There’s something truly magical about wandering the streets of the Alfama in the late afternoon, that stretch out lazily along the slope between Sāo Jorge Castle and the Tagus River. While the locals are busy inside with lunch or an afternoon nap, tourists will share the semi-deserted streets with ragged lines of damp laundry slung across alleyways and small dogs running in between half-opened doorways. No two streets are the same in this barrio and I loved the surprise of what might be just around the corner – fado-inspired graffiti, pastel-coloured houses, intricately carved doorways, tiny hole-in-the-wall shops selling everything from handmade baskets to salted cod and sardines. The possibilities were endless! One of my favourite local quirks (which can be seen all over Lisbon) are the multicoloured decorations that are strung throughout the city for various saints’ days and local celebrations – there always appeared to be something going on, just don’t ask me what!
Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest quarter and finds its origins in the Moorish domination of the Iberian Peninsula (its name come from the Arabic Al-Hamma, which means hot springs or baths). Despite its prominence in medieval Portugal and its location as some of Portugal’s most prominent buildings, Alfama has long been known as a neighbourhood of sailors, dockworkers and fishermen, which has given it a somewhat “gritty” reputation in the past few centuries. Like the Triana district in Seville, which claims flamenco as its own, the Alfama has become strongly associated with fado, the melancholic but hauntingly beautiful national music of Portugal. Fado-houses as they are known, are dotted throughout the district’s tiny streets and range from performances with elaborate four-course meals to casual, spontaneous street performances. There are plenty of venues to choose from – we had heard that Clube do Fado and Casa de Linhares were two of the best dinner-fado venues in Alfama, so with only one night left, we decided to try the latter and settled in for a full three-course meal of rustic Portuguese food and plenty of reserve port to wash it down afterwards. Each course was accompanied by a fado performance ranging from desperately expressive to threateningly loud and verbose. One quirk of the evening was that for every round of drinks you order, a fado performance will follow – so if you want to stay until the early hours of the morning, prepare your stomach!
One of the best views of the Tagus river is the Santa Lucia lookout point (Rua do Limoeiro, Alfama), which you will pass on your way up to the castle from Baixa or which lies in the tram 28 route. This Romanesque terrace is covered in grape vines and bougainvillaea flowers that wind themselves up the stone pillars and are framed by the typical blue and white hand-painted tiles you can see in public spaces throughout Portugal. Better yet, it’s open 24 hours, so if you’d rather catch a sunset or a sunrise, you can turn up when you want.
Finally, the Moorish Sāo Jorge Castle (Castelo de Sāo Jorge) is certainly worth a visit. As one of the main tourist sites in Lisbon, this fortified structure dominates the city’s skyline, as it has since it was built by Muslim Berber forces in the 10th century. The castle’s courtyard provides a breathtaking view of the Baixa neighbourhood and the Tagus River. The current entry costs are €8.50/€5.00/€20.00 adult/child/family and the castle is open from 09:00 to 21:00 (peak) or 9:00 to 18:00 (low). I would recommend either walking up from Baixa (remember to take a bottle of water with you!) or taking the number 28 tram. Unfortunately, the castle is not very accessible via public transport for people with limited mobility but taxis are relatively cheap and able to drive you straight to the main entrance.
Happy Travelling, Moey xx