Once the center of a mighty empire, the Portuguese capital was nearly wiped out in the 18th century, only to rise again and establish itself as one of Europe's most beguiling cities, rich in beauty, grace and melancholy
Author Chris Wright Photography Pedro Guimaraes
ON THE CLEAR, BRIGHT morning of November 1, 1755—All Saints’ Day—Lisbon was hit by a massive earthquake. At the time, the Portuguese capital was among the world’s most vibrant cities, packed with extravagant architecture, its coffers swollen with the wealth generated by its colonial adventures. The quake, along with subsequent tsunamis and fires, leveled about 85 percent of the city.
But something wonderful grew out of this. A citywide rebuilding effort produced what would become some of the finest examples of 18th-century architecture in Europe, and the tragedy imbued Lisboans with a fierce determination to hold on to what remained. To a degree rarely seen elsewhere, the city avoided the ravages of urban renewal. From the ancient alleys that survived the quake to the grand avenues that emerged from the rubble, Lisbon sometimes feels as though it has been preserved in amber.
There’s a word here, saudade, that has no English translation but describes the heightened passion aroused by absence. You get the sense that the emotion extends beyond the personal: Lisbon seems to be a city gripped by collective longing. This is not to say that Lisboans are ensnared in the past, or are unable to enjoy themselves. There’s remarkable energy, terrific food, music and—yes—wine.
Still, you can’t help feeling that even this bonhomie has its roots in melancholy. As the local poet Fernando Pessoa put it: “Since we do nothing in this confused world / That lasts … / Let us prefer the pleasure of the moment.”