Lisbon skyline, taken from Miradouro da Graça

Então, Lisboa

Touring the Portuguese world from the museums of its founding city.

In the pastel glow of dawn, ships lean into whitecaps. On the nearby shore, there are bright fortress walls and palm-crowned hills, red-roofed cottages clustering between rivers and crude stone bridges in the hinterland. A tropical wilderness beckons at the margins, apparently void of human habitation.

This is not Portugal — though it used to be. And that tropical wilderness is absolutely populated. This is the former Portuguese India colony of Goa, in an 18th-century painting at Lisbon’s National Museum of Ancient Art, and it is one of many reminders in Lisbon of the world Portugal once controlled.

On the Atlantic coast of Iberia, Lisbon lies in Europe’s southwestern corner. It is Portugal’s largest city, and is just nearer Madrid, Spain than Tangier, Morocco. At its peak as a colonial power, Portugal held a line of coastal settlements from the West to the East Indies — from Brazil to Africa, India to Japan — and their wealth in spices, goods and slaves flowed to Lisbon. Proof lies today in the city’s ornate museums and monuments, most close to the waterfront that funded the construction of all of it.

Pretty and sunny by the sea, downtown Lisbon is run through with cobblestone streets and narrow tracks, its clacking yellow-and-white streetcars trundling up to brilliant hillside plazas or down to the shining water. When I came to Lisbon last summer, I found this luxuriously baking place cheerful and laid-back; sitting in leafy shade at a plaza overlooking the city, a perspiring 70-eurocent “Super Bock” lager in hand, it was easy to forget it had once been the command center of an empire.

A city of the Roman Empire and later the Islamic Al-Andalus, Lisbon rafted onto the world stage in the 15th century, when Portuguese advancements in navigation opened direct trade with East Asia. Aided by Catholic missionaries, the national language and culture spread wherever merchantmen made port; this was the birth of the Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) world. By the end of the next century, Lisbon was linked to Nagasaki, Japan via Portuguese outposts on the coasts of Africa, India, China and Indonesia, as Brazil’s first settlements grew across the Atlantic. Today, over 267 million people speak Portuguese.

Evidence is all over Lisbon. In the National Ethnology Museum, beyond the Golden Gate-like 25 de Abril Bridge, artifacts from Portugal’s former African territories abound; crazily-proportioned Angolan fertility idols peer from walls above the intricate geometric lines of Mozambiquan shields, and colorful ceremonial pieces decorate display cases from Guinea and elsewhere. Spread around the continent, Portuguese African outposts once numbered greater than 25; Lusophone Africa comprises six countries today, with more than 53 million speakers of the language.

On a hot, seabreezy day I walked from downtown Lisbon to the National Museum of Ancient Art, which occupies a 17th-century palace over the waterfront. Upstairs, in a separate room off the large central stairway, stand some of the first Japanese works of art ever to feature Europeans: Nanban Screens. Named for their subject matter — nanban jin (“southern barbarians”) being the unfortunate Japanese term for the Portuguese — they are six-foot-high silk room dividers, each an ukiyo-e-style screen painting of visiting Portuguese traders. The Portuguese are shown unloading their ships and mingling with the Japanese, along with their Jesuit missionaries and African slaves. Their fashion and features making them obvious standouts among the simply-dressed Japanese, the Nanban are shown, almost laughably, with implausibly long noses and emphatically puffy pants.

See? (Wikimedia Commons)

The Portuguese impact on Japan can be overstated — indeed, some Portuguese will tell you the Japanese arigato (“thank you”) is a corruption of obrigado, its Portuguese equivalent — but Portugal was nonetheless an important actor in Japanese development. The Portuguese Naval Museum, inside an intensely Gothic former Jesuit monastery in Lisbon’s neighboring Belém, has examples of primitive matchlock firearms gifted to the Japanese before the country entered its “closed” Tokugawa shogunate period in the mid-1600s (itself brought on by the perceived threat of Iberian missionaries). Handsome, sleek, and quickly reproduced on a massive scale, these weapons were in use in Japan until the 19th century.

Near the end of my stay in Lisbon, I biked to the Museum of the East, a gleamingly renovated warehouse on converted portland a few miles from downtown. It is a trove of artifacts and trade goods from the former eastern Portuguese empire: India, China, East Timor, Bali, and Macau. Old Crown maps of India at the Museum show its outline stippled with settlements; though the British eventually conquered most, parts of India’s west coast survived as Portuguese territory until after World War II. Goa, for example, was annexed by India in 1961, after 451 years of Portuguese rule. Though rare and in decline, Portuguese is still spoken there, among the final Estado da Índia holdouts in the region. (Sri Lanka, the island nation off India’s southern tip, is another.)

The Museum of the East put me in mind of Indian food, and I wondered what centuries of Portuguese influence had done for Goan cuisine. I visited Cantinho da Paz (a recommended Goan restaurant) the next day, via a jostling tram ride up to the Bairro Alto neighborhood. Goan food is different, but not drastically, from mainstream Indian; one lingering colonial mark is simply the use of vinegar with stewed meat. I had xacuti (“sha-koo-tee”), a complex, cardamom-coconut fish curry with steamed rice, and more of the local lager, whose lightness paired very well with the depth and heat of the meal.

Full of Goan fish, rice and beer, I emerged into the warm, deepening dusk of the street, opting to forgo the streetcar and walk back to my hostel instead. I had forgotten, once again, about empire.




Traveler, writer, cook.

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A. B. Thompson

A. B. Thompson

Traveler, writer, cook.

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