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Published: October 27th 2015
From Miradouro Santa Luzia
The tiny room is only slightly lit by the pre-dawn sky. Outside the window, two cruise ships have moored in these last few minutes before dawn. The ships are lit like giant Christmas trees against the grey Rio Tejo. The sky to the east of the river begins to develop a faint orange band along the horizon. The bright white buildings that flow down the hillside to the river reflect the early light and begin to glow with the warmth of the early morning. The red terra cotta roofs, the tiles still wet from the mist of last night, begin to shine. With the growing light of day the maze of tiny alleys and interlinked stairways become visible. The river begins to glow red now as the scattered clouds reflect the first rays of the rising sun. Another day has begun in the Alfama neighborhood of Lisbon, Portugal.
The small café across the alley has set up its tables already. The smell of pastries and coffee fill the air. The regulars are arriving. They have voices that fit their faces. Lyrical, expressive, passionate, energetic with a small wrinkle of humor. They talk in normal volumes but the sounds
carry loudly between the narrow walls of the cobblestone street. The men have voices that sound of cigarettes and sea air. The women’s emphasis on certain syllables makes them understandable in any language. Most voices sound of worry, work and struggle. This is the fisherman, boatmen and shopkeepers of the neighborhood. The latest generation of the hundreds of generations of working poor that have lived here since before recorded time. People who live in a world where there isn’t enough for everyone and you have to stay aggressive to get your share.
Returning to the view from the window over the river, the day begins below. The sun rises and the light becomes white again. The gas man carries the heavy bottle up the narrow stairs for an early delivery. Windows open to let the fresh salt breeze clean the night air from the ancient houses on the hills. Soon laundry will fill the lines. Summer has gone and drying will take longer. Practiced hands deftly apply the wooden clothespins in the perfect patterns to catch the breezes. The women wear house dresses and have conversations across the alleys from the tiny windows of the small houses.
Rough laughter and animated voices. Your coffee is ready and you take your first sip. The fresh air and caffeine work their magic. The night clears and another opportunity for adventure begins.
Perhaps the adventure today takes you on a trip throughout the city. There are many distinct neighborhoods and areas to be explored. Called a “City of Seven Hills” for a good reason, Lisbon presents a challenge for the legs no matter which way you travel. Thankfully Lisbon has a network of trams and funiculars to take you up, over and through the hills with ease. The noisy and crowded cars are a cacophonous introduction to the populous of this busy city. The tram routes look serpentine when viewed on a map for the first time. The map doesn’t do justice to the excess of hills, cliffs and valleys that need to be crossed to get from one neighborhood to another. Perhaps the only route that visitors need to know is that of the famous Tram 28.
Starting from the hills on eastern side of town near the castle, number 28 winds its way below and around the hill the castle is built
Overlooking the Baixa
on. It is a steep walk up the hill from the tracks to the castle but well worth the effort to see the views from the impressively restored ramparts. Two beautiful miradouros (lookouts) are easily accessed and also provide wonderful views over the city, especially at sunset. The tram narrowly clears both buildings and pedestrians along the narrow streets. Occasionally it stops to allow trams from the opposite direction to pass. The streets do not always provide room for parallel traffic. You can tell the difference between tourists and locals by their reaction to the narrow misses.
Number 28 continues its journey above the Alfama neighborhood with its gorgeous views towards the river. Tall white faced churches tower above the tiny red roofed houses of this oldest of all Lisbon neighborhoods. Continuing down the hill you pass the ancient cathedral called the Se. It is possibly the oldest building in Lisbon. Building began in 1147 but recent excavations underneath have found remnants of Moorish, Roman and even Visigoth settlements from long before the Portuguese arrived.
Finally (but only briefly) you reach the level part of town called the Baixa. After the 1755 earthquake and
tidal wave destroyed the city and killed 80,000 people, Lisbon had a unique chance to totally redesign itself almost from scratch. The citizens did a wonderful job. The Baixa has grand boulevards and squares lined by ornate buildings. Some streets are blocked from traffic and covered with wonderful hand cut black and white stone blocks. The blocks are laid to create graphic patterns that add unique beauty and perfectly compliment the shops and restaurants that fill the area. Look for star shaped patterns as they are said to protect from earthquakes.
Starting back up hills on the western side of the Baixa, the trolley strains as it navigates the tight turns and steep streets that lead upwards towards the Chiado neighborhood. The tram is now packed to standing room only and hopefully you have a window seat view. Signs warn to watch for pickpockets. Fat wallets of unsuspecting tourists excitedly enjoying the views of the opulent stores and sumptuous cafes of the area make easy targets for unscrupulous types. Chiado was the grandest part of town in days past. The facades of the cafes and shops are ornate and the day is still passed shopping for the
From our apartment window
latest fashions in the well-heeled boutiques.
We end our day’s adventure with a ride down the famous Bica to the waterfront. Built in 1892 it climbs steeply from the near the Mercado on the riverfront to the Barrio Alto area high above. Climbing nearly 700 feet up the side of the steep hill, the tiny funicular must have seemed a miracle to people who made a daily journey down the hill to find groceries in times past. The sun is beginning to set along the river as we make our way back towards our tiny Alfama home. The sun paints the sky orange behind the 25th
of April Bridge which looks like a twin sister of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Arriving back in Alfama we make our way through the tiny maze of alleyways and steep stairs, pausing just briefly to catch our breath. Perhaps we refresh ourselves with one of the favorite local snacks. Pasteis de Nata is a Portuguese custard-like egg tart with just the right amount of sweetness to replenish energy from climbing hills all day. Or perhaps a stop at the local Ginjinha stand to ease your
Most famous of the Lisbon Funiculars
aching muscles. Ginjinha is local liquor made from pouring alcohol (maybe brandy) over top of a local sour cherry. Add large quantities of sugar and maybe cinnamon and drink from shot glasses. Available from a local lady who makes and sells the concoction from behind a split level door in her living room, a couple of shots will go a long way to easing tired muscles.
To finish the evening perhaps you may want to attend one of the many music performances in the tiny Fado clubs found everywhere in the Alfama neighborhood. Fado is a traditional Portuguese music that first appeared in the 1850’s. It is said to be the ultimate expression of the Portuguese emotion called “saudade”. Saudade is a yearning for something no longer at hand or something impossible to attain. Sailors feel it at sea and emigrants feel it for those left behind. It’s saudade that fosters the tightly knit Portuguese communities in the world’s cities and saudade that brings migrants home after long periods away. Fado is the music that expresses the emotions they feel when they are away.
Standing at the window where the day started many hours
before, the sounds of Fado can be heard drifting over the roofs and alleyways of the maze like streets below. The cruise ships left long ago and the churches are lit over the hills of the Alfama. The evening has turned cool and the melancholy sounds of the singers voices carry from below and mix perfectly with the smell of the salt air and wonderful memories of an excellent day exploring the beauty of Lisbon.
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