ALFAMA: THE HISTORICAL HEART OF LISBON
Today is officially our 200th day on the road (for this trip), and what a day it was! We got to explore Lisbon’s historical heart today: the Alfama. A Medieval maze of cobblestone streets, tiny squares, and breathtaking views, the Alfama is Lisbon’s oldest neighbourhood and home to some of this city’s most historically important buildings including the Sé (i.e. cathedral) and Castelo de Sao Jorge. It’s a gorgeous neighbourhood, filled with character and charm. What better place to celebrate our 200th day of travel?! Man, time flies when you’re having fun…
The Alfama district wraps itself around the steep hillsides that surround Castelo de Sao Jorge. Due to the narrowness and steepness of the streets there are no real public transport* options up there, so we put on our best walking shoes (i.e. our ONLY shoes) and set off this morning to go exploring.
*There IS a tram (#28) that runs up through the streets of the Alfama. The narrow and winding route is totally unsuitable for any modern trams, so tram #28 is a tiny wooden affair which dates from the 1930s. We had thought about catching the tram, or perhaps hiring one of the many tuk tuk taxis that patrol the Alfama, but the walk is not that steep and the streets so fascinating that we figured it would be more fun on foot.
Our walk took us ever upwards, around hairpin bends and up steep staircases. Along the way we passed a fascinating mix of old homes, tiny churches, and small squares. Alfama is like a village within a city, where people still peer over their wrought-iron balconies to talk to their neighbours and hang their laundry out to dry. Even just strolling through the today we could sense that there’s a sense of community in Alfama that you just don’t find any more in many modern cities – certainly not in Aus where people are too busy to get to know their neighbours.
Perhaps the sense of community stems from the fact that the Alfama is one of Lisbon’s poorer neighbourhoods and people have to help each other out to get by. The district has always been home to the capital’s poorest residents, and still today many of the residents are amongst Lisbon’s most impoverished.
As with many lower socio-economic neighbourhoods, the voice of the Alfama is brought to life by its graffiti. Some of the street art we saw today during was wanderings was amazing – colourful, poignant, clever, and often humerous.
Apparently, however, the Alfama has shrugged off its former grim status in recent years and is starting to become a trendy and fashionable area. During our wandering today we saw that many of the old houses were being renovated and some had obviously just been finished, their painted exteriors still shiny and new. We can only hope that the inevitable gentrification of this lovely part of Lisbon won’t rob it of its character and soul.
The Alfama was settled by the Romans and Visigoths, but it was the Moors who gave the district its atmosphere and name (“alhama” means “springs” or “bath” in Arabic, a reference to the hot springs found in the area). The maze-like layout of the streets was designed originally as a defensive measure and dates back to the 9th century.
Unlike the Baixa (i.e. Lower City), the Alfama is built on a foundation of dense bedrock. This allowed most of the buildings in the neighbourhood to survive the 1755 earthquake. All the old buildings and narrow Medieval streets made our walk through Alfama feel like a stroll back through time.
Eventually our wanderings brought us to Lisbon’s castle: Castelo de Sao Jorge (i.e. Castle of Saint George). Its oldest parts date from the 6th century, when it was fortified by the Romans, then the Visigoths, and eventually the Moors. It served as a Moorish royal residence until Portugal’s first king Afonso Henriques captured it in 1147, with the help of northern European crusaders.
Standing majestically above Lisbon, Castelo de Sao Jorge was the central Portuguese seat of power for over 400 years. Most of the castle was destroyed in the Great Earthquake of 1755, but significant restoration works carried out in the early 20th century have kept it alive, ensuring visitors like us can appreciate its immense size and defensive features.
Successive kings of Portugal strengthened the defensive capabilities of Castelo de Sao Jorge to improve the survival chances of a frontal attack or extended siege. The walls, cellars and wells were upgraded to withstand long sieges and defensive fortifications improved to make access difficult. The gradient leading to the main entrance was increased and a sharp 180 degree corner included preventing deployment of battering rams or cavalry charges. This was most certainly not a palace built for parties and frivolity!
Strolling along the battlements of Castelo de Sao Jorge we got some fantastic views of the Baixa district and the Rio Tejo, made even better by the clarity of the blue sky.
We spent a while exploring the castle, eventually making our way back down through the streets of the Alfama, towards the River Tejo. Along the way we stopped at the Miradouro de Santa Luzia (Santa Luzia Viewpoint) to admire the wonderful views over the tiled roofs of Alfama and out across the Tejo estuary.
Towards the bottom of the hill sits the solid and imposing Sé Cathedral, Lisbon’s most important and oldest religious building. We stopped here to visit the cathedral and its attached cloister.
Lisbon’s ancient cathedral was built by Portugal’s first king on the site of an old mosque* in 1150. From the outside it resembled a Medieval fortress, while inside it was quite austere with predominantly Romanesque features.
*This is something we’ve seen a few times around the world – where one religious building is built atop another to symbolically confirm the conquest of one dominant power over another. In some cases, like the Aya Sofia in Istanbul, the building has swapped between being a mosque and being a church a few times!
To the rear of the Sé we visited the 14th century cloisters, where excavations have revealed Roman ruins as well as parts of the former mosque wall.
The stand out feature of the Sé for us was the beautiful Romanesque stained glass-window. This window was painstakingly reconstructed from fragments of the original window that was destroyed by the powerful earthquake of 1755 and is truly stunning.
Continuing down the hill from the Sé we eventually found ourselves back in the Baixa and home to our guesthouse. And so ended our wonderful day exploring the Alfama! We had a great time losing ourselves in the narrow lanes, admiring the picture-perfect view of Lisbon, and enjoying the history of the place. The area has an intangible quality that needs to be experienced to be truly appreciated, and we’re so grateful to have been able to enjoy it for ourselves today.