Thursday, 8 May 2008

Rebirth in Lisbon

When in Lisbon, there are two key dates that stay on the mind: 1755 and 1974.

During a visit I made to the city last weekend, these two pivotal turning points constantly came up. They were both times of regeneration, of a culture and a city redefining itself after a dramatic upheaval. And they both speak to the remarkable ability for societies to recover and rebuild.

In 1755 Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake followed by a tidal wave and fire that completely razed the city and killed 15,000 people. In 1974, a military coup was able to finally wrest power from a dictatorship that ruled Portugal with an iron fist for more than four decades.

These two dates pop up constantly in any guidebook for the city. For instance, nearly every significant building you see was built or rebuilt immediately after the quake, because hardly anything was left standing after it except the aqueduct and the Belem Tower. And when reading about the city’s culture and politics, there is always a pre-1974 and post-1974 explanation.

A City Obliterated
The degree to which the 1755 earthquake was a disaster for Portugal cannot be overstated. The country’s fortunes were already waning at that point. Having been the first European country to explore and colonize the world (effectively kick-starting the process of globalisation that continues today) in the 15th century, by 1755 Portugal had been eclipsed by its neighbours globally and had lost much of its ability to defend even its home territory. In 1582 the Spanish were able to snatch the Portuguese crown and rule the two countries and their overseas possessions as a combined empire. Though Portugal was able to regain its independence in 1668, it was increasingly dependent diplomatically on its ally England, something that would prove problematic later on during the Napoleonic Wars.

Luckily the city at the time was blessed with having a brilliant (and despotic) chief minister, the Marques de Pombal, who quickly set to work rebuilding the city from scratch in a modern style. The grid system of Baixa is his doing, as are the widened grid streets of Bairro Alto. Walking around the city you really get a feel for this. The only section of the city with a medieval layout is Alfama, everything else is linear with 90-degree corners.

It’s really amazing how quickly the city was able to rebuild, especially in light of the fact that the empire as a whole was already in decline and short on funds. I couldn’t help but make mental comparisons to New Orleans as I looked around. After the earthquake the Marques rebuilt the city in a completely new way, making buildings earthquake-proof, raising the ground level to prevent extreme damage from a tidal wave and putting abutments between buildings to prevent fire spreading. As I walked around and looked at the city, I thought about the foolishness of the suggestion by some in 2005 that New Orleans should just be abandoned after Hurricane Katrina – cities can and do regenerate and rebuild. But I also thought about how foolish it is that they’re rebuilding it in exactly the same way, seemingly not changing any aspects of the city to make it less vulnerable to flooding. The Marques would not be impressed.

Of course the city had rebuilt itself even before the 1755 quake, having gone through many reincarnations. Founded most likely by Phoenicians, it was then conquered by Rome which ruled it for several hundred years before it was capured by invading Germanic tribes. It was then taken over, along with the rest of Spain, by the Islamic Moors from North Africa, who ruled Lisbon for more than 400 years before the reconquista conquered it for Chirstiandom and Portugal was founded. One spot in the city where you can literally see the layers of these continual rebirths is in the Cloisters of Se Cathedral, where excavations show Roman houses on the bottom, then Moorish mosques built above them, and finally a Christian clositers wall at the top (pictured). It's fascinating.

Salazar Hangover

The other big change was the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1974 (something made possible by the fact that the dictator – Oliveira Salazar – had died four years earlier). In much of the cultural reaction that followed the overthrow (which I read about in my guidebook and spoke about with Portuguese people we met) I saw strong parallels to after the fall of communism. Much of the cultural attitudes toward the dictatorship were similar to what I observed in Czechs while I lived in Prague in their attitude toward culture during the communist regime.

For instance, on Friday night we went to a Fado performance in Bairro Alto. Lisbon is full of restaurants and bars with Fado, a native Portuguese style of singing that is tragic and melodramatic, full of wistfulness and longing. The place was quite touristy but we enjoyed it. Afterwards when we were out at the bars in Bairro Alto a Portuguese person we met told us that he actually hates Fado, as do many Portuguese people. Apparently Salazar was nuts for Fado, and it was promoted and idolized as the national art form during his regime. After the 1974 revolution many Portuguese people rejected Fado because of its associations with Salazar, and it became very unpopular. 

The immensely talented Amalia Rodrigues, who had been a Fado superstar during the regime, turned into public enemy number one and was shunted into a ghetto to live a life of poverty. It was only in the 1990’s that people started to revaluate the art form, particularly as a good marketing ploy for foreign tourists. But, as our new friend told us, many people would never be able to remove Fado’s association with the Salazar regime. He even said he didn’t think he could sit through a Fado performance.
This was similar to what I observed while living in Prague. After communism fell many of the art forms and artists that had been popular during the communist era and supported by the regime became persona non-grata. Helena Vondrackova, without a doubt the biggest and most famous singer in the country, was shunned immediately following the fall of communism in the Czech Republic because she had been so close to the ruling party. It took her years of apologizing and insisting she never supported Communism in her heart to win back people’s trust, but to this day there are many Czechs who can’t even abide listening to her music because of her associations with the old regime.

Parading the Past

Both of these turning points were a rebirth for the city, times when the society took a bad situation and used it as a conduit to reinvent itself. Since the fall of the dictatorship Portugal has pinned its hopes and its rising success on the EU. Thanks to heavy EU subsidies in the 1990’s the country was virtually transformed, and is no longer the backwater many Europeans used to view it as. Exploring the city I was struck by all of the monumental new projects, the modern supermarkets, and the beautiful and efficient metro system. All of this was made possible by support from the EU, and Portugal, along with Ireland, is today one of the project’s biggest success stories.

Yet throughout all this change the country still maintains a firm grounding in its traditions and its past. This was apparent on Saturday when my friend and I stumbled upon a parade of Iberian masks going down the Rua Augusta. Each village or group had an entry in the parade, marked by a sign travelling before them, and the costumes were brilliantly colourful and eye-catching, usually having some kind of reference point to their particular village or group. 

 As the drums banged and the bells jingled I remembered that although this is a land that has rebuilt and reformed itself many times, it has maintained a firm grounding in its rich traditions and past. Surely there’s a lesson to be learned here for Europe as a whole. Reform, rebirth and renewal does not eradicate culture and history, it strengthens and reinforces it. Individual countries in Europe have gone through many rebirths and regenerations. Could we be on the cusp of a rebirth for the continent as a whole, in the form of a united entity?

It’s a monumental task, and I suspect not even the Marques de Pombal would be up for the challenge.

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