Lisbon’s oldest district

Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest district. The streets are old, the apartments are old and most of the inhabitants look even older! It is the only neighborhood to survive the earthquake of 1755 when most of Lisbon was destroyed.

Alfama is located on the hill leading to the castle, which, in other words, means that it is the neighborhood where the poor and disadvantaged lived – outside the castle walls. Even when Portugal entered the Age of Discovery and the Portuguese began to dominate the sea, Alfama remained known as the poor quarter where destitute sailors and dockworkers lived and worked. However, a quick Airbnb search proves that soon this will no longer be the case.

Nowadays Alfama is known as a charming and typical old quarter, filled with restaurants and small bars that mainly play fado – a traditional genre of Portuguese music. It is characterized by mournful melodies and lyrics that often depict the sea and the life of the poor. This is why fado and Alfama go hand in hand, and the origin of fado even goes back to the port district.

All of this makes Alfama the perfect setting for a Hemingway novel. Plenty of café and bar terraces for writing, a riverside for long walks when you need inspiration, and plenty of fishermen to box with. It is said that when Hemingway won a fishing tournament in Bimini (the fishing capital of the Bahamas), local fishermen became enraged that they had been “fished” by the writer in waters they had fished all along. their life.

Hemingway then offered Anglers a chance to collect the prize money if they could last three rounds in the ring with him. The first challenger, a fisherman who locals said could “carry a piano on his head”, was knocked down in the first round and the other three challengers soon met the same fate. You can see Hemingway’s signature in the guestbook of Lisbon’s oldest restaurant, Restaurante Tavares, established in 1784, in the Chiado district.

To start the subject of writers and books, there is a statue in Alfama of Saint Anthony – who was born in the neighborhood in 1195 – holding a book, although I doubt it is a book by Hemingway. According to the story, if you toss a coin and it lands on Saint Anthony’s book, you will find love. Although not a Hemingway novel and although he liked to portray a tough, muscular character, according to those who knew him well he was a sensitive guy and often wrote about love in his novels.

Alfama may be old and traditionally ‘poor’, but it is still considered a romantic destination. During the warmer seasons, the blue skies and green leaves growing on the trees scattered in the streets contrast well with the subtle but colorful buildings. Potted plants line the cobbled streets and small balconies, while clean, shiny clothes hang outside the windows.

The whole neighborhood smells of the delicious cuisine coming from the restaurants and café terraces that take up entire streets and squares. Before traveling abroad, I had never noticed or appreciated how colorful Lisbon really is. From beautiful tile facades to concrete walls painted in every color imaginable, to Jacaranda trees that sprout bright purple flowers in spring and even old yellow trams and buses.

Here you will also find the oldest house in Lisbon at Rua dos Cegos nº 20 – it is over 500 years old. In keeping with the small streets, you also have small apartments. When I climb the stairs in some buildings, the small wooden steps creak with age and I often have to bend down to get through most of the doors.

It’s easy to get lost in the old quarter with so many little cobbled streets, narrow stairways, secluded squares and many turns and dead ends. Yet somehow you always end up where you’re trying to get to. Alfama is a lot like Venice minus the water.

Besides getting lost and climbing up to the castle, the area is also home to Lisbon Cathedral which stands among the surrounding buildings, the National Pantheon and Lisbon’s largest flea market where you can find everything from clothes , books, furniture. , a Nokia phone if you’re feeling nostalgic, DVDs if you haven’t learned streaming yet, and lots of antiques and odds and ends. It takes place every Tuesday and Saturday at the Mercado de Santa Clara.

The Moorish town-turned-fashionable old quarter was once known for its hot springs and healing waters, hence the name Alfama, from the Arabic word al-hamma meaning hot baths or fountains. You can still find a few fountains scattered around the neighborhood as well as many other hidden secrets around every corner.

By Jay Costa Owen
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Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts in Lisbon. Jay’s interests explore new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.

A typical Alfama building
Miradouro das Portas do Sol – A view of Alfama
Statue of Saint Anthony

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