How well do you know the history of your bairro? Of Lisbon? If you were to ask anyone on the street, they’d mention that thing the Romans built, that time the Moors were here, something about bad blood with Spain, how Amália Rodrigues sang over there once, and a maybe something about an earthquake and a king or two, but that would be the extent of it. Live History tours decided that the best tours are the ones that put things in perspective. Here’s why we’ve awarded them our coveted Best Walking Tour in Europe award:
According to Jofre Correia, one of the owners of Live History Tours, the business came about by chance three years ago when he and co-founder Pedro Sousa met during a government-sponsored tourism class. The duo hit it off and decided to combine their love of history and live-action role-play by sharing their knowledge of the city like storytellers and trivia aficionados… dressed in medieval clothing.
How did you create the routes that you offer? I really like walking a lot and I often wander around losing myself in the streets of the old neighborhoods of Lisbon. It’s incredible how you always manage to find something new in places where you have been thousands of times. That’s one of the many amazing things about Lisbon and one of the main reasons for tourists to come back here regularly— you just can’t get tired of this city. Since the very beginning of this project, I’ve been designing our routes around most of my favorite spots in the city. Almost all the stops we do include monuments or things of interest that help explain and share the particularities of our history. The routes are then fine-tuned together with Pedro, tested, and changes are sometimes made according to customers’ feedback.
How much has the company grown over the years? Our growth has been exponential considering there were just two of us at the beginning. When we started, both ourselves and our direct competitors thought that we were just two loonies presenting a product that was not going to work. Almost three years have passed and our main product, the “Alfama and Mouraria Free Walking Tour,” is now a consolidated best-seller in Lisbon, well-known for its overall quality. We also operate other tours in Lisbon, including tastings and trips outside of Lisbon, and we are currently developing new ones, like the Fado Tour.
At the moment, we are a team of seven and we operate tours in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Czech/Slovak.
You speak three languages fluently! How did that come to be? Most Portuguese of my generation are able to speak several languages almost fluently. French and/or English classes were part of common school education, and German, Spanish, and Latin were optional depending on availability. But that’s not the real reason behind this Portuguese trait. To explain that, let’s look back on the past.
Portuguese is a western Romance language that has a big influence of Latin, west Germanic, and central Semitic Arabic due to the long presence in the Iberian Peninsula of civilizations connected with those languages. Along the centuries, we collected words that now sound or are spelled differently: for example, our dear olive tree, or oliveira, comes from the Latin oliva. The fruit and oil, however, are not olive but azeitona and azeite, coming from the Arabic az-zaytuna and az-zayt, respectively. So, our language is a big mix which, was further enhanced in the Age of the Discoveries.
More recently, the 41 years of dictatorship caused a big migration of previous Portuguese generations towards post-World War II-affected countries like France, looking for available work and a better life. This explains our tendency to speak French. Regarding English, the main reason is simply movies and animation. We don’t dub movies, and this created an opportunity for my generation to grow up exposed to English, French, and Spanish while also learning to read with good Portuguese subtitles (and yes, they were good at the time). This is something that did not happen in Spain, France, or Germany, where they have always dubbed most foreign productions.
Regarding Spanish, well, the similarity and proximity help.
How do you find your guides? In the absurd panorama of the tourism industry in Lisbon, finding a good guide can be like the quest for the Holy Grail — but since Pedro and I sometimes dress up as medieval crusaders, we can manage it. According to statistics, Portugal has around 12 million inhabitants, about 1 million of whom work in areas related to the tourism industry. The tourism business here is so big that almost anybody can get a job — but are they quality material for a good guide?
Case in point: the tuk-tuk business in Lisbon. Tuks are considered by many as a plague, but there’s at least one good thing that they have brought to this city: they are a modern safe haven for the unemployed in a post-European economic crisis era.
While most of them can provide some fun facts, it’s often incomplete and inaccurate. They lack the knowledge and vocabulary needed to maintain a three-hour walking tour. Almost half of the tuk driver jobs are taken by expats, sometimes Erasmus students, who have only been living here for the last few months. They don’t have the knowledge to talk about this city or country and the different phases it went through.
Our goal is to promote a team of real locals. We want to help them find a permanent job position with us and not only a temporary occupation during summertime.
Unfortunately, getting locals to work with us is not easy. Most Portuguese are still stuck on the idea of a full-time work schedule even when we explain that they earn the same or more in less time. They also tend to complain about unemployment, saying that there are no jobs available and then weirdly rejecting the ones that show up — even when they are very good ones. Later on, those same jobs are taken by expats, and then those same Portuguese complain about foreign people stealing their jobs, and this goes on and on.
Another common job application we get is from “certified guides” who already work or have worked in the tourism business. Unfortunately, most of them bring bad work habits. I have witnessed some of them answering questions simply as “This is a statue” or “This is a palace,” making no effort at all to delve into more informative and detailed explanations. They often show no love for what they are doing, so they completely lack the capability to entertain an audience — which is something crucial on a tour.
Yes, we are a bit picky. The ideal candidate for us is local, born and living in Lisbon, around 30 years of age, proud and in love with Lisbon, keen on history and facts, available to learn more and share the knowledge, a people person, charismatic, both serious and funny, and open to flexibility regarding work schedules. It was difficult but, luckily for us, we now have a team of people we trust and consider friends.
What about you? How did you get to be so knowledgeable about the city? I was born here in Lisbon, but as a teenager, I lived in a suburban area 25 km from the center. At the time I started classes in marketing and advertising at the university in Lisbon, public transportation was so bad that sometimes it would take more than two hours to get home during rush hour. Curiously, waiting to take the bus two hours later would get me home at the same time. So I just started to wander around Lisbon aimlessly after school. Those two hours turned out to be the best hours of the day for me.
