Alfama is the oldest and first settled of Lisbon’s neighborhoods, Phoenicians occupied the area from at least the eighth century BC. In the first century BC, the Romans built the fortifications that became the castle. The Romans also first settled the surrounding hillside. The area grew during the Moorish rule, faded from the Middle Ages though the 18th century, and is now one of the city’s most popular locations.
It is certainly the most atmospheric of the city’s neighborhood with its warren of narrow, winding streets and alleys, postage stamp-sized parks, and small homes–some of which date from Moorish times. The area is primarily the home to fishermen and laborers.
Alfama was also the birthplace of Fado, the sorrowful music that still emanates from the doors and windows of many of the neighborhood’s many bars and fado clubs every evening.
Castelo da Sao Jorge
Alfama’s heights made it a natural home for the fortress, named Castelo da Sao Jorge (St. George Castle). The Castle’s original fortifications were toppled by the 1755 earthquake, and were not rebuilt until the mid-20th century. In its heyday, it housed a lavish royal palace. The palace was abandoned after being captured by the Moors in the 10th century. Later it was recycled into barracks, a prison and arms depot.
The grounds include gardens, an archaeological site, a 12th-century church and a camera obscura. The rebuilt castle is now home to Portugal’s National Archives, a national monument and a museum.
Although the original fortress and palace are long gone, most of Alfama, which is located on a granite hill, survived and dates to well-before the quake. Alfama’s busy Santa Cruz residential/tourist district abuts the Castle.
The neighborhood has several churches, most of which date from the 13th to the 17th centuries.
The Cathedral of Saint Mary Major often called Lisbon Cathedral or simply the Sé (Sé de Lisboa) was originally built in 1150 on the foundations of a Moorish mosque, which in turn had been built on the foundations of a Roman temple. The cathedral was rebuilt after the 1755 quake to incorporate a range of architectural styles from its Romanesque bell towers and virtually windowless exterior. It has an equally austere interior other than for its rose stained glass windows. The structure is a far cry from what was supposed to have been a lavish pre-quake interior.The primary exception to this austerity is the double-arched cloister. The treasury contains the normal religious artifacts and relics from Lisbon’s patron Saint Vincent.
The huge, domed church was originally built in the 17th-century. It was rebuilt after a 1681 storm destroyed it. But the rebuilding wasn’t completed until 1966—50 years after the church was converted into a National Pantheon. Today the building houses tombs or monuments to Portuguese icons such as
- Vasco da Gama;
- Henry the Navigator;
- Famed Fado singer Amalia Rodrigues; and
- Soccer icon Ronaldo.
We explored the crypts and admired the lovely marble and soaring dome before climbing 182 steps to the balcony for a panoramic view of the city, stopping and a small art exhibit on the way down.
As we were there on Saturday, outside of the Pantheon was a huge, popular flea market that spreads through the streets.
Monastery of São Vicente de Fora
This 17th-century Italian Renaissance church has azulejos panels that portray historical scenes (at least through the eyes of the church), a sarcophagi of most Portuguese kings and queens, and passages to an adjacent monastery and rectory. Although the exterior is pretty, the inside is rather plain.
The real attraction, however, is next door at the church’s huge monastery. From the moment you enter the building through the lovely courtyard, you are struck by the beauty of the blue and white azulejos panels that line the entrance walls. This, however, provided little indication that every wall, every staircase and even the walls of the cloisters of the large, three-story complex was filed with panels (at least to about six feet high) that depict scenes from the country’s history in subtle shades of blue. And if these aren’t enough, a couple hundred additional panels (each of about 200 tiles apiece) are displayed in the middle of many 2nd-floor (first floor in Europe) halls.
The attractions go well beyond the azulejos panels. These include the incredible details of the marble sacristy, the Pantheon where the monastery’s patriarchs are interned, the arches over the cistern, the rather incongruous exhibit of seashells, the bells atop the roof and the views from the roof, which are about the same height as the patio of the National Pantheon.
It also houses several small museums including the Militar (an old cannon foundry recycled into a museum that displays cannons and other Portuguese weapons along with visual depictions of Vasco da Gama’s explorations), the Liberty and Resistance museum which portrays resistance to and 1974 overthrow of the regime of dictator Antonio Salazar, and of course, a museum dedicated to Fado music, from its birth in the early 18th century to the present.
Portugal’s History in Comics
Then there is something of an open-air museum of Portugal’s history—all in the form of a roughly 30-page comic book whose pages are, believe it or not, displayed on the walls outside public restroom. While merely entertaining to those of us with only a passing knowledge of Portuguese history, the pages come alive when explained by a guide. Our guide took us through the each comic. They started with the 1534 arrival of the Phoenicians, through the roles of the Romans, Visigoths and Moors, the continual wars of the 14th century and the 15th-16th century Age of Discovery and Da Gama’ voyages). It then takes on the horror of the Inquisition and the 1506 Jewish massacre (see the post on Baixo), the disastrous war that King Sebastian launched against the Moors in Morroco and Napoleon’s 1807 invasion of Portugal. It ends with the country’ tortured road to democracy from the 1st Republic (which churned through 40 governments in 50 years), the rise, brutal rule and military coup that deposed Salazar in the 1974 Carnation Revolution in which the autocratic Salazar Regime was brought down and democracy finally gained a more sustainable hold.
