On the blog, I have already written many positive things about Portugal and it is kind of obvious that I just fell in love with the country. I am naturally a person who complains a lot and sometimes have problems to find the positive – not in the case of Portugal, though. People, ocean, architecture, food, wine and last but not the least the omnipresent sun. Portugal and its culture managed to charm me and if you have read my post What you should know about Portuguese you already know how close is the Portuguese melancholic spirit to my own character. Today, I want to share with you a bit different perspective on the country. This time not so positive but one which could be a symbol for saudade and keeps secrets of the forgotten past, non-erasable part of the culture and the country: abandoned buildings.
The first shock
Immediately after arriving in Portugal, I was surprised to see many abandoned buildings. In August 2017, my first time in the country, we started our wandering by exploring Porto. I couldn’t believe my eyes. We saw many damaged and empty houses, a lot of them in the city centre. The shock was coming especially from the fact that Porto is not a small town but the second largest in Portugal. Later on, I understood that it is not an exception. You can find many abandoned buildings in the whole country, in big cities as well as in small villages.
Abandoned – how and why
Many of the abandoned buildings are covered by traditional, beautiful azulejos. The colorful tiles with different patterns are somehow covering their sadness and are giving the impression of a much happier past. But I still couldn’t help but wonder - How is it possible, how did it happen and why nobody does anything with it?
The derelict buildings are usually very visible, especially in the centers of cities standing next to new houses and sometimes even luxurious complexes – hotels, boutiques or banks. In the villages, you can see abandoned old houses still equipped inside. People lived there once and they have never returned. Their homes look like they are still waiting for somebody who will never come back...
Problems in the society
There are many reasons how and why this is happening. Nowadays, Portugal is facing three big issues. The country has large demographic problems such as ageing population and falling fertility. Another big difficulty is high and growing emigration. One of the forecasts predicts that Portugal will lose 2 million inhabitants over the next 24 years. That is staggering 20% of the population.
In the villages stayed mainly old people. The younger generations migrated abroad or to bigger cities. Why? Lack of job opportunities, bad infrastructure, shortage of medical care, shops and other services or closure of village schools are reasons good enough. It is hardly possible to stop this trend, especially in small villages. Nonetheless, particular municipalities are still trying their best.
In big cities, mainly in the capital, there is also another problem - very high rents which many people can’t afford to pay. There might be more job positions than inhabitants in the city but it still doesn’t mean that more people are moving in. Most of the employers live outside of Lisbon and travel on daily bases to work. From the capital’s population, most of it is not active on the job market. That is a bad sign for the future.
Last but not the least is the falling fertility rate which is one of the lowest in the EU and equaled 1,31 in 2015 (in Poland – 1,32, in the Czech Republic – 1,57).
All the above phenomena are a big issue for the country. They are the answer to the question why there are so many abandoned buildings in the country...
Innovative projects and positive examples
Once beautiful houses, signs of prosperity, are now a sad illustration and victims of negative changes in the society. It is expensive to restore them and counter-intuitive to sell them below the original price.
But to be a bit more positive: there are projects which are trying to stop, slow down or change this trend. Many initiatives aim at innovative ways to regenerate old structures and give derelict buildings a new chance which would be beneficial also for local communities.
Revitalized street in Cadaval
We saw ourselves a few positive examples during our wanders. The abandoned buildings in a small town of Cadaval are showing what can be done with the derelict structures. They were transformed into a piece of art. The town managed to change a „black“ street full of bad looking buildings: once damaged facades had been used as a canvas for a local artist and her students. The municipality invested well. The new face of this quite busy street is appreciated not just by the locals but attracts tourists as well.
LX Factory in Lisbon
Another well known case is the LX Factory in Lisbon. It is a former textile industrial complex which was transformed into a creative hub. It is filled with local startups - cafés, a bookstore, coworking spaces or art galleries. Nowadays, the place attracts many people including tourists despite the fact that it is not in the city centre.
Tourists and Erasmus
There are also two other factors bringing the positive change – tourists and Erasmus students.
Tourism is very important for the Portuguese economy. The number of foreign visitors is growing since 2011. In 2016 almost 11 million tourists visited the country. Visitors, mainly from the UK, Germany, Spain but also from other countries, are tempted by the Portuguese ocean-side, historical architecture, gastronomy etc.
Very important group of people staying for longer than an average visitor are Erasmus students. Portugal is a Southern European country with chilled spirit and rather lower prices, especially in comparison to other Euro-zone states, thus being a favorite destination among young people for study experience abroad. Every year, thousands of young Europeans are coming to spend at least half a year in one of the Portuguese university cities.
Tourists and Erasmus students are undoubtedly a positive element. They are making Portugal more alive and keep it breathing.
A true face of Portugal
In the end, to KISS it (keep it short and simple) – abandoned buildings are non-erasable part of Portugal. But, in my eyes, they are not just a negative element. They are a lasting remark of the contemporary history. They say a story about the fate of the nation. And they are where they are for a reason.
Passing them by, I have mixed feelings and a strange melancholy growing within my soul. They are definitely unforgettable. A constant reminder which wakes up an urge to change things.