My first thought after listening to a brief history of Alfama was to tell my mother that I would have probably survived the earthquake that ruined Lisbon.
Normally, you’d think a mother would rejoice at this hypothesis, but do read on.
You see, while all of Lisbon crumbled upon itself during one of the largest earthquakes in European history, the red-light district, the poorest sect of the city with its Moorish design and claustrophobic spaces, survived because of it being built on solid bedrock – or indeed, as some still believe, as a way to punish the pedants for their self-righteousness and the atrocities of the inquisition and the empire. Since everyone who wasn’t an unmitigated deviant, was in church on that day, praying for the saints on what is still today called All Saints Day, the not-so-penitent, the aberrant sinners of society were waking from hangovers beside beguiling women of the night, or men if you prefer, wondering what all the noise was about. I am not, as you would call, an identifiable sinner, but to my mum who has lovingly deemed me several iterations of the devil – as only a mother can – for all my misdeeds and mischiefs, I’d wager that in her mind I would be in and amongst the ne’er-do-wells in Alfama when the earth shook. Logically speaking – for all this is based on rational thought of course – I would have thus have been spared demise by falling debris, tsunami, or fire by whoever, deity or demon, caused the cataclysmic event to occur.
I pondered upon this as we as we made our way up to Alfama, chuckling to myself while the tour gasped at the magnitude of death and suffering experienced in 1755. I could not help but feel somehow closer to the district, to its people, for it might have been a place an ancestor of mine might have visited or lived in. How hilarious would it be if my bloodline survived because my great grand (x whatever) father got drunkenly lost and passed out in the fortunate streets of Alfama, or perhaps resting luxuriously in one of the quarter’s old spring baths on that fateful first of November?
Before the city tour of Lisbon that advised us to check out the one of Alfama, I never quite understood the allure of the place. I had walked through before on my own to venture into baixa alfama for the fado, even got lost a few times while being stared or laughed at by old people in windows and balconies, but never thought to look deeper into its history. Also with all the slopes and cobbles and winding paths and steps, it all seemed rather inconvenient. This was the oldest part of Lisbon, and it was only now that I understood there were intriguing stories to be told if only I was listening.
We walked up to the Castelo, along the route that took us by a traditional bifana stop and paused a few times to talk about the party saint of Lisbon and how much of a rip-off the castle really was. Bifana is a kind of toastie, a beef sandwich made with oil that is reused until spent, sometimes for months on end. Some people think it is utterly revolting, but to me delicious is delicious. The party saint, St. Anthony of Padua, who a lot of people think of as St. Antonio of Lisboa, also the saint of lost stuff, has a month in summer devoted to him wherein the locals go absolutely nuts, eating, drinking, singing and dancing in the widest spread party on earth. Every neighbourhood is decorated, every barrel filled, every vocal cord moistened, every larder prepared, all for this month where people enjoy themselves in the name of a saint for whole days and nights. Alfama is meant to be the winningest celebrator of the festival – except for the one year where their genius choreographer or some such was poached by a neighbouring district. When you visit Alfama you can see it in your mind’s eye, the streets and the people in the months prior are throbbing for it, everyone subtly agitated, waiting for Tony’s carnival.
But on this day in May, with the sky spitting and wind blowing, it was difficult to quite feel the vibes our guide was trying to impress upon us. It was only until we left the sights about the castle and entered into Alfama proper, that we got the kind of immersive experience all of us were looking for. The people of Alfama are a tight knit community, made so by the difficulty of access to its labyrinthine plan and the inconsistency of terrain that made people unable to move in or out comfortably. This effectively meant that most people and their families stayed where they were, knowing nothing more than their neighbourhoods and the people within. It is quite incredible. We met a lady sitting by her open door who told us she was in her ninety-first year and had never left Alfama in her whole life. She was curious about the outside world, and interested in the stories of people, especially young people like myself, but she was happy where she was, and knew without a smidgeon of regret, that she would die happily where she was born.
And these houses were small, little more or little less than minuscule rooms. Their windows are the size of your 13inch laptop screen, if that, and they had to do all their washing in communal areas for the lack of space. These plots were not just occupied by one or two people, but by several generations squeezed up against one another. Three generations sometimes in a tiny ten square metres. Because of how narrow the streets are, and how interminably arranged, it was near impossible for police to make arrests, firemen to fight fires and ambulances to save the injured or the dying: if something happened to you in Alfama, you were either treated by your family or your neighbours, or you died. One may feel suffocated even thinking about it, but this is all true and still occurs in some parts today (although most have turned into Airbnbs and hostels). But the thing is that these people seem outrageously comfortable, absolutely content with their lot; you can see it in their eyes, and the way they tell you about their lives and home and families. They are a proud people. Alfama is not a story about a place, but more about those that bring life to it.
Some of these individuals, mostly elderly women, specialise in the production of Lisbon’s sour cherry moonshine which is, though sold commercially and legally in shops, vended illegally and without license in Alfama. They sit in their windows with large jugs of this ruby concoction, what is called ginja or ginjinha, and ask for a mere euro for a shotful of yumminess. The dona that sold us ours reminded me so much of my great aunt Leena, primly dressed with an unmistakeable pride that coloured her loving manner. The liqueur she gave us was sweet, fresh, and vibrantly soothing. It is etched with the melody of the Portuguese language, a granny’s affection, and a sense of culture and tradition that is so important when trying to comprehend a place.
Sipping our ginjinha, we walked through a few more streets, dragged our fingertips against the historical crags of the old walls, gasped at the magnificent views of Alfama’s orange tiled sprawl, and were greeted warmly by more octogenarians who remarked how their little nook in the world was finally being recognised for the wonder that it was. A man you could see shaving through his balcony window began to sing a mournful fado as we passed, his eyes always on himself in the mirror, voice coarsened by the years but still rich and resonant, sing a song of loneliness and lost love, a powerful vibrato that harmonised with the rhythm of Alfama.