Martinho da Arcada, a café in Terreiro do Paço, is a time capsule. It shows us what Lisbon cafés looked like in the first part of the 20th century. It is an austere place and, yet, it was here that the poet Fernando Pessoa wrote some of the best poetry in the Portuguese language.
Do the muses still gather at Martinho da Arcada, waiting to whisper their rhymes to those willing to listen? There’s only one way to find out. Take a pen and a pad of paper, sit down at one of the tables, order some coffee, and watch what happens.
If you are near Chiado, don’t miss the chance to have an espresso in Lisbon’s most famous café, A Brasileira. The poet Fernando Pessoa spent here many golden hours, writing words that became immortal. If you want to pay homage to his genius, do not take a photo with the awkward Pessoa statue resting in the esplanade. Sit instead at a table and write a poem.
The blank page can be intimidating, so it might help you to know that Pessoa’s first poem was a modest effort. When he was seven, his widowed mother decided to remarry and start a new life in South Africa. Pessoa, worried that she might leave him behind in Lisbon, gave her this poem :
Here I am in Portugal
In the land where I was born
As much as I adore it
I love you even more
These simple words were Pessoa’s ticket to South Africa. So, summon the muses and write their whispers on your blank page. Who knows where those words might take you!
It is not easy to write about the great poet Fernando Pessoa. Even if we weight every syllable, our words are still too heavy to describe his graceful prose and sublime rhyme. So, perhaps we should stick to the facts.
Pessoa was born in Lisbon in 1888. His father, a journalist, died when he was young. His mother remarried and moved to Durban, South Africa, where Pessoa received a British education.
After returning to Lisbon in 1905, Pessoa earned a modest living making translations and writing business letters. He published poems, essays and literary criticism, but remained unknown during his lifetime.
Many of his poems were written in coffee shops, at Brasileira in Chiado or in Terreiro do Passo’s Martinho da Arcada. He wrote under different identities, each with its own personality and distinctive style. Some say that Pessoa and his four major pen names, Álvaro de Campos, Ricardo Reis, Alberto Caeiro, and Bernardo Soares are the five finest Portuguese poets.
Pessoa died in 1935, at age 47, one year after publishing his first major book, The Message. He left a literary treasure trove: a trunk full of poetry and prose, including The Book of Disquiet, which, published in 1982, created a new wave of interest in the poet.
Reading Pessoa can change your life, at least that’s what happened to the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi. A chance encounter with Pessoa’s poem “A Tabacaria” (The Tobacco Shop) made him fall in love with the poet’s work and with the language and culture of Portugal.
Here are the first lines of “A Tabacaria” translated by Richard Zenith. Read them at your own peril.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.”
When you land in the Lisbon airport, there’s a heightened anticipation for what comes next. There’s the usual ritual of waiting in line, searching for your luggage, going through customs, all transforming you from in transit to landed. But here, arriving isn’t the best part. You drive out of the airport towards the river Tagus. As you get close, you first see the seagulls. Then, you see the Tower of Belém and the Jerónimos Monastery, monuments to the many “caravelas” that departed from a nearby dock. A marble Henry the Navigator leads a pack of explorers, pointing the way to the new world. But that’s not why you came here. You came here for a small pastry shop just down the road.
In 1834, the government closed down all Portuguese convents and monasteries. The friars of the Jerónimos Monastery needed a source of income. So, like other religious orders in Portugal, they used their ancient recipes to make pastries for sale. The Jerónimos monks made little cups of flaky pastry dough filled with custard and topped with cinnamon. All monastery pastries are delicious, but these “pasteis de Belém” are a piece of heaven. The recipe hasn’t changed since the pastry shop opened in 1837, and everything about it is shrouded in mystery. Only three master patissiers, who prepare the cream and dough in the “Oficina do Segredo” (secret workshop), know the recipe.
These pastries are ephemeral bites of cinnamon and warmth. They must be eaten right away, never saved for later. Every coffee shop in Portugal produces an imitation, but none quite captures the lightness of the dough, the creaminess of the filling. These imitations even bear a different name: “pasteis de nata.” Because there is only one place in the world where you can get “pasteis de Belém.”
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Rua de Belém, 84-92, Lisbon. Tel. 21-363-7423. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for website.