Alfama a colourful piece of Lisbon’s history

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Sid KaplanIf any district in Lisbon screams ancient history it is its funky Alfama district. Its medieval streets and alleys twist and wind their way around the hill that it sits on.

The tangle of streets has a romantic shabbiness which reflects its history: first settled by the Visigoths, you can still see some remains of a later Roman theatre and it was a rich district during the time of the Moors. Now it is the home of Lisbon’s fishermen.

While you can climb up through this warren of streets to St. George’s Castle, to save your legs take a tram and walk back down to the Tagus River. The old yellow trams still climb the hill into the Alfama.

Tram number 28 will take you on a ride back into old Lisbon. If you ride it all the way, it will take about 45 minutes. Catch it in the city centre, ride past the Lisbon Cathedral, the oldest church in the city, situated at the lower entrance to the Alfama, all the way up to St. George’s Castle. Get off at the top and take in the view of the city from the castle.

The oldest parts of the castle date from the sixth century. Most of it has been destroyed through the years, but long sections of wall and 18 towers still stand. Because it is on bedrock, most of the rest of this district escaped damage in the 1755 earthquake which destroyed much of the rest of the city.

Some of the buildings below the castle have been renovated and turned into some of Lisbon’s most atmospheric hotels. If you want to lose yourself in the ambience of the Alfama, consider staying at one of these hotels.

Don’t be afraid of getting lost in the maze of alleys and narrow streets as you descend through this village within a city from St. George’s Castle. You will stumble upon tiny squares and old churches, laundry will flap overhead, then suddenly you’ll come out onto a viewpoint with beautiful views.

Revel in niches and walls decorated with Azulejos de Lisboa, the decorative blue tiles of Lisbon. There is even a Tile Museum (Museu do Azulejo). This museum is a little out of the way, so if you want to see it, you might want to take a taxi there. You can, however, enjoy plenty of the blue tiles just wandering through the little streets.

While the Bairro Alto may be the city’s traditional Fado district, you can still hear plenty of it here too. Fado is that sad music, the plaintive tunes, sung by the widows of Portugal’s fishermen. If you’re really into museums, there is a Fado Museum, though it’s more fun just to experience the music itself.

On Tuesdays and Saturdays, there is a flea market – the Feira Da Ladra or “Thieves’ Market.” There has been a market here on the edge of the Alfama for most of the district’s history. There are hand-made artisan goods and some antiques as well as just . . . well . . . flea market stuff.

Lisbon’s ancient Cathedral at the foot of the Alfama district was built in the 12th century. It is Lisbon’s oldest building. Its stark exterior resembles a medieval fortress. Inside you will see the baptismal font that was used to baptize Saint Anthony (Fernando Martins de Bulhoes) who was born in Lisbon.

Enjoy a meal of traditional food at a little place on one of those winding streets. Try the local dry wine, branco seco, and just dive in and enjoy the Alfama for what it is: a colourful piece of Lisbon’s history.

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