Alfama is the oldest neighbourhood in Lisbon. The streets are old, the apartments are old, and most of the locals look even older! It is the only neighbourhood to have survived the earthquake of 1755 when most of Lisbon was destroyed.
Alfama is located on the hill leading up to the castle which, put into other words, means it is the neighbourhood where the poor and disadvantaged used to live – outside the castle walls. Even as Portugal transitioned into the Age of Discovery and the Portuguese began to dominate the sea, Alfama remained known as the impoverished neighbourhood where the deprived sailors and dock workers lived and worked. However, a quick search on Airbnb proves that soon that will no longer be the case.
Nowadays, Alfama is known as a charming and typical old neighbourhood, filled with restaurants and small bars that play mostly fado – a traditional genre of Portuguese music. It is characterised by mournful melodies and lyrics that often depict the sea and the life of the poor. That is why fado and Alfama go hand in hand, and fado’s origin can even be traced to the port neighbourhood.
All of this makes Alfama the perfect setting for a Hemingway novel. Plenty of café terraces and bars to write in, a riverfront for long walks when in need of inspiration, and plenty of fishermen to box with. It is said that when Hemingway once won a fishing tournament in Bimini (the fishing capital of the Bahamas), the local fishermen became infuriated having been “out-fished” by the writer in waters they had fished in their entire lives.
Hemingway then offered the fishermen a chance to win back the prize money if they could last three rounds in the boxing ring with him. The first challenger, a fisherman who locals claimed could “carry a piano on his head”, was knocked down in the first round and all three other challengers quickly met the same fate. You can see Hemingway’s signature in the visitors’ book at Lisbon’s oldest restaurant, Restaurante Tavares, established in 1784, in the Chiado area.
Leading off the topic of writers and books, there is a statue in Alfama of Saint Anthony – who was born in the neighbourhood in 1195 – holding a book, though I doubt it is one of Hemingway’s. As the story goes, if you toss a coin and it lands on Saint Anthony’s book, you will find love. Although it isn’t a Hemingway novel and although he liked to portray a brawny and tough persona, 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 sky and the green leaves that sprout from the trees scattered around the streets contrast well with the subtle yet colourful buildings. Potted plants line the cobblestone streets and small balconies, while bright clean clothes hang outside the windows.
The whole neighbourhood smells of delicious food coming from the restaurants and café terraces that take up entire streets and squares. Before travelling abroad, I had never noticed nor appreciated how colourful Lisbon truly is. From the beautiful tile façades to the concrete walls that are painted every colour imaginable, all the way to the Jacaranda trees that sprout vivid purple flowers during the spring and even the 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 walking up the stairs of some of the buildings, the small wooden steps creek with old age and I often have to duck to fit through most of the doorways.
It is easy to get lost in the old neighbourhood with so many small cobblestone streets, narrow stairways, lonely squares and lots of twists and turns and dead-ends. Yet somehow, you always end up where you are trying to get to. Alfama is much like Venice minus the water.
Apart from getting lost and making your way up to the castle, the area is also home to Lisbon’s Cathedral that sticks out amongst the surrounding buildings, the national Pantheon and the biggest flee market in Lisbon where you can find anything from clothes, books, furniture, a Nokia phone if you are feeling nostalgic, DVDs if you haven’t learnt about streaming yet, and lots of antiques and bits and bobs. It takes place every Tuesday and Saturday at Mercado de Santa Clara.
The Moorish city now turned trendy old neighbourhood used to be known for its hot springs and healing waters which is where the name Alfama originates, from the Arabic word al-hamma which means baths or hot fountains. You can still find a few fountains scattered around the neighbourhood along with lots of other secrets hidden around every corner.
By Jay Costa Owen
Jay recently graduated from the Faculty of Fine Artes in Lisbon. Jay’s interests are exploring new cultures through photography and the myths, legends and history that define them.