A Literary Trip to Lisbon Is the Best Way to Uncover Portugal’s Hidden Beauty

In Portugal, novelist Charmaine Craig searches for the ghost of her hero, goes on a high-speed chase for delicious pork, and ponders the mystery of a writer’s trunk.

A Literary Trip to Lisbon Is the Best Way to Uncover Portugal’s Hidden Beauty

Novelist Charmaine Craig reports back after an unexpected journey to Lisbon.

Illustration by Naomi Wilkinson

This story is part of Travel Tales, a series of life-changing adventures on afar.com. Read more stories of transformative trips on the Travel Tales home pageand be sure to subscribe to the podcast! And, though COVID-19 has stalled many travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

I suppose we see the world through the lens of our losses as much as our loves.

When I find myself unexpectedly headed for Lisbon one morning in spring, two months have passed since a fire jumped from my neighbor’s house to mine, wiping out much of our property and displacing my family of four. We’re all OK, but still I hope that Lisbon—which I’ve never seen—will be a balm. And how can it not be, I reassure myself while hurtling over the Atlantic away from the children, who will sleep in our makeshift home without me tonight? Lisbon produced Fernando Pessoa, in whose timeless The Book of Disquiet I have been finding consolation for nearly two decades.

I arrive at midday. Through the window of a taxi, I look past the traffic and have the unexpected impression of being transported to the landscape of a richly hued painting whose subject is Iberian imperial glory. It’s not just the massive riverside square with its triumphal arch; it’s the vastness of the sky, the loftiness of the clouds, the hint of dust in the golden light. “And the light falls so serenely and perfectly on things, gilds them with such sad, smiling reality,” Pessoa wrote of his city. I expected something quieter, more diminished, yet everything here appears so proud, strong of scale, and luminous, the stuff of dreams.

And I do seem to be dreaming when, though tired from the journey, I take a walk as soon as I’ve dropped off my bags at a modest bed-and-breakfast in the historic Chiado district. Lisbon is a city of seven hills, and, without map or guidebook, I trip down cobblestone streets to a series of squares, each with a symmetry and splendor that reflect the next, like facets of a single, late-18th-century jewel. Pulled along by swells of tourists, I soon find myself on the jammed commercial Rua Garrett, where a placard with the seal of Guinness World Records informs me that I’ve stumbled onto Bertrand, the world’s “oldest operating bookshop,” established in 1732. I break through a stream of people exiting the place to find another placard, this one seemingly straight out of a dream, its words redirecting me: SALA FERNANDO PESSOA.

The room is only distractedly interested in its namesake author. A sparse display on one of its walls names Pessoa “one of the greatest poets in the Portuguese language”—though I’ve always considered the author’s greatness to reside in his prose writing. I leave quickly, but farther up the boulevard, outside the Café A Brasileira, I run into a bronze statue of Pessoa sitting eerily beside a tourist snapping a selfie. And back near my B&B, I encounter the four-star Lisboa Pessoa Hotel, whose shining lobby features a glass case filled with Pessoa texts and artifacts. It seems extraordinary, if also troubling, that a literary writer—one who is relatively unknown in the United States and who, during his lifetime, avoided the pursuit of both money and recognition—should be championed and commercialized by a city this way.

The next morning, I receive a message from a leading Pessoa scholar, whom I emailed before arriving. He proposes we meet that afternoon. Wanting some spiritual replenishment before then, I set out through a light rain to the nearby Belém district’s Jerónimos Monastery. Once inside the vaulted and colonnaded passages of the cloisters, I resign myself to being part of a crowd that seems to forbid the possibility of silent meditation. Until I see it: Pessoa’s tomb, a modern pillar of blocks, inscribed with the writer’s name and years of birth and death (1888–1935). How have I managed, without any kind of research, to walk headlong toward his remains? For half an hour, I sit peacefully across from the tomb, watching the crowds and internally conversing with the Pessoa I’ve read, or perhaps with an even more eternal Pessoa. “Ah,” he wrote, “how mysteriously the everyday things of life brush by us!”

I’m careening up the coast at more than 120 miles per hour, mentally apologizing to my children for leaving them motherless in such an idiotic way.

It is still raining when I meet the scholar, a fortysomething Italian named Antonio Cardiello, who immediately offers me his umbrella. He is gentle and unassuming, yet passionate when it comes to Pessoa. Within moments he has led me to the Largo de São Carlos, the square facing the apartment where Pessoa was born, above what is now a Godiva shop. Minutes later, as we sip mineral water and green tea in a nearby café, Cardiello is telling me about the first time he opened The Book of Disquiet in a Padua bookstore. “Of course, the subject is old Lisbon,” he says. “You have this man walking the street, looking out the window, seeing the light outside. But the subject changes; he’s talking about himself. Then he’s talking about the tobacco store or old ladies on the street, and he passes through these old ladies and becomes another person, changes his personality. . . . It was a revelation to me.”

