Bairro Alto is a typical Portuguese neighbourhood in downtown Lisbon with traditional old buildings, good restaurants, cobblestone streets and small plants on small balconies. Then, when the sun goes down, the bars open and people from all over flood the streets.
Since Bairro Alto is an old neighbourhood, the bars are small and cramped. So, once you buy your drink, you gather back on the street outside or move on to the next bar. Every single street becomes crowded with people drinking and socialising, creating this unique nightlife which is exclusive to Lisbon and a nightmare for taxi drivers.
I lived in Bairro Alto during my first year of university, but have since moved further and further away from the centre of Lisbon. At the time, I found a small apartment with a friend that was more of an attic than an apartment. I took the living room and he took the bedroom and, for a year, we lived with just a couple of mattresses on the floor, inflatable chairs that were given out at a rock concert and a small TV that sat on a €5 table from IKEA.
My friend had a skylight window in his room, which he thought was pretty cool until he started waking up with sunburnt legs, and quickly realised that there are no visible stars in the city. I had a window facing the street that looked down at a bar named Kamasutra, though the name of the bar was more exciting than the actual bar.
I probably spent more time at the Indian convenience store up the road. The store sold bottles of wine and other alcoholic drinks for double the price of supermarkets, but then again, they were open for double the hours. I can’t imagine that they ever sold anything but alcohol, unless some drunk tourist suddenly decided at one in the morning that he needed a fridge magnet with a sardine on it.
The overpriced bottles of alcohol were still cheaper than in lots of bars, although if you knew where to look, you could find bars that sold pints of beer for as little as a euro. The whole neighbourhood was like one giant drunk maze where instead of trying to find your way out, the goal was to find the cheapest beer.
Going back in time, the neighbourhood was once home to the rich and wealthy until they all fled after the 1755 earthquake. Afterwards, the poor and disadvantaged started taking over. Around this time, the “fadistas” began to appear and vastly contributed to the alternative and bohemian feel that the Bairro is known for today.
Fado is known for its mournful and melancholic sounds and lyrics, but back then, fadistas were known mainly for making a racket and causing trouble. Everyone feared them and even the police stayed clear. They were constantly involved in prostitution rings, robberies and even murders.
Other grand contributors were the journalists, writers and artists that flocked to the area. The stables and grand palaces left behind by the rich were ideal to house the huge industrial machines used by the printing industry. Over the course of history, almost 600 different newspapers and magazines passed through the Bairro, creating a tight-knit community. When one newspaper ran out of paper, the neighbouring newspaper would help them out.
There are a few famous writers who were either born, lived or died in Bairro Alto, or just visited. More specifically, Camilo Castelo Branco was born there, Almeida Garrett lived there, Fernando Pessoa died there, and Jules Verne just visited. His editor’s office for his books in Portugal was located in Bairro Alto.
Since the unique Bairro Alto nightlife has been cultivated over several decades or even centuries, several people have passed through the neighbourhood from all sorts of generations and different backgrounds. Naturally, the neighbourhood has become a hotspot for artists and street art and has become a mini-Berlin of sorts hidden inside the heart of Lisbon.
Just like in Berlin, the streets and buildings are covered in graffiti, tags, posters, stickers and everything in between, and most of Lisbon’s art galleries are also located in the area. Lots of the building’s owners, for some reason, still try to paint over the scribbles left by those who pass through the neighbourhood, only to have the walls written and drawn on once more. This makes for an interesting composition of layers of paint and art on the eroding walls that reminds me of the different layers of the earth.
At two in the morning, the bars close and, once everyone has finished their drinks, the mass crowds flock down to Cais Sodré or the nightclubs along the river to continue on with the night. Then, once the streets are clear, and the sun begins to rise, they hose down the streets and Bairro Alto goes back to being a traditional old neighbourhood.
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.