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Brave Old World

We're headed closer to the center of town, to Lux Frágil, a warehouse turned bar and nightclub. It's frequented—so we're told—by "intellectuals, artists, and even Sting (when he's in town, of course)." In the bar's immense, loftlike space we watch Lisbon's literati chatting over cocktails and sitting on candy-colored chairs from the sixties and seventies that look a lot like the ones so carefully displayed at the Loja da Atalaia. (That's probably because Manuel Reis, who owns the shop, also owns Lux.) Picture windows provide a view of the lights across the river, and freestanding walls create quasi-rooms and dark nooks bathed in a neon glow. I feel as if I've come home to New York—all that's missing is the lounge music.

NOT ALL OF LISBON HAS REMADE ITSELF, or benefited from the influx of EU monies. And for me there is a strange comfort in that. I can't help but feel there is something somehow more genuine about peeling plaster and soot-covered tiles. Hookers, even more of them than before, loiter in the Largo do Intendente; sailors still frequent the strip-joint-lined streets leading from the Cais do Sodré train station to the edge of the Bairro Alto. So it seems a pity that, in the Martim Moniz square, an illuminated fountain has taken the place of the gypsy-run stalls selling tchotchkes.

Yet even I must admit that the Rossio, an ancient downtown plaza, looks better now that it is no longer choked with buses, their exhaust blackening the elaborate Art Nouveau tiles of surrounding buildings. From there, farther toward the river, down the Rua dos Fanqueiros, the Praça do Comércio holds a particularly pleasurable surprise. In late afternoon, the newly bright ocher walls of the arcaded Stock Exchange cast a Venetian glow on the broad square, now emptied of the hundreds of cars that obscured its beauty for so many years. We sit at the Martinho d'Arcada café to contemplate the view. Here, it's said, Portugal's Modernist poet Fernando Pessoa would come after a day spent doing bookkeeping for a small firm. Vintage photographs decorate the walls—Pessoa walking, Pessoa in profile, Pessoa descending the Chiado. Is this what Lisbon looked like to him—clean, bright, orderly?Doubtless it sometimes did. Yet in his only prose work, The Book of Disquiet, the city that obsessed him was one of shopkeepers and gamblers, of neighborhood busybodies and false heroes. Seventy years later that city is still there: you can see it in the twisting streets of the Alfama, where women exchange gossip as they hang laundry; on the Avenida da Liberdade, where middle-aged couples dance to the tunes of their youth in shabby outdoor cafés; and in the face of the man who approaches our table selling lotto tickets. As I get ready to leave the café, I feel, to quote Pessoa, "my invisible being rise above Detroit, Michigan, and the whole of central Lisbon."

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