A City Losing its Soul: Lisbon in Lockdown

For centuries, the history of Lisbon has unfolded against the backdrop of a sound-and-light show that has defined the city as much as anything else.

The Easter massacre of 1506 began with light — a disputed reflection inside a dim church — and ended with the deadly sound of heads being ‘dashed against walls’, as the contemporary royal chronicler Damião de Gois put it.

On the night of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, the destroyed city — with its horrific soundtrack of collapsing buildings and wailing survivors playing on repeat — was illuminated by a cruel glow from the third of that day’s disasters, a raging firestorm.

Six years later, with Jesuit priest Gabriele Malagrida awaiting execution in one of Lisbon’s famous squares, a peculiar light brightened the night sky, causing crowds of onlookers to shout out in chorus: ‘Miracle!’

Sound and light are as inseparable in Lisbon as fado and wine. But with the city in lockdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, the question is: can one exist without the other?

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Lisbon in Lockdown: Rua do Carmo, normally one of the busiest shopping streets in Lisbon’s Chiado neighbourhood, is completely deserted. Photo: Nick Leonard.

In a city that clings to centuries’ worth of sounds, the first thing you notice now is the silence.

In the Baixa neighbourhood of downtown Lisbon, there is no city bustle anymore. There are no locals chatting on their phones while scurrying to and from work, no tourists excitedly comparing their first impressions of a beautiful city, no competing tunes from the street musicians on every block of Rua Augusta. Even the once-despised but now somehow longed-for whispers of ‘hashish’ from the shady drug sellers are gone.

In a ghost town, as Lisbon is these days, there is no noise.

At the southern end of the Baixa in the Terreiro do Paço, the cacophony of sounds that defined Lisbon in the Age of Discovery are but a haunting memory. Where elephants once trumpeted and jaguars growled as part of King Manuel’s exotic palace cortege in the early 16th century, now the pattering of a few scattered pigeons is the only thing one hears.

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Lisbon in Lockdown: The empty, silent Terreiro do Paço (Praça do Comércio) in downtown Lisbon, normally a hub of activity. Photo: Nick Leonard.

Well after Manuel’s time, on the day of the earthquake, the palace he built went up in flames, while survivors fled collapsing buildings to the open spaces of the adjacent square only to be washed away by the crashing tsunami waves. Imagine, for a moment, how all of that sounded.

Today, the bronze equestrian statue of the ineffective king of the day, José I, stands alone in the rebuilt square — motionless and silent — gazing out at the river where the echoes of empire once filtered into his city.

That sound once thrust Portuguese explorers from Lisbon to India and beyond. More recently, it has propelled sunset sailboat cruises for tourists. But there are no boats in the river now, no sails flapping in the breeze, nothing for the noiseless wind to grab onto.

In nearby Alfama, the oldest and most famous historical neighbourhood in Lisbon, the fado houses are empty, and the only thing sadder than those stirring and deeply emotional songs is when there’s no music at all.

And with no fado, there’s no wine or the anticipatory sounds that come with it: no popping of cork (of which Portugal is the world’s number one producer) or clinking of glasses.

Virtually the only sound left on Lisbon’s streets these days is the screeching of the city’s quaint and emblematic yellow trams, but they’re ghost carriages now, devoid of passengers and the noises that follow them.

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Lisbon’s famous trams in Alfama before the lockdown. Photo: Nick Leonard.

The clamour of tourists packed into the №28 tram like a can of Portuguese sardines, the clicking of the phones and cameras of those lucky enough to get a seat, the laughter of joyriding schoolboys clinging to the exterior railings — it’s all gone.

Instead, the empty 28 creaks its way up the rusty hill to Estrela and the complete absence of other street noise creates a ghastly, piercing echo that, instead of filling the silence, only serves to accentuate it even more.

While the sound has vanished from Lisbon’s streets, the light remains — or, at least, it did.

By some measures, Lisbon is the sunniest capital city on the European mainland. The rays of the ever-present Iberian sun are reflected by the colourful azulejo tiles that adorn many buildings and the black-and-(mostly)-white mosaic paving that was invented in Lisbon in the 1840s and that covers the sidewalks in the city’s historical neighbourhoods.

This special light has been exalted by visitors for centuries, and it isn’t lost on the locals either.

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Before the lockdown, when the simple pleasure of reading outside was permitted, a woman finds some light among the winter shadows on the Beco da Boavista. Photo: Nick Leonard.

An elderly nun who gives tours at her convent on Rua de O Sécolo says the only cities she could live in are those with a certain kind of light, and she nominates three: Lisbon, her native Lagos in the Algarve, where the light reflecting off the whitewashed buildings is almost blinding, and Paris — that other City of Light.

Meanwhile, an uber driver in Lisbon claims that the city’s Portuguese name, Lisboa, actually means ‘good light’ — not quite true but close enough. In any case, light forms an indelible part of the city’s soul.

After the state of emergency was decreed in Portugal on 18 March, lisboetas stayed home while the light stayed out. As spring dawned, the empty city with its magical light became a photographer’s dream (though only en route to or from an essential trip to the downtown health food stores, naturally).

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Lisbon in Lockdown: Praça do Município and the Town Hall — light without sound. Photo: Nick Leonard.

But without sound, the light, too, seemed empty. In the City of Tolerance, as Lisbon was once called, can the light tolerate the absence of sound?

Apparently not.

After putting on typically glorious weather at the beginning of the crisis, Lisbon has been unseasonably wet, grey and cold for most of the last two weeks, matching the mood of its stay-at-home residents.

Shoppers waiting two metres apart in lines outside supermarkets now do so huddled up in winter coats while holding umbrellas. The hippy couple who three weeks ago were standing in the middle of the road, joyous as children with their necks outstretched to soak up the light and warmth of the afternoon sun, now silently walk down the same street, shivering in scarves.

The light has disappeared so thoroughly that people have resorted to turning lights on inside their apartments during the day to quell the darkness.

Searching for a silver lining in the grey clouds, the newspaper Diário de Notícias noted that there was no longer any reason to be tempted to break the quarantine. ‘Leaving the house is not even worth thinking about,’ a headline read last Friday, correctly forecasting days of significant rainfall.

As the lockdown enters its fourth week, this is what Lisbon has become: a city without sound, a city without light.

Shuttered at home in silent obscurity, at least we still have wine.

Six weeks later, with Lisbon opening up again, here is a sequel to this story: Fernando Pessoa and the End of Lockdown in Lisbon.

Written by

Compulsive traveller, Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Olympic journalist and light-chasing photographer.

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