I started to pay more attention to details, like the patterns on the pavement, the stone, writings, and statues on buildings, the architecture, the churches, and various monuments. The light during spring and summer. The rain during winter. The sound of the trams or of people selling chestnuts or the lottery on the streets. Fado in Alfama. People walking in a hurry towards public transportation or their jobs. The sound of the water and the horns of boats crossing it and, of course, the smell of the river. The smell of coffee, too — it will be forever associated with getting to know Lisbon. I started to spend more and more time on different coffee shops, sometimes just listening to the conversations of locals. Sometimes I had the feeling that I was a spectator or maybe a tourist in my own city, and a desire to know more and more about Lisbon was growing in me. As soon as possible, I moved to the city center.
I’ve been living in the city center for two decades and I have witnessed how things have changed. I still maintain my rituals of wandering through Lisbon and stopping at different places to enjoy and listen to the surroundings and atmosphere. I think what I really like is anthropology: the study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. I often read technical history books and I’ve acquired lots of knowledge for the tours I provide, but it’s also my personal experiences and views that I share on my tours. I live in Lisbon, but I also live Lisbon.
What’s the funniest thing to happen on one of your tours? There are always funny moments, depending on questions asked or particularities that might happen during the route. Besides absurd remarks on Portuguese culture, I think the most humorous thing we get on tours is people who are clearly not informed about the city’s seven hills (eight, in fact), who think they can do a tour in Alfama carrying a rolling suitcase.
If you could change one thing about tourism in Portugal, what would it be? I think the government needs to bet more on promoting other areas of the country — it’s a small country with a lot to offer and lots of things to see, curious differences in culture, drastic landscape changes, and tourists, unfortunately, concentrate only in Lisbon or Porto and Algarve.
Regarding Lisbon, I can quickly think of three main things: The first is the new terminal for cruise ships. The investment in renovating all the surrounding areas was good, definitely necessary, and resulted in some very nice relaxing park areas. But the main building of the terminal itself is an ugly contrast to Alfama. People traveling on cruise ships hoard Alfama by the thousands, making the use of the streets difficult for everyday life. Local commerce is also complaining that they don’t really spend money on their shops because they have already paid for their meals onboard the ships, so basically they buy ice cream and produce trash. Locals, and also tourists renting houses, are also complaining about the simple presence of those ships – some of them are taller than the average buildings in Alfama, so the view of the river is sometimes completely blocked by a wall of cruise ships. And let’s not forget the pollution those ships produce…
The second thing is that Lisbon is not a city for cars, it’s a city for walking. I would totally prohibit the circulation of cars in the city. It’s ridiculous how Portuguese people can maintain a lifestyle where they complain about traffic jams but continue to contribute to them by using their cars to come from their homes in the suburban areas to work in Lisbon, overcrowding our main arteries and highly reducing the possibility for locals to park. They also complain about the price of gasoline and parking, but they still refuse to use public transportation — as they should. The government should be more aggressive and simply prohibit the circulation of cars in almost all of the city center, with exceptions for residents, deliveries, and, of course ,public services like police and trash collection, etc.
A third thing would be to prioritize the construction of a new airport on the other side of the river. There’s a big number of tourists interested in visiting the beach areas at Caparica or Sesimbra and they get a bit disappointed when they find out they need to rent a car or spend a lot of time on public transportation. A new airport near those areas would divide the flow of tourism we get in Lisbon. About half would still come directly here concentrating their visit to the city and then maybe doing a one-day trip to the other side. The other half would choose to stay on the other side to enjoy those beach areas and maybe do a one-day trip to the city center. Instead of having 200,000 tourists per day in the summer, we could potentially get half of that.
What’s your advice for travelers in Portugal? Prepare your trip and look online for “things not to do.” Touristic cities are filled with tourist traps. In Lisbon, for example: don’t wait in line for an hour to do the 28 tram (there are other trams), don’t pay for the Santa Justa Elevator ride when you can simply arrive on the top for free (ask a local how to do it), the coffee at Brasileira is not special at all, there is lots of good seafood available in places other than Ramiro, the Belém Tower is really beautiful from the outside but don’t wait in line to visit the inside because it’s simply not worth it (same advice is valid for the Pena Palace in Sintra). Ask locals about their opinions on what you are planning to visit. Portuguese people are welcoming and they love to communicate and help.
Where’s your favorite place to go in the city that isn’t on your tour? The Castle of Lisbon is unfortunately not included on our tours because it’s a paid area of the city and I somewhat disagree with the current management of this historical site.
The castle offers some of the best views in the city, and before this wave of tourism, the entrance was free and it was used by locals as a park area to read, relax, have coffee. And now it’s a money-making machine, so it doesn’t have that same feeling anymore. I remember that once festivals similar to Oktoberfest were held up there, and now that the city is filled with medieval fairs that pop up everywhere, you don’t see that kind of event happening there anymore. What most displeases me is that the castle is still free for locals, but if someone lives outside of Lisbon, they have to pay to enter. This is not fair, especially if you think about students or people interested in history from other parts of the country.
If they want to make money with tourism, well, let them do it, but the castle should at least be free for everybody with Portuguese citizenship. 8.5€ is the price of a meal and they are charging that for a set of walls that has a pretty view but one that you can also get for free at other sightseeing spots in the city. We have hundreds of castles in this small country, and the vast majority of them are free. The one we have here isn’t any more special than the others.