over the city, in many products, shops, but also on ordinary house fronts, you can see a symbol of this energy. “The swallow, or andorinha, is a bird that shows the love of one’s own things,” says Isabel Costa. In older times it was a sign for the homecoming of sailors, because if they saw swallows it meant that land was close by (swallows always fly close to the coast). This is why swallows are a symbol for return and local ties, but they can also stand for hope and freedom, ideals which the people of Lisbon won’t give up, regardless of what else happens to their city.