Europe · Travel

A History Lesson in Lisbon And the Charming Alfama District

Other than taking a day trip out of town, I would say that our stay in Lisbon was pretty laid back.  Our daily routine for the most part consisted of homeschool work, soccer/football/frisbee in the park and walking around to check out different parts of the city.  Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in western Europe and therefore has a rich history.  We participated in two free walking tours as part of our exploring, and felt like we have gotten a great history lesson from the knowledgeable local guides about Lisbon (and Portugal in general) and its cultural influences.  I am writing them down here purely for my own reference as I find them fascinating, though all of the details can easily be found on the inter-webs.

Historically, Lisbon was at its peak during the maritime exploration period in the 15th and 16th centuries, as it was the port where the expeditions set sail from and returned to.  Then the catastrophic 1755 Lisbon earthquake on All Saints Day (Nov. 1), in combination with the subsequent fires and a tsunami, almost completely destroyed Lisbon and its surrounding areas.  This led to the major reconstruction project headed by the Marquis of Pombal that rebuilt Lisbon, made it literally a city reborn from the ashes.

The prosperity and the economy power of Lisbon and Portugal later went through a serious decline under the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, and due to his refusal to decolonize, it then led to the Portuguese Colonial War in the 1960s and ’70s in Africa.  This war killed tens of thousands of people and was very expensive for Portugal to finance and the whole country suffered greatly because of it.  On April 25th, 1974, a military coup dubbed the Carnation Revolution, overthrew the Salazar regime and ended the war.  After the African colonies gained their independence, there were internal civil wars that followed.  A lot of refugees from these African countries fled and moved to Portugal which unfortunately strained its economy even further.  However, another rebirth and recovery occurred in Lisbon after Portugal joined the EU in 1986 and received the necessary funds for a significant redevelopment such as rebuilding its infrastructure throughout the city.

The 25th of April Bridge – was originally named Salazar Bridge, and then was renamed to commemorate the Carnation Revolution on April 25, 1974.

Like many other European countries, Portugal was once occupied by the Romans and later the Visigoths.  Although it was the Moors who invaded from North Africa in the 8th century that left the most influence on its history and culture.  The Islamic Moors ruled the region for over 400 years and its heritage can still be seen today, most evidently in the old districts/neighborhoods of Alfama and Mouraria.  Alfama is the oldest district of Lisbon and the rest of the city was later developed from there.  According to Google, the name Alfama is derived from Arabic Al-hamma, which means ‘fountains’ or ‘baths’, from the natural springs that used to come out rather plentiful in the area.

The oldest building in Alfama. The ‘addition’ of the ledge on the 2nd floor was how the residents back then managed to gain more living space without having to pay for more taxes as it technically did not take up more property space.

Alfama later went through a great level of deterioration when the wealthier residents moved out towards the west side of the city.  For a long time it was the ‘forgotten’ neighborhood and only the poor stayed behind.  It was said that Alfama was later revitalized again when the Fado music originated from this neighborhood.

Most of the Alfama district survived the great earthquake of 1755 so it was able to maintain its old time Moorish charm even until today.  The characteristics of Alfama are its narrow and winding cobblestone streets, the little squares where everyone knows each other and gathers to socialize, the seemingly overcrowded old buildings on top of each other, mixed with hills and stairs going in all directions.  It is quite easy to get lost in this neighborhood as the GPS isn’t always reliable within this maze.

Alfama is also home to some of Lisbon’s iconic landmarks.  Lisbon Cathedral (Sé de Lisboa) is the oldest church in the city and can be distinctively identified from afar with its two towers.  Compared to many other amazing churches in Europe, the Sé is certainly not nearly as impressive.  However, given its importance to the city and its free admission, we did venture in to have a look around briefly.

One of the city’s most prominent monuments that can be seen from almost everywhere, the Castle of St. George, a Moorish castle, is perched on top of the highest hill (São Jorge hill) in Lisbon.  It was initially constructed as a fortress and later on expanded to become the royal palace.  It boasts some very best views of the city and the admission fee to the castle is €8.5 per adult.  Although we took our local guide’s advice to skip the castle, and instead we climbed up the next hill over for in her opinion an even better view than from the castle, for free.


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