Lisbon's Romantic Kasbah Of Alfama
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
Every night during our week’s stay in Lisbon we came to Alfama, the historic heart of the city, to enjoy Portugal’s traditional song, the fado, while we feasted on the country’s famous fish dishes. Tonight, as we enjoyed our tasty morsels, we were hypnotized by the voice of Maria Armanda, one of Alfama’s famous fado singers.
In a heart rendering, passionate and nostalgic tone, this seemingly tortured woman held us spellbound. Coming from the heart, stark and untamed, her haunting wail entered my very being. No other type of entertainment had captivated me more than this melancholic ballad – a cry of sorrow by a middle-aged woman shrouded in black.
The fado for hundreds of years has been synonymous with Alfama, the place from where it originated. It is said that in no other part of Portugal is it performed more dramatically than in this most intriguing district of Lisbon. A vestige from Moorish entertainment, it is fitting that in this former stronghold of the Moors the fado is to be found at its best.
Alfama, from the Arabic al-hama (hot springs), spread over the side of a steep hill, is the oldest and most fascinating quarter of Portugal’s capital. Legend has it that Ulysses was its founder, but historians believe that it was first settled by the Phoenicians and later embellished by the Romans and Visigoths.
However, the Arabs who occupied it at the beginning of the 8th century are responsible, besides its name, for the street plans and general outline. Unlike many Moorish sections in Spanish cities this district of Lisbon has not been much uplifted to attract tourists.
Built on a hilltop overlooking the Tagus River, it was before the age of gunpowder easily defendable. The still standing citadel of Castelo de St. Jorge (St. George’s Castle), once the Moorish governor’s palace, was its strongpoint. Dominating Alfama and the Tagus estuary below, it remains, even in our times, an imposing fortress.
From its rambling well-preserved walls there is a magnificent view of Lisbon. Its location, ten impressive towers, massive renovated ramparts and beautifully terraced gardens shaded by cork, olive and pine trees draw an endless flow of visitors.
In the Moorish era, Alfama’s walls enclosed a fabulous city crowded with richly tiled palaces, delightful hidden courtyards, flowering gardens and colourful souks, stocked with goods from the four corners of the globe. The aura of this 1,000 year-old Muslim city still hovers over Alfama. Whitewashed houses, many with attractive glazed tiling but at times in decaying condition; wooden shuttered windows; dainty lattice work and balconies packed with potted plants; graceful arches and wrought-iron gratings; stone staircases; and a cathedral built on the site of a former mosque, bring back memories of that illustrious age.
The simplest way to explore this old section of Lisbon is to use taxis. They are metered and reasonably priced. A visitor can become lost or fatigued by walking the labyrinth of steep streets and alleyways. In the same fashion as the kasbahs in North Africa, dead ends are common and it is easy to stray from intended goals.
Nevertheless, to savour the authentic atmosphere of Alfama, one must travel by foot. It is a wonderful place in which to wander. Narrow winding cobbled streets whose width, which can at times be measured with outstretched hands, twist and turn, then lead to quaint tiny plazas. Around every corner there is something new or different.
During our daily strolls, besides being invigorated by the freshness of climbing shrubs, we never ceased to be intrigued by the stone vases of flowers sprouting from every wall. This atmosphere made up for the many homes that we found to be run-down and had the odour of poverty. Yet these ancient abodes were picturesque and carried an air of mystery and excitement.
The streets were dotted with semi-dark tiny shops where artisans plied their trade and merchants sold a few meagre items. In between were numerous small working class restaurants where the national dishes of Portugal like: caldo verde, a potato and cabbage soup; caldeirada, a pungent fish stew; cabrito astufado, a casserole of goat meat and vegetables; cataplana, a seafood and meat delight; and feijoada, a delicious bean stew, were served.
In one of these hidden eating places we dined at a cost of less than half the price for meals in the other parts of Lisbon. The restaurant was relatively clean, but its atmosphere was not all that appealing. Nevertheless, for those seeking tasty food in an exotic setting, restaurants such as this one are ideal eating-places in which to dine.
We always ended up at the bottom of the hill near the waterfront at Alfama’s main lower square: Largo do Chafariz de Dentro. From here lively streets like Rua de Sao Pedro and Rua dos Remedios branch out. Fish, meat and vegetable stands, modest shops, cafes and, at night, tipicas (fado night spots) crowd each other along these thoroughfares.
In the evening we would take a taxi to one of the tipicas, our favourite entertainment spots. After our car was broken into the first night we kept it at the hotel. The area is somewhat seedy and one should not walk alone at night. Hence, taking a taxi is a must.
Other parts of Lisbon feature fado singing but these are mostly tourist oriented. They are expensive and feature emasculated modern type fados. Only in Alfama were we able to find the true heart rendering Portuguese songs of lost loves and longing for the past. The murmuring guitars and the fadistas dressed in sombre colours pouring out their souls in sorrow and anguish made this ancient section of Lisbon our nightly mecca.