8-15 December: A Lisbon Lamentation

This is my original submission to LGNY. The article appeared in the Spring 2001 Travel Issue.

Do You Really Want to Hurt Us?

A frustrating journey through Portugal's capital

The long-term LGNY reader knows, that I am an opinionated boy. Oh, hell, I am downright cranky, a curmudgeon at best sometimes. But why? It's the by-product of cocksure optimism. Believe it or not, I enter most books, films, and vacations of my own volition, with a pure heart and a head full of optimism. Frustrating that optimism leads to some very entertaining articles for you, the beloved, intrepid LGNY reader.

And so, my last big trip, to Lisbon, started out as so many other vacations have started. I never embark thinking, "Oh, I hope I like this." I reserve fears and doubts for my so-called love life. I enter each vacation with a delightful mantra: "Despite the vicissitudes of air travel and Amtrak, I am going to have a absolutely fabulous time."

Mind you, I am not a dolt. I do expect things to go awry. Things happen. However, things happened to me in Portugal that I did not expect from an up-and-coming member of the European Union. I am ashamed to admit I turned into Judy Davis from **Where Angels Fear to Tread**. I crowned myself queen and had a royal fit or two.

But everyone I know who ever went to Lisbon adored it, and all the books extolled the virtues of Portuguese hospitality. And for those first two days, Saturday and Sunday, I was ready to retire in Portugal. People were friendly. The town was quaint, as if not much had changed in 60 years. In fact, Lisbon is remarkable for not having changed all that much since the 1930s. Narrow streets and red tile roofs everywhere. It's a city of large hills, with cable-car funiculars circa 1885 that help you on the steeper routes, and vistas unspoiled by garish office towers (although there's tons of leftist graffiti). Cross Rome with San Francisco. And everything seems inexpensive.

Oh, and the men were delicious as well, as proven by on-site, first-hand research at an actual European sauna, where men were actually be nice to each other and naked at the same time. What a refreshing change of pace. Why, I must have been the only circumsized man in Lisbon, also based on my own first-hand research.

Then, Monday came. Monday changed everything. On Monday, Lisbon transmogrified into New York. It started with my second room change in two days at the gay hotel the Anjo Azul--the Blue Angel. Add Marlene as your mascot, repaint, put up some male nudes, and by god, you've got Portugal's first-ever gay hotel. The hotel manager--an unsmiling Mona Lisa--was completely unconcerned with my having no hot water, and then wasting an hour moving all my stuff twice in two days. The tsouris continued when a trolley driver let me board and just as quickly pushed me off the moving trolley for no apparent reason. And it continued, as I was met with sour faces from various museum guards, frowning movie patrons, and ennui-inspired tourism board staffers. My nitecap: a seemingly endless search for a place to eat dinner at an early 8 pm.

Halfway There? Sort Of.

The Economist's recent special report on Portugal was headlined "Halfway There." The Portuguese had their bloodless revolution in 1976, overturning the 65-year record-setting dictatorship under Dr. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and his successors after Salazar's stroke in 1966. Portugal, the second poorest nation in the European Union, eagerly signed up in 1986 and has gotten tubs of money from the EU for infrastructure. To prove their working on it, every third street I walked on was being unearthed. Construction projects abound. Buckets of Euros alone do not a good attitude make, though. Salazar discouraged travel, tourism, and education, and perhaps the shabby, unsmiling, unsavvy manner in which I was treated by the majority of service people is part of the legacy of the suspiciously single dictator who looked fondly upon Hitler. Despite my diminished expectations, let me add, that when people were friendly, they were the nicest people I'd ever met. There just weren't nearly enough of them. The night clerk at the hotel practically acted as a nurse and maid when I was violently ill the last night there (TIP: Do NOT eat beef in Europe, ever. Mine was camouflaged in lasagna). But for every one of him, there were three gift shop employees ready to arrest me for buying postcards. I just want to order a Customer Service Class for the entire nation. Even the men running the gay center were contrary, claiming they were open the two times I went out of my way to visit during operating hours, only to find the doors chained shut. I'm not exaggerating--real chains!

Portugal's capital mirrors the progress the nation has made since joining the EU--it's truly halfway there. All-new public phones... but only a quarter seemed to work. All the modern conveniences, but small-town glowering and suspicion of strangers.

Good Discoveries

Okay, I've bitched, but how bad can a vacation be when you take ten rolls of film? Lisbon sits at the wide mouth of the Tejo (Tagus) River. Take a round-trip journey on a Transtejo ferry, and see how Lisbon rises from the sea, a geologic version of seeing the World Trade Center en route back from Staten Island. And the city really has not changed an awful lot physically this century. Some streetscapes haven't changed since Lisbon was rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake.

