Through the Labyrinth

Andy Montgomery, 06 September, 2017
In Alfama, life is lived in the shadows, as Andy Montgomery of Buzz Trips finds out on a walk round the back streets of Portugal's charismatic capital, Lisbon...

Decadent Azulejos-tiled houses line the narrow, cobbled streets, their aloofness casting its shadow into all but the most exuberant of corners. Where the shafts of sunlight break through, their intensity cuts the shade like knives thrown into a mirror sending shards of blinding white bouncing off the walls.

In the shadows of Rua de São Miguel, the elderly women sit on stools outside their front doors, their feet full square on the pavement, their hands laid lightly on their aproned knees. Behind each one a small table holds a bottle of Ginjinha  and a handful of clean glasses. In Alfama, cottage industry has a sweet taste and a sticky texture.

One of the oldest districts in Lisbon, Alfama's labyrinthine streets were built beyond the city walls, their impoverished housing the last refuge of the destitute. Later, as Lisbon's importance as a trade centre grew, they became home to the city's sailors and dock workers where fado's mournful lament provided the soundtrack for a life lived barely a rung up the social status ladder. Today, like everywhere else in the the capital, the slow inevitability of gentrification is making its way into the Alfama maze yet its character remains resolutely intact and its streets retain echoes of the lives lived within them.

Standing in Lago das Portas do Sol, chaotic roofs tumble down the hillside towards the Tagus. Beneath their faded tiles, a hotch-potch of hidden streets, secret alleyways and narrow staircases climb and fall, a never-ending flow of connectivity between river and castle. Standing proud above the scene is a statue of São Vicente, the official Patron Saint of Lisbon whose relics were brought to the city in 1173 in a caravel guarded by two crows. In his hand he holds a caravel with its crow sentinels; it's a symbol that appears on the city's Coat of Arms and adorns walls, doorways and arches all across the district.

Descending from the Lago, Alfama's treasure trove of antiquities unfolds; Rua do Salvador is wide by comparison to many of Alfama's streets yet, in the 17th century it was considered so narrow that a sign was put up which is still there today, decreeing the order in which carriages were to give way, those ascending having right of way over those descending. Those found to be flouting the give-way rule risked a fine and deportation to Brazil. On the corner of Rua dos Remedios stands the little chapel of Espirito Santo, constructed in 1517.

A small hospital with just 11 beds used to adjoin the chapel and was used for the fishermen's wives who became ill while their husbands were at sea. Rumour has it the men used the bed bugs as bait. The Chafariz del Rei  (King's Fountain) dates from the beginning of the 13th century and by the 16th century was so popular that regulations were drawn up to govern its use. The first spout on the west side was to be used by “coloured men, free or not, mulattos and Indians”; the second spout by “men from galleys”; the third and fourth by “white men and women”.

In between its curios, trompe l'oeil  tiles, Manueline architecture and marble fountains abound, and in its streets, life bustles through its daily business, avoiding the summer heat, always in the shadows.

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