It’s another beautiful night so why waste it sleeping? I lean out of the window, our room overlooks the Praca da Figueira, and get a clear view of the square. In the distance there are lights making the hills and houses alongside seem magical. Even the sky tinted in indigo gives the impression of a floating veil. After all the bustle of the day the square is quiet.
Only a couple of hours left before the sweepers start to rumble by cleaning the cobblestones so I must hurry and claim my seat under the jacaranda tree. A sigh of sheer bliss escapes my lips, I stretch out on the cool marble slab that serves as restful seat to millions during the heat of day. My eyes close and I begin to doze. The last thing I remember before falling into a deep sleep is the stillness surrounding the place. It is so quiet the very silence thrums.
With so much to see and absorb I have not rested at all these six days. And, we leave tomorrow.
Images of the various places we have visited flit through my mind when I feel a hand tugging at my sleeve. My eyes refuse to open yet I am aware of a presence, an urgency in the very air when I hear words of a foreign tongue. My limbs have turned to lead although I try very hard to sit up. That is when the same hands pull and physically lift me. The sound of confused voices, and running feet on the cobblestoned roads of the Baixa now converge into a mighty roar.
My captor or is it saviour? still has me slung across their shoulder.
The next time I awake I find myself drifting on a piece of wood on the river Tagus. I am still unable to see but I feel the stranger’s presence once more. Our raft is tossing dangerously as the river roils. Somehow, I am confident that we will be safe. Now there are voices so I assume there are more people on our little raft. It is November 1, 1755, we should be at the cathedral since it is All Saints Day.
But something awful has happened. Lisbon has been hit by a terrible earthquake, the sea is rising and falling and ships are splintering into smithereens the plundered treasures visible for miles. Someone pipes up they can get at the treasures which earns him a cuff on the head. The voice whimpers into silence. Poor lad.
What is happening on this holy day?
Who knows what happens when?
Baixa and Belem have succumbed to the tsunami’s fury, they are low-lying areas you see. We drift for hours until someone says it’s safer to get to Alfama on the rock hills. That part is the poor part and yet it is here that we are offered food, shelter and refuge. Such is life!
I listen avidly to news being tossed back and forth like scraps to a dog – fires rage all over the city probably from the thousands of candles lit for mass in the churches. So now we have a fire in the city. I swallow and force my mind to stop jumping around, to think. I know I was supposed to be some place with someone but cannot remember where and with whom. I do not belong here, yet I do. Why can I not move?
The grand library, the royal Ribiera palace all destroyed. The entire Baixa turned into rubble. I press the flat of my palms around my head for it aches so. Tiny pieces of my life appear behind my lids, like points of light – I live in the Baixa and must get back.
Strong hands lift me off the ground and tie me to a post. That is to prevent me from trying to jump off the cliff, they say in gruff tones laced with sympathy.
People are saying that our King Joseph 1 and his family were lucky to have attended the earlier mass and have survived. They are now in Cascais. Good for them.
Five days I have waited for news. Five days of longing, praying and sitting on the cliff and yet I have not been able to remember my past. Our prime Minister, Sebastio de Melo has proved a worthy leader for it is he who organized search parties to seek out the dead and wounded. People are praising him to the skies. I wonder if Carmo convent still stands.
Well, I shall have to find an opportunity to leave – I know they mean well when they secure me with bonds but I need to get back from where I came. Perhaps then my memory will return.
I was fascinated by Lisbon but when I sat down to write a travelogue my fingers began to type something completely different from what I had in mind. I succumbed and conjured up a fictional scene in a setting during that terrible time when almost everything was destroyed and lives lost as a result of the great earthquake of Nov 1, 1755, and consequent tsunami and raging fires. It was thanks to the genius of Prime Minister Sebastio de Melo, or Marquis of Pombal that the first grid system was implemented in Lisbon and later copied in various Western cities. The entire Baixa (pronounced Baisha) and Rossio were re-designed with buildings fortified to withstand an earthquake and wider streets. I hear the pride in their voice when locals speak of this brilliant man and how he brought Lisbon out of the ashes, so to speak.
This is the first in a series of articles about my time in Lisbon.
Keep well…Keep smiling.
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