Portugal Alfama District

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Sue Wolfe

About this spot
Unlike Baixa’s orderly grid layout of streets, Alfama is a maze of cobblestone streets and crooked buildings that run down the hill from the castle to the river. Alfama comes from the Arabic word al-hamma referring to the hot springs once found in the area.

At one time Alfama was Lisbon’s most desirable neighborhood. But as the wealthy moved west for fear of earthquakes Alfama became home to fishermen and paupers. Due to its dense bedrock, the buildings survived the earthquake, but many fell into disrepair. By the early 1900s, it was largely abandoned and there was talk about demolishing the district.

Fado music originated in Alfama. This melancholic music was sung by sailors’ wives while waiting for their husbands to return from sea. It is traditionally sung by a woman and is accompanied by a classical Portuguese guitar. Most of the bars and restaurants in Alfama are small with just a handful of tables.

Alfama has several notable churches. The Sé de Lisboa dates from the 12th century. The cathedral is a blend of Gothic and Romanesque styles. Its interior is very austere when compared to the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. The small Igreja de Santiago is where Christopher Columbus married his Portuguese wife in 1479.

June is the month for Festas de Lisboa. It is particularly festive in the older districts such as Alfama. At night the district turns into a big street party, reaching its high point on the evening of June 12. On June 13, a procession in homage to Santo António, winds its way through the streets around the Sé Cathedral.

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