I initially had the thought in San Francisco. With its steep hills and stepped sidewalks, I remember thinking it would absolutely suck to be an old person in San Fran. If anything, I’d say that to grow old in Lisbon would be even worse.
Lisbon isn’t called the city of seven hills for nothing. Nearly every street and every alley—called becos—is on a sharp incline. There’re staircases throughout the city, many of them named, because, well, they’re needed. And we aren’t just talking a few steps but full flights.
For example, getting from the commercial center of town to my hotel, which was just below the Castelo, required a sustained hike up several flights of stone stairs connecting inclined streets and alleys.
And, as with many European towns and cities, the vast majority of Lisbon streets are cobbled . . . and so are its sidewalks. I wore running shoes on most of my walks through the city and often ended the day with ore feet. I simply can’t imagine how uncomfortable it must be to trudge along those streets and sidewalks with ancient feet encased in shoes that look like they were patched together around the time Vasco da Gama first got his sea legs.
And make no mistake: Lisbon has plenty of old people. It’s not like everyone just moves to the countryside once they hit sixty. Lisbon is absolutely dripping with old people. The Alfama’s median age is probably somewhere around ninety.
The city has an excellent public transit system, with buses, cable cars and metro lines, but I think I saw more old people on the street than I did anywhere else. Granted, they probably don’t go far, just from home to whatever shop or service they needed to visit that day and back, but . . . still!
I saw an old lady carrying shopping bags up one of those steep streets, stopping every few feet to rest. I saw an old man hobble by, leaning heavily on a cane, his spine curled like a question mark, as though to ask, “What the fuuuuck?”
Look, I’m probably coming off critical of the city here, but I don’t mean to. Lisbon is a beautiful city and its people are clearly proud of it. Even its graffiti appears to have purposely been left untouched, like scars that add character rather than detract from its beauty. But, oh man, I really wouldn’t want to grow old in Lisbon.
Thing is, just as the Lisboeta take obvious pride in their city, they also appear to take pride in their elderly. While wandering through Mouraria I came across an alley, the Beco das Farhinas, where a rather touching tribute had been erected to the elderly of the area. Along with the laundry hanging from the balconies, portraits of local old men and women hung from the walls of the alley. They were absolutely beautiful and demonstrated a clear appreciation for the good these people had brought and continue to bring to the area and the city as a whole. They’ve grown old but the city has aged with them.
Maybe that’s one of the reasons the old remain: it may be difficult, growing old in Lisbon, but it has its rewards, one of those rewards being the city itself.