The destruction of Lisbon

September 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

A German diver in Palawan told me in 1993 that tourism was like cancer:  “it destroys everything in its path”.  As we talked, about 50 meters away, workers were installing the empteenth stilted cottage on the seashore that season; like all the others, this cottage, too, lacked any sort of arrangement for sewage disposal.

Tourism certainly destroyed every sea-side location where I have lived in the last two decades, turning each from a quaint little town where humble life rolled on leisurely into an unlivable monstrosity, a shopping mall on the sea, a busy belching traffic nightmare in season, a dead eyesore off. For 15 years, between 1995 and 2010 my life was a cat-and-mouse chase, a dog-fight, a running battle — with me trying to find an unspoiled place to live in and tourism following within a few years; first a cottage at a time, but eventually the full hog, with full blown articles in the press world-over that X was now The Place To Go.

Eventually, I threw in the towel on sea-side towns and decided to duck the wave by going in the opposite direction, into the city.

How horribly disappointing then that my new city has now been officially made The New Place To Go To, a phenomenon stoked by fake advertisements paid for the by government (the adverts feature doctored photos of Lisbon making it seem more Paris-like). (A former ad executive, I never cease to wonder how effective advertising is, how it works, how people trust it.  Don’t they know TV lies?  Do they know anything?)

Yesterday I walked down Rua Augusta to appraise the season’s damage.  It exceeded my worst fears.  What was once a premium shopping street, and, in recent years, due to crisis, became somewhat romantically down-at-heel, has been transformed into a tourist drag.  Gone are jewelers selling Portuguese hand-crafted jewelry, gone are leather-goods shops selling Portuguese shoes and handbags, gone are Portuguese eateries serving stufado and cafetarias serving salgados and afternoon tea.  They have all been replaced by ice-cream McParlors and frozen pizza places and outdoor tables serving industrial snacks and canned drinks and playing vaguely ethnic world music:  all according to the formula which works world over:  familiar (the hell with new and exotic, tourism is not about discovering or learning), low price but high margin (a 3 euro keychain offers a 300% markup for the vendor).

Rua Augusta now looks the way the main street of San Giminiano already looked in 2005 – lined up and down both sides of it with tourist-pandering junk-outlets.  Back in 2005 I walked up that main drag because I had to, some paintings I had to see were in a church at the top of it; but to my amazement I watched people sit in those sidewalk cafes of that street, taking in “the atmosphere”.

What atmosphere?  You can get the same atmosphere at your local mall.  Why fly six thousand miles to get the same on another continent?


The consistently low quality of art collections in Portugal is surprising given her fabulous past

September 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

One very remarkable aspect of life in Portugal is the low quality of art in her museums, her galleries, and her private collections.  This once metropolis of a globe-spanning commercial empire, and later fabulously rich owner of goldmines of Brazil (Joao V stopped summoning the cortez (parliament) because he did not need a penny in local taxes to support his lavish spending), so proud of her discovery of the world, has imported very little in terms of worthwhile art.  Unlike other empires — Spain, France, the UK, Russia — who have collected art on a massive scale, Portugal really has very little to show for her glorious past artistically.  What is there is poor (the “Sino-portuguese” pottery so prominent everywhere is rather poor quality “export porcelain”); or recent gifts (the Namban biombos (screens) at the Arte Antiga are a recent a gift from a Japanese collector); or imported collections (Gulbenkian).

It’s perfectly in keeping with the general lack of curiosity about the outside world which seems to characterize the whole nation.

Compare that to Poland — never a colonial empire, or much of an empire at all — whose collections over the last two centuries have been bombed, burnt, and stolen by foreign invaders — stolen on a massive, programmatic scale — and there is more and better art to be seen there, surviving all those cataclysms, than here where no such cataclysms have taken place.

Prices are high, perhaps reflecting more than just Portugal’s inclusion in the European market — after all, antique furniture — consistently better quality than her art — is about half the price of Paris or London.  Art prices are especially unreasonably high given the quality of what is on offer (with the possible exceptions of Indian and Lankan ivories which are good and plentiful) and perhaps reflect investors’ worry about the prospects of their currency (“panic investments”).

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