Lisbon was the gateway to the New World. There are a lot of reminders of Portugal's glorious past. All the money features someone like Vasco de Gama or Henry the Navigator. The Portuguese rounded Cape Verde, at one time the outer limit of the known world, and later, the Horn or Africa, and eventually circumnavigated the world. But old pensioners turned into beggars are a common sight in this former world power. So are immigrants from the old colonies-Africans from Mozambique, Angola, and Cape Verde, Goa in India, Macau in China, and of course Brazil. As Portuguese workers wandered north, former colonials have filled that void, and brought their music and cuisines with them. Amid the construction, graffiti, and multiculturalism, Lisboeta dot-com wannabees buzzing around on cell phones.

While there is racism, and while some Portuguese likes to think they were historically kinder to the people they enslaved because they intermarried with them, the by-product now is a higher level of natural integration. I saw more interracial friendships and easiness than I ever witness in New York. That the Moors ruled Portugal for several hundred years, up until the 13th Century, adds to historical mixture of heterogeneity.

A Lisbon Card allows for unlimited museums and mass transit use. Another benefit of Lisbon's faded glory is that history of wealth. Lisbon features a trove of museums, but also sports a lot of incidental art. A particularly indigenous artwork is azulejos--painted tile work. There's a museum devoted to it, but these trademark blue-and-white tile panels adorn churches, palaces, restaurants, and alleys, inside and out.

Clang Clang Clang

Trolleys are still very much in use in Lisbon. Old 1918 models still run along the streets and make the billygoat climb up to Castelo São Jorge. A sleeker new model sails along the waterfront to neighboring Belém, which features an ultramodern Cultural Center, the Monastery of Jeronimos, and Monument to the Discoveries. The latter is Salazar's project. Like his contemporaries (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco), he buried real social ills under oversized statues and wide concrete plazas.

Further out, at Oriente, is the World's Fair complex. Its oceanarium is one of the world's finest aquaria. The Vasco de Gama Bridge, the Praça de Naçãoes, the Oriente train station and subway line, were all built specifically to greet 10 million visitors in 1998. New housing, a massive mall (named for Vasco also-"Discover the Savings!"), and facilities are being built to make a neighborhood out of this former industrial area (thus preventing ruins, like ours in Flushing Meadows in Queens).

A Day In Sintra

A quick train ride away is Sintra, and for a small fare, an all-day bus service will take you up the giant hill, where the Pena Palace and the Castelo Mouro overlook this small, toursity town. Pena was built by King Ferdinand (Prince Albert's brother), and features rooms as they were in the royal days (the last king fled by ferry in 1912), a wild homage to every style of Portuguese architecture since the time of the Moors. The Moors' castle (Castelo Mouro), below Pena, is just the remaining walls and watchtowers, standing there for 1200 years in a misty enchanted forest. Stray cats guard the entrance to this part of the pinnacle. En route back down, a must-see is the Palacio Nacional. Its outward intrigue is its pair of conical chimneys, which look like two champagne bottles attached to a nondescript building. But go inside for some of the most ornately decorated interiors in Portugal.

Finding Gay Life

This corner of Iberia is making up for lost time, and while the gay and lesbian community is not quite as out loud and proud as we might be used to, its definitely there. Unlike our gay ghetto turned strip malls, gay venues are not quite as obvious. Even the highest concentration of gay life, in the narrow streets of the Bairra Alta, is not easily spotted. I practically tripped over the subdued but chic gay bookstore. My third (and successful) journey to the gay center unearthed a wealth of gay groups, as highly specialized as anything we have here. They might not be as eager to meet foreign gay visitors as their Spanish counterparts, but the sheer number of organizations is very encouraging.

Homosexuality is perfectly legal, and official literature encourages reporting homophobic incidents to the authorities. This follows suit with a rather public anti-racism human rights campaign. It's not Amsterdam, but for a Southern European country, and one of the poorest, it's good to see a positive official line being offered.

The Verdict

Well, while I let my frustrations overwhelm me a bit, I wouldn't tell you to avoid Portugal. I would recommend not spending seven whole days in Lisbon, though. Perhaps make a longer trip that includes other parts of the country, or continue on to Spain. Maybe people are nicer in the countryside. Perhaps its the years of isolation, or perhaps its the poverty, or perhaps its both but the Portuguese, even after a week, remained an unhappy enigma to me (only two people appreciated my attempts to speak in nearly opaque Portuguese language without assuming everyone knows Spanish). So, go to Lisbon, but leave behind any expectation of standard European conduct. With its claustrophobic recent history, poverty, and its wonderful heterogenous mix of born Portuguese citizens and many ethnic arrivals, there's nothing standard about Portugal or its capital.

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