Thursday, 19 October 2017
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JamesLisbonA tsunami of gentrification is racing across the Lisbon hills. For centuries a sleepy city on the remote fringes of Europe, Lisbon is now definitely on the map and the visitors are pouring in. But has this boom now got out of control?

Giant cruise ships tower over historic buildings, making us gasp as we cross the street, while a stream of low-cost aircraft land like noisy migrating birds. Lisbon has become a strong destination brand, the perfect place to head for a city break, or even for a property investment. Nothing, it seems, will stop this tide.

Riding up to the castle: the Fascist dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar thought Lisbon should be romantically enhanced to boost the regime’s sense of nationhood. Not hesitating to manipulate history to serve the cause of propaganda, he not only encouraged the revival of Fado but equally added some picture postcard crenellation to Lisbon’s emblematic hill top castle.

Although today the Salazar regime is just a horrible memory, the city authorities still seem to have an awkward relationship with Lisbon’s history. They recently decided that the journey up to the castle should be as easy as an outing to a shopping mall.

Starting this summer it will be possible to take a series of escalators from down town, through the old popular neighbourhood of Mouraria, up to the top of the hill on which the castle stands. Work has begun on inserting the first of these escalators into a famous staircase, the Escadina de Saudade.  “Saudade” is the almost-impossible-to-translate Portuguese word which refers to the nostalgic state of longing celebrated by Fado singers. With its 123 steps, the Escadina de Saudade, as steep as a Douro hillside, has always been a challenging climb, despite a canopy of trees that shade puffing climbers from the sun.

With the new escalator it will now be possible to glide up to the top in no time at all. Although the unkind might reflect that some of Lisbon’s chubby visitors could do with a little stair climbing, elderly local residents, accustomed to staggering up and down with their shopping, are likely to welcome the escalator as an improvement to their lives.

RIP Mouraria, hello gentrification: not all members of the community are happy about this latest manifestation of progress. Some residents suspect the city authorities are more concerned to offer tourists an “easy ride” than to provide services for the elderly. Strident graffiti on the project site enclosure announces “RIP Mouraria, hello gentrification.”  Already crossed by speeding tuk-tuk crammed with hilarious tourists, Mouraria will be gaining a new “boulevard” which may further destabilise the fragile social eco-system of this historic residential neighbourhood.

Local property prices are rising in anticipation of the project’s completion. Foreign property investors are undoubtedly one of the stakeholder groups which stand to benefit most from this scheme.

Ensuring a sustainable future for Lisbon: remember Barcelona? Long-term Lisbon residents are fearful that their city may be going the same way as the great Spanish cultural centre where popular neighbourhoods have been permanently disfigured by the holiday rental economy.

Anxious, if not desperate, for foreign investment and tourism, both the Portuguese state and the city of Lisbon do not appear to have the nerve to stand up to either mass tourism or to the gentrification tsunami. It is now urgent to devise policies for the sustainable development of this unique city.



The author, James Mayor, is the founder of Grape Discoveries, a wine and culture boutique travel company

See the 'Grape Discoveries' website