A Tale Of Two Cities

On paper, Lisbon and Barcelona have a lot in common, but historical events turned them into very opposite experiences.

The defining event in modern Catalan history was the Modernist Revolution of 1880 - 1920. Modernism is a fecund style with lots of images of virile organic growth. Barcelona’s legendary architect, Antoni Gaudi, created such wild cornucopias of vegetable matter that one wonders what he was on at the time. Today, the lifestyle in Barcelona reflects that same lusty exuberance. It’s a party town with a laid-back attitude, a dynamic street life and a palpable sensuality.

Lisbon, by comparison, is an elegant old lady, a city of dilapidated charms. Although it is wilting from neglect, it is easy to see, beneath the mould and the peeling paint, what a glorious and proud city it once was. The defining event in Lisbon’s history was the earthquake of 1755 which reduced the city to rubble. The quake was promptly followed by a tsunami that washed away sixty thousand inhabitants. Then, to round off the demolition, there was a fire. And, to add insult to injury, the event happened on a Catholic holy day and all the churches were destroyed. You can imagine how this went down in a deeply religious community. Why had the Almighty given them such a kick in the balls? And why destroy the churches, the houses of God?

Philosophers across Europe began a major re-think. And the Portuguese went into a period of mourning, yet to be concluded. By the time Brazil became independent, some fifty years later, Portugal had lost its wealth and status and Lisbon was internationally irrelevant. What did that do to the spirit of the nation? Well, if their music is anything to go by, they still feel the pain. In the years after the earthquake, Fado developed as Portugal’s national music. In its happy moments Fado is melancholy. Its stories entail an impetuous act of passion, followed by despair and the black sorrow, or longing – saudade – the essence of the music.

The raunchy energy of Modernism embodies the spirit of contemporary Barcelona, to the point where it sometimes seems like the theme for a summer party. The ambient sadness of Lisbon’s streetscape, with the laments of Fado echoing off its cobblestones, embodies the spirit of Lisbon.

Visiting Barcelona? Why not try our Barcelona City Bike Tour.