Reflections on Lisbon

Lisbon has become a vogue destination for freelancers in recent years. Located on the westernmost peninsula of Europe, who wouldn’t fall in love with its soulful panoramas and ever-blue marine bay?

I remember visiting Portugal in 2005 when remote working and smartphones were still high concepts. Lisbon was not a sought-after destination back then. It felt secretive and provincial, a fading port full of rickety trams, one that was resigned to its imperial past.

Alfama, Lisbon

Alfama, Lisbon by Peter Heeling (Skitterphoto/Creative Commons)

Since the 2008 financial crisis, the Portuguese capital has become a relocation hub for the European tech community. Capitalising on the cheap rents and converted warehouses, international creatives have been flocking to its seven hills. Co-working spaces are like Instagram cathedrals for startup companies.

Situated in renovated buildings across Lisbon, these new workspaces are fast becoming agents of social and economic change.

Alfama backlash

Before I arrived in Lisbon, I booked an Airbnb in the Alfama district expecting grilled sardines and fado music every night. It was only when I put my smartphone down that my fantasies collided with reality.

Overlooking the Tagus delta, the Alfama is an intricate hilltop community dating back to the 5th century. It’s the oldest part of Lisbon, with a largely elderly population living in dilapidated conditions. The hillside is a beautiful place to draw on a spring day, with its crumbling facades shining in almost every shade of light.

For all the street poetry, it only took me a day to realise that foreign interlopers are not welcome here. Anti-tourist graffiti is visible all over the city and the most strident in the Alfama district.

Airbnb graffiti protest

Airbnb graffiti protest

Lisbon has lost 300, 000 residents over the last 30 years. Today, only 12, 000 people live in the city centre. It attracts six million people each year and 200,000 tourists every day. Thousands of them use Airbnb in secluded neighbourhoods such as the Alfama, where competition for homes, public space, and tram access has become a major source of friction.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the IMF dictated that Portugal’s strict rent controls were liberalised to revive their stagnant housing market. The old rent laws had protected elderly and poor residents for decades, many of whom paid €40-100 per month on protected leases.

With rent prices now stretching beyond what locals can afford, anti-tourist sentiment is understandable. Co-existence can bring considerable benefits if sensitively managed, but when you see people peering into Alfama resident’s windows and doorways, taking pictures of their washing, I realise now that I formed part of an invasion; one that’s taking place in many European cities.


Lisbon cruise ship

Lisbon cruise ship by Peter Heeling (Skitterphoto/Creative Commons)

‘Terramotourism’ is the Portuguese term for mass tourism. The tourist earthquake is changing the city’s social fabric as much as the great earthquake of 1755. Lisbon’s charm is the romantic squalor of its buildings and culture, but modernity is indifferent to tradition. It demands a constant openness and willingness to change.

We have now reached a fault line in history, where the dying embers of the twentieth century are collapsing – a hyperconnected threshold where people travel at the expense of the present and the past. That’s how I found myself living in the Alfama one spring in the late 2010s.

Walking down a decrepit lane towards my studio in Cais de Sodre, I would feel ashamed of my British appearance – a tall, pale stranger with jeans and bun headphones. There was a melancholy resignation in the air, a sense of embarrassment at my alien status.

Like many visitors to Portugal’s capital, we lived side by side, but worlds apart.

Header image by Khachik Simonian

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