In the cramped courtyards and cobbled narrow streets winding down from Lisbon’s castle to the city’s cathedral, residents are gearing up for a month long party that is the Fiesta de Santo Antonio.
Outdoor pop-up bars clad with lager taps are built, the colourful bunting is up and the make-shift wooden seating areas are in place. Walking through this neighbourhood in the morning it feels fairly quiet, but return a few hours later and you’ll find locals and visitors alike enjoying live music, fish barbecues and copious amounts of alcohol.
This is the Alfama neighbourhood, which dates back to the 8th century when the Moors settled around hot springs here, and is the the oldest surviving part of Lisbon.
The devastating earthquake of 1755 – the largest earthquake ever to hit Europe – destroyed Lisbon. Thousands were killed and most of the city’s buildings were wiped out as a tsunami and fires followed the initial tremors. But Alfama, then the Jewish district, was largely spared and so today we are left with a neighbourhood stuck in time. The houses are tiny and most of the alleyways are too small to drive a car, let alone swing a cat.
It was here in the 1960s that poor people living under the dictatorship of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar found cheap places to stay after moving from the countryside in search of work. Alfama was a place where neighbours knew each other, they washed themselves – and their clothes – at bathhouses and communal laundries, and they left their front doors unlocked. The city’s main red light district was also here.
Alfama has changed considerably since Portugal’s dictatorship was brought down by a military coup in 1974. As Lisbon has welcomed increasing numbers of tourists in recent years, it is here that many visitors have come to take in the array of charming restaurants and shops in the labyrinth of streets. Since the advent of Airbnb it also much easier to find accommodation in the neighbourhood and house prices have risen.
The neighbourhood is the perfect place to enjoy fado, a soulful form of Portuguese music, given that some have suggested its birthplace was Alfama. Singers perform fado in clubs across Lisbon, but in Alfama you can avoid the tourist traps and hear it in small, intimate bars. There is also a museum dedicated to fado in the neighbourhood.
But despite the rise of tourism, Alfama is still very much a residential neighbourhood. If you get away from the few streets where tour groups congregate, you can easily have the place to yourself. For families who have passed their homes from generation to generation, this is the place they call home. Enterprising old ladies sell homemade Ginjinha, a sour cherry liqueur, from the doors of their narrow homes to passers by.
Alfama is a great place to visit anytime during the year, but in June it becomes extra special. Join the locals and get ready to join the party.