We stroll the misty city. On the teeming Rua Garrett, where, amid ice cream shops and clothing boutiques, the sign for Bertrand’s orients me, Cardiello asks, “Do you know the story about this place?” Thirty years ago, the street was mostly abandoned. Then, in 1988, a fire took it out. “Everything was destroyed,” Cardiello says. “But now if you want to buy an apartment here, you need to be a millionaire.” As we proceed to old downtown, where Pessoa worked as a translator, Cardiello tells me that in 1755 a massive earthquake, subsequent tidal wave, and several days of fire leveled much of old Lisbon, before the Marquis de Pombal determined to re-create the city this glorious way. Cardiello’s narrative of Lisbon seems to be shaped by cycles of profound loss and overcoming. Maybe my own fire has made me sensitive, but I can’t help but be inspired. We pass under the arch that gives onto a square I first glimpsed from the taxi—the Praça do Comércio—and, beyond a massive equestrian sculpture at the center of the square, we pause to take in the Tagus River, where 15th-century explorers set sail.

On one side of the square, we enter the quiet Martinho da Arcada, Pessoa’s favorite café. “They never use this for customers,” Cardiello tells me, gesturing to a corner where a table—laid with a few books, an empty cup, and a glass—waits for the author to return for his coffee and grappa. We make our way to the Rua dos Douradores, where we stop in front of a row of buildings. Somewhere in one of these, much of The Book of Disquiet was written. “From my fourth-floor room looking out over the infinite . . . ,” Pessoa wrote, “my dreams . . . set off on journeys to unknown or imagined or simply impossible countries.”

“He saw the whole world from the window of this street,” Cardiello murmurs as we gaze up in search of the artist, as if to catch him gazing back at us over the infinite.


Illustration by Naomi Wilkinson

The next phase of my trip is hedonistic rather than heady. During breakfast at the guesthouse the next morning, Andreas and Nela, the young Romanian couple staying on the floor below mine, announce they’re about to head to the nearby town of Sintra, which Cardiello has urged me to see. Before I know quite what is happening, I’m in the rear of their friend Mihai’s car, careening up the coast at more than 120 miles per hour, alternately begging the driver to slow down, trying not to be sick, and mentally apologizing to my children for leaving them motherless in such an idiotic way. Mihai, I’m informed, is a Romanian transplant who has lived in Portugal for two decades. He opened several restaurants before starting a business exporting Portuguese luxury food items. More pertinently: He is also a former race car driver. He assures me repeatedly that the surest way to die behind the wheel is to over-rely on slowness and your brakes.

I all but fly out of the car when he makes a stop at the Cabo da Roca—the westernmost point on the continent, whose steady and gargantuan Atlantic views I gulp down along with clean gusts of ocean air. Then it’s torture time again, as Mihai beckons us back into the car and proceeds to shoot up impossibly winding roads all the way to Sintra.

I truly have no thought of ever getting into that car again when Mihai finally drops us at the base of Sintra’s crown jewel, the yellow-and-coral hilltop Pena Palace. A World Heritage site, it was conceived by King Ferdinand II in the late 1830s at the location of an abandoned monastery (another story of a ruin restored). Just to view the turreted fairy-tale castle rising into the mist from the wooded hillside is enough to transport me. After a brief attempt at jamming into the palace’s interior with the crowds, Andreas, Nela, and I relax into our equilibrium along stone paths that wind down through the adjacent park. Nearly everything in this spacious park is green, yet there is such variation of hue, of texture, of shape: Stems and trunks and leaves arch and reach, twist with delight, point out at us fiercely. European beech stands alongside Japanese maple, Madeira mahogany alongside Mexican cypress. Admiration soon gives way to inspiration as I entertain visions of how my fire-ravaged garden might be reimagined. We wander in an enchanted state all the way down to the village center, where we proceed to stuff ourselves on codfish delicacies and more sangria than is reasonable given the ride we recently endured.

Blame my next fit of impetuousness on the sangria. Soon after lunch, Mihai shows up in the village square, promising he’ll obey the speed limit if I join them on the return trip. What really convinces me is the absurd yet unsurprising thing he says next: “I know Portugal better than the Portuguese!”

Soon we’re zooming past Lisbon, toward a tiny restaurant 120 miles south, where, he promises, we’ll find the best pata negra, Portugal’s famed black pork. Mihai explains that Portuguese people wouldn’t complain about driving more than 100 miles to eat. “Everybody in Portugal would do this,” he says. “Imagine somebody call one friend when have lunch, and say, ‘Joseph, your mother die.’ Joseph say, ‘Please let me finish my meal, and we talk about later.’”

