Finding heroes in Lisbon

March 6, 2022

Understanding the literary history of Portugal on a short walking tour of Lisbon

Finding heroes  in Lisbon

“Lisbon is a city of grief-stricken heroes”, says Maria Teresa Horta in her poem, Lisbon Itinerary. She was born in Lisbon, and I wonder if I will learn about her during the walking tour that I’m about to take.

I arrived in Lisbon the night before and decided to spend this morning on a walking tour. Four years ago, I had enjoyed a short vacation here and visited all the tourist highlights. Now, I’m compelled to find out more about the literary history of Lisbon. So I sit on the steps of the column of a statue. King José I, astride his horse with snakes in his path.

This harbour-facing plaza, Praça do Comércio, looks out toward the River Tagus. On the remaining three sides are impressive three-storey yellow and white buildings. Other members of the group are gathering in this space. It’s a cold day in February. My latte is balanced on the damp step where I sit in anticipation of the two-hour Baixa-Chiado Tour, the downtown area of Lisbon.

Finding heroes  in Lisbon

Our guide, Sara, says she will begin the tour at 11am. As I wait for her, I catch up on my reading assignment for this trip. My sister, Selma, and I, are both retired professors and have maintained our inclination to assign homework – to each other that is – in preparation for trips we take together. We do this often. We’ve travelled to Turkey, Morocco and Spain. Each time, we read writers and poets from that region. An artist herself, Selma also looks up local artists. Reading is our vacation ritual. She will arrive from Malaga, Spain, a day later, so I’m using this time to take a tour of Lisbon.

I’ve heard of other interesting vacation practices: a librarian friend checks out the public library of the city she is visiting. Another friend takes cooking classes at her vacation spot.

Finding heroes  in Lisbon

For Selma and me, months before our travels, we seek out authors and poets to become familiar with their worldview as we enjoy their city. For Lisbon, we read Nobel Laureate Jose Saramago’s Blindness – his most famous work exposing the illusion of human decency – and his last novel, Cain.

But I am hungry for women poets and writers of Portugal. It isn’t easy to find Portuguese writers whose work has been translated into English, so I check out websites with translations and come across the Alfacinha – native of Lisbon – poet, Maria Teresa Horta, born in the same year as my mother, 1937.

Horta co-wrote New Portuguese Letters, which was banned during the fascist Salazar dictatorship, making it a must-read. I’m not sure if she considers herself a hero or even grief-stricken. She did, however, say this in an interview: you can only be a poet in freedom… I wanted to write what I felt, and from then on my literary life changed. I began to be silenced.

Finding heroes  in Lisbon

Portugal has been a very inward looking, conservative culture, Sara replies. Women, for the most part, were expected to take care of the home. Only recently have things started to change.

Continuing to write under dictatorial rule is heroic. Having grown up in Pakistan during the Zia era, I know this firsthand. I make a quick note to get a copy of her book, but for now I wait in the Praça do Comércio to learn more about Horta’s “city with its monuments, stalwart histories”.

In front of me stands the triumphal arch, with a clock and statues of Glory, Ingenuity, and Valour. Of the other statues, I only know of Vasco da Gama from my history lessons in school in Pakistan. After the tour I will get to know the Marquis of Pomba, the architect of the space where I sit.

As I sip my coffee, I check the tour website – we’ll be seeing the “romantic neighbourhoods in Lisbon, the meeting point of famous artists, writers, poets and politicians, the areas that suffered the most with the Great Earthquake of Lisbon in 1755” all rebuilt making it the first earthquake-proof city in Europe.

Finding heroes  in Lisbon

The Bay Area of California, where I now live, shakes regularly and we are in constant preparedness for quakes.

While earthquakes and other natural disasters bring humanity together, political upheavals can prove destructive and divisive. This tour promises to teach me about the Jewish massacre, the longest dictatorship in Europe and the revolution that changed the country and the many aspects of Portuguese culture.

At 11am Sara walks towards us. She takes off her face mask and with the energy of someone who loves her job asks our small team where we’re from: New Zealand, England, Pakistan and Pakistan again.

I turn around to see the two other Pakistanis in our group. One is settled in Munich the other in Seattle. Later, when we talk to one another, they tell me that they studied together at the NUST and now vacation together every year. It turns out that, like Selma and me, they were looking for a country in Europe with a warm climate.

Finding heroes  in Lisbon

After introductions, Sara throws out three dates: 1255, 1755, 1974. Remember these dates, she says. The first is the year Lisbon became the capital of Portugal. The second is the great earthquake in Lisbon. The last is the end of the longest dictatorship in Europe. These years define the history of Lisbon.

And if you find Portuguese difficult to understand, Sara adds, it’s because of the history of those who conquered it. First came the Romans with Latin. Then the Visigoths brought German. And in the 8th Century the Moors brought Arabic. A combination of these three languages makes modern Portuguese.

Despite this being my second trip to Portugal, I’m embarrassed to admit that the only Portuguese word I know is obrigado, which means thank you.

In 2016, when I first visited Lisboa, I followed the footsteps of the Italian author, Tabucchi’s Pereira. I went to Praça da Alegria, where Periera chose to meet Rossi. I was introduced to Pereira through an article by Mohsin Hamid in The Guardian. The main character, Pereira, is an overweight journalist and widower, who talks to the portrait of his dead wife. I sought out the plazas and roads he frequented.

Hamid had been captivated by the style in which the Italian author had pulled the reader into Salazar’s Lisbon of the 1930s, a time of terror. Hamid apprenticed himself to the style to write his own Reluctant Fundamentalist.

My return to Lisbon this February is on my way home to California after spending time with family in Pakistan. This time, I’ll do more than seek out the best Pastel de nata, the Portuguese egg custard tart pastry – Sara takes us directly to the most authentic creamy ones on this tour.

As we wind our way through the narrow streets, Sara delivers on the promise of this tour. The Marquis who designed the city after the great earthquake was brilliant but brutal. King Jose, who abandoned Lisbon after the earthquake of 1755 and never returned, was ridiculed by the city. Even the statue on the column shows him dressed in attire unfit for a king. Instead of armour for battle, he is dressed in leisurely hunting garb.

As we stroll toward the Casa dos Bicos /José Saramago Foundation, where the writer’s ashes are buried under an olive tree, Sara tells us of Portugal’s mixed reaction toward Saramago.

Jose Saramago, whose parents couldn’t afford to send him to college, began his professional life as an auto mechanic. Then he became a journalist and much later, in his fifties, he began writing novels. He is not loved despite being the first Portuguese writer to win the Nobel Prize. It might be because of his politics (communist) or his personality (prickly) or a combination of the two. His wife, Sara says, sent half his ashes to be buried here. She smiles and adds, I’m not sure how much she really loved him.

What about the women of Lisbon? I ask Sara. Tell us about them.

Portugal has been a very inward looking, conservative culture, she replies. Women, for the most part, were expected to take care of the home. Only recently have things started to change.

As our tour comes to an end, I realise I need to do some of my own searching. I will wait for Selma to join me and we’ll plan our post-vacation reading assignments and share them with others on our blog.

The writer is the author of Wild Boar in the Cane Field and blogs at

Finding heroes in Lisbon