What a joyful two weeks I've had. A magical fortnight began with a trip to Lisbon, which lifted my spirits no end. Although a capital city, Lisbon feels different from any other metropolis I have visited. Close to the Atlantic coast, the light is fantastic and gives Lisbon a reflective, colourful, salutary airiness that only Vancouver can match. Lisbon – unlike Vancouver – has a long complex history reflected in its buildings, arts and culture. One of Lisbon's distinctive characteristics is its beautiful ceramic tiles that adorn many buildings old and new, and they shimmer in the crystal-clear sunlight.
Our 'hotel' was close to the city centre, just around the corner from Lisbon's most beautifully paved avenue, Avenida da Liberdade – the city's Champs-Élysées. Inherited from the Romans, the Portuguese technique of paving has shadows of Oriental and Moorish influence, giving pavement art a striking beauty. Lisbon had to undergo almost complete reconstruction following the catastrophic earthquake in 1755. During the Pombaline era of rebuilding, its streets were embellished in black and white stone which gives the city its unique character (see image below).
I learned a lesson too, about manners. When my husband and I arrived at midnight to our four-star 'Royal' hotel, we buzzed at an old wooden door and gained entry to a dark hallway with centuries-old solid wooden floor and one of those rickety old tiny lifts with a grate and door. At reception, I asked the lovely Portuguese receptionist 'is this a hotel?' No, he replied breezily, 'it's a hostel'. Turning to my husband, I apologised for my error saying no wonder it was so cheap at 50 euro a night for two bed & breakfast.
Next morning, we went down to breakfast and was served by the friendliest staff alongside other cheery hostellers (mostly Christians as it turned out, the cheeriest of folk) in a relaxed atmosphere hard to find in stuffier hotels. The room was sparse but spotlessly clean. I utterly regretted my rudeness and sniffiness the night before. It was a wonderful place. Apologising profusely for my ignorance and snobbishness to the delighted receptionist (which made me feel even worse), I vowed never to behave so snobbishly again. Next time we visit Lisbon, or if you're looking for a low-budget break in this delightful city, the Tagus Royal Residence Hostel is the place to stay.
Not the Owl of Minerva
The day after I returned from Lisbon, it was my 60th birthday. It felt strange at first. I'm bloody old without any trace of the fabled Owl of Minerva associated with this stage of life: knowledge, wisdom, perspicacity and erudition. Sadly, I haven't glimpsed the remotest glimmer of the bird: as silly now as I was at 30. But surrounded by my beloved family for two days, we celebrated, laughed, ate and drank, and I felt happy. Truth is, a couple of years ago, we never believed (and that includes my doctors) that I'd make my 60th birthday, having had breast cancer followed by an acute, aggressive leukaemia. But here I am – feeling blessed that I am – applying enthusiastically for my senior railcard and free bus pass. It's the simple pleasures, to be sure. It always is.
Our days of celebration finished with a night out to see a performance by Scottish Opera of Sir Thomas Allen's revival of 'The Magic Flute'. It was a quite brilliant comedic performance of popular culture blended with high art. I've never heard an opera audience erupt in such uproarious laughter. Allen's production was described as a 'glorious steampunk, shipyard-meets-music hall' of Mozart's magical fairytale. The moral of the story is less clear: a combination of freemasonry, enlightenment thinking and Egyptology. Can't say I understood it – whether it was over-simplistic or deep with symbolism – but no matter, it was the best night at the opera I've had for a long time.
On a darker note, back to Lisbon, we visited the shrine of Fátima in central Portugal – the main purpose of my visit. After stopping off at the pretty, medieval village of Obidos, and afterwards the beach at Nazaré where I paddled in the Atlantic after a boozy lunch, we finally landed in Fátima.
It was scorching that day, but as soon as we arrived at the basilica a shivery unease descended. I know well the story of the three illiterate peasant children who were 'visited' by the Virgin Mary in 1917, but to witness the sheer scale of the Catholic Church's homage to the them – two sanctified, the third beatified – is disturbing. It's a complicated story, but the most famous element is the so-called 'three secrets'. Still controversial, the recently announced 'third secret' was apparently so harrowing that successive popes refused to reveal it and many Portuguese think the Vatican has lied about its now-revealed content. Pilgrims burn wax body parts there, and even wax babies, in a desperate bid to be cured or have their loved ones cured. I felt nothing but sadness kneeling aside the youngsters' tombs, their families and their own lives ruined by hysterical mysticism.
There is a dark strain in Portuguese culture exemplified perfectly by the traditional, mournful folk music, Fado. I had a fascinating discussion with an artist friend about this (on Facebook no less – social media at its best), who has a home in Portugal. He agreed with me that there is something dark and foreboding about Fátima even on days of brilliant sunshine. The tragedy inherent in Fado; the phenomenon that is Fátima; and the magnificent Portuguese-born artist, Paula Rego, who paints a kind of visual Fado, are all elements, he said, that seem to come from the same deep and ancient cultural space. Thinking about it again, there must be a connection to that earthquake which destroyed Lisbon on All Saints Day: an event that left a deep psychological and cultural wound. In fact, that fateful day shook Europe to the core.
A serendipitous moment then occurred minutes later when another friend joined the online conversation to inform me that the National Galleries of Scotland are hosting a Paula Rego retrospective exhibition this year (23 November 2019 – April 2020). I can't wait to go, hopefully with my new Facebook friends. Here's an example of Paula's work below: