Lisbon boasts a literary heritage matched by few other capitals in Europe. Besides being dotted with second-hand and antiquarian booksellers, home to Bertrand – the world’s oldest bookshop in continuous activity since 1732 – and the mobile Tell a Story located in a converted VW Van, Lisbon hosted many literary greats the traces of whom await the curious traveler round every corner. Much is made of Fernando Pessoa’s legacy, a giant of Modernist literature whose face is proudly displayed on anything from street art and statues to postcards and t-shirts. Here’s our guide to the Portuguese capital’s literary sights, tributes to dead writers, institutions and exciting events renewing Lisbon’s enviable literary reputation.
A stone’s throw away from each other – one at the end of Largo do Chiado beside Café A Brasileira, the other in front of the house of his birth on Largo do Sao Carlos – are two statues dedicated to the memory of legendary Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. The house itself, marked by a small plaque, is closed to visitors. Facing it stands an absurdist life size figure with an open book for a head. Tourists can be seen taking turns for a picture next to a statue of the writer sitting in front of Café A Brasileira, recalling the days when the writer sat here drinking, writing, or reading. The café itself is Lisbon’s best known, first opened in 1905 and originally an importer of Brazilian coffee, it has attracted generations of intellectuals and writers including the group that would establish the influential Modernist magazine Orpheu.
A couple blocks away from the beautiful Estrela Gardens is the foremost cultural space, bookshop and research center dedicated to Pessoa, and the poet’s last residence between 1920 and 1935. Behind a façade covered in Pessoa’s verses, you’ll find three floors of multilingual interactive displays introducing the writer’s life and work, as well as an easily navigable digitized version of Pessoa’s own private library, full of the writer’s annotated margins. The center’s library, staffed by a helpful and knowledgeable team, regularly hosts lectures and contains every single book ever written in any language about, or by, Pessoa. Only some of the original furniture survives, but you can see what remains in a recreation of the bedroom. A small gift-shop selling all things Pessoa is thrown in for good-measure.
Writer of deceptively simple parables, left leaning activist, and adored by many, Jose Saramago had a difficult relationship with his homeland, eventually exiling himself on the island of Lanzarote, Spain. With the Jose Saramago Foundation, established by the late Nobel Prize laureate himself together with a group of like-minded individuals in 2007, Lisbon is once again home to the writer’s humanistic and literary legacy. The cultural center, founded on a mission to defend the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and cultural activity within Portugal, permanently displays an exhibition on the life and work of the writer titled The Seed and the Fruits. Since 2012 it has been housed in Alfama neighborhood’s Casa dos Bicos, a renovated and architecturally impressive 16th century house with an equally remarkable façade.
Antonio Tabucchi is an Italian writer from Florence, but few foreigners and even fewer writers have made Lisbon their adoptive city with such fervour. Nearly all of his novels make Lisbon the center of everything, including the highly regarded, arguably Tabucchi’s masterpiece and Lisbon novel par excellence, Pereira Maintains (1994). Following the well-trodden paths of the novel’s protagonist, Pereira, will take you close to the Lisbon Cathedral on the picturesque Rua de Saudade where he lived at number 22. He worked at the office of a local newspaper for which he was cultural editor on Rua Rodrigo de Fonseca, stopped for lemonade at the nearby Café Orquidea on Rua Alexandre Herculano, and on a Tuesday afternoon at 16:00, stopped at the British Bar of Cais do Sodre.
Lisbon’s rich literary heritage can mean a saturation of dead voices. Thankfully, the city also hosts one of Europe’s most exciting literary festivals to emerge recent years. Festival Silêncio is a relatively new international literary festival bent on popularizing cutting-edge art forms which reveal the power of words. The events merge literary forms with performing arts and range from literary concerts, slam poetry, staged readings, conferences and workshops. Keen to bring a new generation of artists close to the foreground, the festival takes place in public places across Lisbon, and over the course of three days in July transforms its streets into a continuous performance stage.
The English have Shakespeare, the Italians Dante, and the Portuguese have Luis de Camoes, author of the 16th century epic poem The Lusiads. A fantastical reading of the era’s Portuguese voyages of discoveries, it is often regarded as the country’s national epic. A monumental statue of the writer, erected in 1867, stands at the center of Largo do Camoes, a small square in between the central districts of Chiado and Barrio Alto. Beneath Camoes are the smaller statues of eight other great names of Portugal’s classical literature: chronicle-writer Gomes Eannes de Azurara, cosmographer Pedro Nunes, poets Sá Menezes, Jerónimo Corte-Real and Vasco Quevedo Castello-Branco, and the historians Fernão Lopes, João de Barros, and de Castanheda.
Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen (1919-2004) is one of Portugal’s most important 20th century poets. The first woman to be awarded the National Camoes Prize, her poetic work has been translated widely and covers personal themes of love, loss and expectation. Born in Oporto, she lived in Lisbon from her university years onward and often wrote at the shady open space and stunning viewpoint commonly known as the Miradouro de Graca. Its official name, however, carries her own. A bust put up in her honor is easy to spot – look further and you’ll find one of her poems, titled Lisbon, inscribed on a plaque.
A block further down towards the Tegus from Largo do Camoes is another small square, the Largo Barão Quintela, holding the statue of 19th century novelist Eça de Queiroz. The realist writer, author of long politically charged novels critical of the governments of the time, appears holding a swooning, half-naked female figure representing Truth. Beneath the two figures is engraved a verse by the writer, and inspiration for the sculptor Teixeira Lopes, reading ‘On the strong nakedness of truth the transparent veil of fancy’.