Pilar del Río – Spanish

on May 1, 2011 in Now Boarding | No Comments

After opening the house and library she built in Lanzarote with Nobel Prize winner José Saramago to the general public, Pilar, his wife, tells us about her passion for Lisbon, the city where, one day, at four in the afternoon, they met.

After the death of the writer José Saramago, on 18th June, 2010, his wife, Pilar del Río chose to live in Lisbon and open the house and library they both built in Lanzarote, on the Canary Islands, where they lived from 1993 onwards. Now a Portuguese national, she has moved to the Portuguese capital to reside in the house they named Blimunda, the marvellous female character from the novel Baltasar and Blimunda.

Until the Casa dos Bicos is ready to house the José Saramago Foundation, Blimunda is Pilar del Río’s place in Lisbon. In a modern neighbourhood built in the 1950s, it is a semi-detached house with a small garden and a façade boasting a panel of tiles with the figure of Blimunda, painted by Rogério Ribeiro (1930-2008), an old friend of the writer.


Pilar says she has everything at hand, ranging from friends to a cinema, and there are plenty of shops. There is one thing that the Arco do Cego neighbourhood doesn’t have: clocks. In Lanzarote, in contrast, there are various, all set at four o’clock.

The reason for this has to do with a love story: José and Pilar met in Lisbon at four in the afternoon, in the Hotel Mundial cafeteria. She has been impressed by The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, she came to Lisbon and called him and asked to meet. She says: “We had coffee and went immediately to the Prazeres Cemetary, before it closed, and read poems. Fernando Pessoa was no longer there, but I wanted to know where his grandmother was. Then, we went to Jerónimos, where his remains are. And we said goodbye. Everything could have ended there and then. But I knew it hadn’t, and Saramago knew it as well. To the point that, in The Stone Raft, he describes an encounter between a man and a woman. The man is waiting in a hotel, the woman arrives, they don’t know each other, and the man feels the earth move. This is written without saying who it is, but that was our meeting”.

The first times the couple spent together, when they got together for good, were in a small house on Rua dos Ferreiros à Estrela. The story of the clocks starts there: “I have real problems with my hearing, I can’t reproduce languages or music, but I’m hypersensitive to certain noises, I can’t bear them. One of them is the tick-tock of clocks, and there were various in the house, decoration for the house, which wouldn’t allow me to sleep. When we went to bed, I’d go through the house, getting on the clocks together, I’d put them on the balcony and close the door. One day it was really cold and I went to open the door, but José said that I’d never have to do that again: ‘We’ll let the clocks stop’. One day I saw him pick up one of the clocks and I asked: ‘Are you going to wind it up?’ ‘No, I’m re-setting them’. And no one ever touched them again. 23 years went by, we took them to Lanzarote, all stopped at four o’clock.”

Rua dos Ferreiros à Estrela has another story: “One day, we discovered that José’s aunt had lived in the house opposite. She worked in the house, when he was a kid, and once they gave José a chocolate. He’d never eaten chocolate before, but he liked it so much that he tried a bit and kept the rest on his bed. The next morning, it had melted. Apart from making a mess of the sheets and have his mother scold him, he lost the chocolate and sobbed uncontrollably”.

Lisbon itinerary

When she wants to show the city to friends, Pilar visits the places of Pessoa and Ricardo Reis, both the real ones and the ones created by Saramago, and those of the História do Cerco de Lisboa. She goes to Alfama, Escadas de São Crispim, to the Castle, Casa dos Bicos, to Martinho da Arcada, Rua do Alecrim, to Largo Camões, with lunch at Farta Brutos and always to Alto de Santa Catarina, where the writer would have liked to have lived. She is sorry to see Alto de Santa Catarina so badly treated, particularly in the early hours before the dustmen come to clean the rubbish left by the people who go there at night. “It’s a beautiful place, wit ha magnificent view of the city, and it’s good that it’s full of people, but people shouldn’t drop litter. The council cleans it up, but we have to care for our own city.”

Clean streets is one area where Lanzarote contrasts greatly with Lisbon, according to Pilar, who talks about the time when Álvaro Siza Vieira went to their house on the island: “He arrived and asked where the rubbish bin was. I thought it odd for an architect to ask such a thing, but then I understood, when I saw his pocket full of cigarette butts – on his visit to the island, he was putting out his cigarettes and putting them in his pocket, because, although the countryside is just black rocks, it’s so clean that it makes you keep it that way”.

Casa dos Bicos, in the Campo das Cebolas area of Lisbon, will be the centre of Pilar’s daily life in a couple of months. It’s currently being renovated, but it has been given by Lisbon Council to house the foundation that José Saramago created while he was still alive. On 18th June, the first anniversary of the writer’s death, his ashes will be placed in a small memorial, next to an olive tree and a bench where people can sit. On 16th November, the new address of the foundation will be inaugurated, in a building that dates back to the early 16th century and which boasts a façade like the one at Ferrara Diamond Palace.

It is located in the historical centre of the city, between Terreiro do Paço and Alfama, and there Pilar can hear the sound of the trams she likes so much – an intense sound that does not bother her in any way. Despite liking the Blimunda house, Pilar says that “I would like to be more part of the spirit of old Lisbon”.

Pilar talks about Portugal’s current situation with concern – “economic problems caused by a lifestyle all over the world”, but mostly with hope. “I want Portugal to become a country of entrepreneurs. Who invent, who create another type of work, another form of communication, a different society, a society that is not based on oil. For people to use their imaginations. If the Portuguese discovered the world, let them now discover others.”


by Ana Sousa Dias



Oliveira da Serra TAP Campanhas


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