Casa dos Bicos (House of Diamond Stones)
The architecturally notable (and aesthetically incongruous) Casa dos Bicos, or house of diamond stones was originally built in 1523 for the illegitimate son of Afonso de Albuquerque, conqueror or Goa and Malaca and Viceroy of India. The restored structure now houses a foundation dedicated to the work of Nobel Prize-winning Portuguese author Jose Saramago. A much older history can be seen at an open archaeological site of an ancient Roman theater.
Although Alfama certainly has several historic and particularly notable sites, the most interesting part of Alfama is neighborhood itself. The charm comes through in the small streets, alleys and stairways that criss-cross the hillside, the small (but now pricey) 17th-19-century houses and shoebox-size apartments, the many tiny restaurants with handwritten menus and even smaller bars and fado parlors and at night, the sound of 12-string Fado guitars and singers (almost all women) that waft through the evening era and most of all, the friendly people.
Several of the homes have been personalized through a large series of Camilla Watson’s ceramic plaques with black and white photos and brief biographies posted outside the doors of homes of Alfama citizens who improved the community by acts that ranged from heroism and community service to daily friendliness.
We stopped at street stands for mall bites of food (such as flaming chorizo), a bakery for its trademark almond-lemon pastries, at a private home window for chocolate cups filled with fortified (to 12-13% alcohol), sour cherry Ginja liquors (which remind us, in a good way, of cherry-flavored cough syrup). We also learned about another local specialty—Alheira (which we later tasted in a restaurant). Jews originated this wild-bird sausage hoping to fool neighbors and authorities into thinking they were Christians by displaying sausages that would be assumed were made from pork.
We also stopped a tiny bar to sample other local wines including a light (5-6 percent alcohol), young, slightly acidic, slightly effervescent, white “green wine” that is made from less mature grapes from Northern Portugal’s Vinho Verde wine region and has a fresh, floral, fruity aroma and taste. Vinho Verde wines are barely fermented in stainless and bottled young. While most are white (typically made from Loureiro grapes), red and rose Green Wines are also available.
And speaking of quaint and atmospheric, the tiny basement bar at which we sampled the Green Wine, has been in the same family for almost a century. It has vaulted brick walls and brick walls, with one of the back room walls having a quasi-secret brick-covered door that leads to a stairway to what used to be an upstairs convent from which nuns would pop down for a small nip every once in a while. Meanwhile, as an example of the area’s friendliness, a local patron engaged us in a conversation that ranged from sports to comparisons of relative costs and benefits of living and culture between the Portugal and the United States, and Portuguese politics and economics.
And Then There is Fado
We also learned a little about Fado. Fado is typically sad songs, many of which express longing for somebody whom you may not see again—a theme well-suited to wives of the neighborhood’s fishermen and sailors. Our guide gave us a demonstration and interpretation of the lyrics of a famous song before we had a chance to see and hear actual performances. But while Fado may have put Alfama and Portugal on the musical map, we learned than most Portuguese, especially younger ones, are more likely to favor faster more upbeat songs with more racy lyrics.
Baixo or Central Lisbon is surrounded by two hills: Alfama and Barrio Alta. Both are accessible via uphill walks, or with various combinations of streetcars, trams, much younger than Alfama, It is laid out around wide streets and boulevards (unlike Alfama’s tangle of narrow, curved streets) that are lined with larger, more upscale buildings. It was, in fact, initially settled by wealthy citizens who left the increasingly crowded, increasingly seedy Alfama neighborhood and developed a more educated, bohemian artistic and progressive neighborhood.
While relatively quiet during the day, it becomes much more active in the evenings when streets of small, local bars and restaurants open. This was confirmed Saturday evening, as we strolled through the crowded party neighborhood to soak up the vibe and stop for couple sets of Fado (with white wine and port) at a casual restaurant/bar in the center of the nightlife action.
While the Barrio’s picturesque streets make for lovely strolls, it also has its share of important sites and tourist attractions.
National Art Museum
The museum focuses primarily on religious-themed Portuguese paintings and sculptures. It also has impressive collections of Chinese porcelains, African ivory sculptures, 16th– and 17th-century Japanese furniture, and decorative arts and jewelry.
National Museum of Contemporary Art
This also focuses primarily on Portuguese artists, these from the Romantic, Modern and Contemporary periods.
San Roque Church
The 16th-century church’s incredible interior is belied by its plain exterior. The interior has a beautifully painted ceiling and is surrounded by roughly a dozen ornate chapels with beautifully carved, richly gilded decorations with paintings, intricate mosaics, marble, gold, silver and jeweled decorations. One has a chandelier which is itself valued at more than a million dollars. Tombs lie beneath the marble floors and the church’s treasury displays hundreds of the church’s incredible treasures.
The Estrela Basilica or the Royal Basilica and Convent of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus has a giant dome and surrounding gardens.
Palacio de Sao Bento
The massive 16th-century monastery has been converted into the country’s Parliament building.
Time Out Market
This large fruit and vegetable market also houses a large food hall that is lined with food stalls (including from some of the city’ best known chefs) and has communal tables in the center.
This particularly upscale area attracted writers and artists. A number of these residents are commemorated by statues scattered among the district’s old shop and cafes.