I like Lisbon. A mild, neat city, with buildings dressed in ceramic tiles and each pavement a sheen of slippery cobbles like fish scales. The cobbles are also usually caked in dog-shit and graffiti masses thickly wherever there is bare plaster. This seems greatly more mature than in the UK, where officials have floated up to the surface like scum to regulate everything. They have decriminalised drugs here; maybe this is why Lisbon appears less nervous, less hysterical, than a UK city. Of course Lisbon mellows in November, but its autumn remains as handsome as a smiling grandmother. Some half-hearted Christmas decorations have been raised limply above streets in which people still flop about with no need for coats or jackets. I am here writing – if you ever spot me it will be out in the open, at a table in the afternoon air, an hour-cold coffee stuck beside me to maintain that I am a customer here and shouldn’t be disturbed.
But I keep being disturbed by the pattern of a castle up on the skyline. As an investigator of castles, I know that this will have to be investigated.
When Castelo de São Jorge finally salutes me, it is a stumpy little fortress, which is at its most vivid when blushing in a faint orange. I encounter a maze of battlements, walkways and terraces, with a blank-looking tower here and there, but nothing else that appears particularly worth erecting battlements to secure. Shady trees have been planted around the castle’s courtyards, which relieves the structure’s militarism with a garden peacefulness, and puts some softness back into the air. The castle walls were built by the Moors in the eleventh century, although the castle has been and done many other things since. This is a stunningly defensive castle and it looks as if the city has been deliberately laid out beneath its cannons to leave no place to hide.
It has no real identity today and without display boards to illustrate the castle’s appearance in different periods of history, you are just left with the bricks. I wanted to luxuriate in Moorish glamour, but I came away from the castle not even knowing what the Moors had called it (probably not the Castle of St George). I later discovered that the name had been suggested by England’s King John: a monarch so wretchedly bad that naming this castle might be his single lasting achievement.
The archaeological museum is not so much about the Moors as a demonstration of how thoroughly their influence has been eradicated. Inside we learn such revelations as that the Moors had bricks and pavements. There are fragments of jug; sometimes almost half a jug, but mostly a third or a fifth. There are some coins which appear to have been cut up with scissors when deflation made their original value impractical. There is a collection of animal bones, supposedly included for the insights that they provide into the Moors’ diet, rather than because more evidence of their chickens and rabbits has been recovered than of their own lives. Aside from some sort of amulet, this museum does not seem to possess one unbroken object from the history of the Moors.
The castle is still a pleasant place, rather as any outdoor shopping arcade is a pleasant place. Indeed, with its trail of restaurants, cafés, and drinks stalls, there is as much shopping centre here as castle. You are encouraged to buy a glass of wine and walk around the battlements with it, which at times creates the impression that we are attending a belated opening reception for the castle.
In one courtyard I meet a scaredy little cat, who slinks away from my fond hands. He looks as if the Moors have left him behind.
A colony of peacocks is roosting in a cypress tree over the café and they keep hopping down, scuttling like aristocratic vultures, to beg for titbits. Most of them are a teabag colour, but they all have a splash of regal blue or green on the back of their necks and tiny, absurd tiaras on their heads. Although reserved and genteel, they are not ashamed to beg; the revolution must have hit them hard. In the castle’s lawned moat, a line of them sets to work determinedly eating the grass.
The sun is sinking as I wind up in front of the imposing statue of Saint George on the castle’s largest esplanade. Across the city and over the harbour, Christ is crucified on a platform and the success of this is that, when in silhouette, it looks unnervingly like a real criminal has been put to death at the city’s edge. St George, however, sets Christianity on a more warlike footing. There is no dragon portrayed here but there is no need. A slim but powerful man, you can imagine this George twisting through the midst of a battle, thoroughly at home, his dainty feet squelching on spilled guts.