There is something about Lisbon that perfectly epitomizes the untranslatable sensation of saudade. Defined as “a feeling of longing, melancholy, or nostalgia that is supposedly characteristic of the Portuguese or Brazilian temperament,” it’s been the inspiration for many a cheesy travel tattoo. Still, every time I visit, I succumb to this emotion like a sailor to a siren’s song. Maybe it’s the old-world charm of the city’s cobblestone streets and blue-tiled buildings. Or perhaps it’s just the port talking, taking effect with every drop sipped against the backdrop of an intoxicating sunset. Or maybe it’s the ocean, known to stir up philosophical musings in anyone who stares too long into its great blue depths. But it was probably because Lisbon, for me, was where the tide turned on first love.
I had visited Lisbon as a child, but when I truly got to know it was soon after my first real break-up. It was the beginning of traveling becoming restorative for me, a way to get out of my routine and tell my broken heart that the world was much bigger than a city haunted by the ghosts-of-relationship-past. So that Easter I treated myself to back-to-back tickets to Lisbon and then Amsterdam.
Lisbon isn’t a city I associate with sightseeing, although there are many sights to see. We took a day trip to Sintra and meandered through the mosaics adorning Sintra Palace. We went to the Jerónimos Monastery and marveled over the eclectic mix of intricate Moorish details woven into the columns of a Catholic cathedral. We stood in line to taste the famous Pasteis de Belem, devoured them in seconds and lined up again for more. But what left a lasting impression on me was taking in the city’s atmosphere. We were there for a week, and lucky enough to be staying with my aunt in the historic barrio Chiado. Playing tourist soon turned into moving at a relaxed pace and doing things by feel instead of ticking them off a list. We got the idea to sign up for a week of surf school in Carcavelos with my younger cousins, falling into an easy routine of surfing in the morning and wandering down the coast to Cascais in the afternoon. By sunset we would be back home, sitting on the terrace and listening for which part of Chiado was most lively that night. Then we’d wander some more, stumbling upon quaint jazz bars and drinking wine to the sound of acoustic guitars. Eventually we became friendly with our surf instructors, and spent one afternoon post-surf lesson drinking beers and hanging out with them on their terrace.
All this was almost enough to distract me from the fact that my ex-boyfriend had just started talking to me again before we had gone to Portugal, using that sadistic sixth sense that all exes have to message you precisely when you’re getting over them. Our reasons for splitting were those typical of failed long-distance relationships, we were at different places in the world, in our lives, in our heads about what we wanted to do. Of course there was part of me that wanted to get back together, and that there would be a happily-ever after to a cross-continental love story. But sitting there on that that terrace, drinking and talking about nothing with strangers-newly-turned-friends, I realized that it wasn’t going to happen. There were too many places I wanted to go filled with new people I would inevitably meet, and however innocent these encounters were, I’d find myself in troubled waters.
My maybe-epiphany turned out to be prophetic. Our next conversation ended in him telling me it had been a mistake to start talking again. I felt the aftershock of heartbreak. But I also felt liberated knowing we were definitely over, the last of those long-distance strings finally snapping. When I left Lisbon, it was for new adventures in Amsterdam and a promise to myself that I’d visit at least one new country every semester of university. The travel bug was catching, and trips to Venice, Bruges and Brussels soon followed. Group travel turned into solo adventures, and it all began that spring.
Last June I returned to Lisbon for the first time since that trip under very different circumstances. Instead of hiding from ghosts, I felt like I was visiting an old friend, and we had both changed since our last meeting. I was no longer a nomadic student, and although I was away, I landed in Portugal knowing that there was a life and a home waiting for me back in Barcelona.
Lisbon was as charming as in my memory, but quite a bid edgier. Street art was spray-painted alongside tile mosaics and new urban spaces like LX Factory broke with the past. We visited Pena Palace, one of the most beautiful and unique places I’ve ever been. I couldn’t believe I had missed this the first time, a castle in the clouds that was a mermaid’s dream home come to life. Looking over the bright yellow walls of this palace inspired by the sea, I began to think maybe it ocean inspired much more than melancholy.
Towards the end of that last visit, my younger cousin suggested we go surfing, and we went back to Carcavelos. Conditions were perfect for someone as out-of-practice as I was. But unlike our first week of surf school when breaking waves had filled us with dread, I felt myself paddling harder, determined to at least catch a couple of small green waves. “Five years,” my younger cousin said on the train ride back. “That’s how long it’s been since we first surfed in Carcavelos.” Lisbon is one of those places that will continue to draw me back, with a magic spell whose power only increases with every return.