The eating we finally do that night, at the family-run Café Restaurante O Toy Faróis, outside the city of Beja, is outrageously rewarding. The mix of galega, cobrançosa, and cordovil olives! The tomatoes and onions, so sweet! The cheese! (“Sheep,” says Mihai, “but dry one—with salt.”) The red wine! And then five different cuts of pata negra, raised on aromatic grass and acorns. I’ve never had a meal so simple and so good in my life.

[Pessoa] was wedded not to the gratifications of the flesh or fame, but to a slow and sustained meditation on the world and its meanings, beautiful thoughts and words he kept primarily to himself.

“Everything is audacious to those who dare nothing,” reads a Pessoa line stenciled on the door of the Casa Fernando Pessoa, a museum devoted to the writer, located at the address in Lisbon where he lived his last 15 years. It is the afternoon following my adventure with Mihai, and I am determined to immerse myself in Lisbon’s literary world—past and present—to move beyond its touristy and commercial districts. In the empty, airy museum, I wander into the re-creation of Pessoa’s bedroom, where the author slept alone on a narrow twin bed and ultimately left a trunk filled with tens of thousands of pages of unpublished writings, including the unfinished The Book of Disquiet. This trunk, I think, represents Pessoa’s particular audaciousness. He was wedded not to the gratifications of the flesh or fame, but to a slow and sustained meditation on the world and its meanings, beautiful thoughts and words he kept primarily to himself.

A few hours later, seemingly worlds away at the Lisbon Book Fair, I meet a poet named João Luís Barreto Guimarães, thanks to a mutual contact. When I show up under his publisher’s tent, he is finishing an on-camera interview conducted by a sparkly, visibly admiring journalist. Moments later, the dignified, imposing poet stands to greet me with a smile before introducing me to his wife. Then we’re sitting side by side, occasionally interrupted by fans wanting his signature, deep in conversation about the state of the contemporary Portuguese soul.

His recent collection, Nómada, not yet published in English, is inspired partly by his concern for Portugal’s educated young, who are increasingly driven to seek better-paying positions elsewhere in Europe. No longer tied to the land of their ancestors, these adventurers “belong to everywhere,” he says. I think of the Portuguese navigators and colonists of old and of my own family’s recent seminomadic state. We had moved into our house only six months before the fire. A year before that, we had moved to a new city. The combination of repeatedly shifting dwellings and letting go of ever more stuff along the way has taught us to be skeptical of locating our identities in personal property or any particular place. If we don’t yet belong to everywhere, we’ve found home—again and again and again—wherever we happen to be.

But, as with the work of its most celebrated author, many of [Lisbon’s] astonishments await discovery.

I decide to spend my last night in Lisbon at the Lisboa Pessoa Hotel, and in the evening, Cardiello meets me at the rooftop bar. We spend a half hour marveling at the view of the city from the deck. Before night falls, we are joined by a man whom Cardiello calls “The Master,” a Colombian academic who happens to have arrived from Bogotá a few hours earlier. I’ve never met this man, Jerónimo Pizarro, though I know his reputation. He is the leading editor of the Pessoa archives. I have brought only one book with me on this trip, and, of course, it is Pizarro’s complete, chronologically sequenced edition of The Book of Disquiet, published last year. Pizarro has a scholarly seriousness, yet he smiles often, and after we’ve exchanged introductions, I watch as he and Cardiello take in the view from the bar, while Pizarro snaps a few photos.

When we’re later dining at a nearby seafood restaurant, I ask if Pizarro finds it worrisome that the artist whose work he’s been bringing to light is being franchised by the tourism industry. Pizarro answers by saying that 15 years ago in Lisbon, he opened Pessoa’s archives and found, with a shock, that he “didn’t recognize a thing.” Very little from the trunk had been published at that time, and something like 50 percent remains unpublished today. Even if Pessoa’s name has become an instrument for merchandising, “even if we continue to see that name on everything from hotels to T-shirts,” Pizarro says, the fullness of the artist is still unknown.

And as for Lisbon: It might be what Pizarro calls “the place to be,” with tourists all over the historic districts, and jet-setters making their claims on its real estate. But, as with the work of its most celebrated author, many of its astonishments await discovery. The rewards for seeking out hidden treasures in Lisbon are many. For me, they include the deeply consoling reminder that loss is always a component of hope, and often the starting point of audacious feats of beauty.

>> Next: Tokyo’s Long Lines Lead to Magic (and Life-Changing Ramen)