Lisbon’s Finest

Alfama was built by the Moors and shows it. A lot like Tangier a fully fledged labyrinth. It is the inner city of Lisbon has many of the best restaurants and most of the fado. It took our cab driver, who didn’t favour Sat Nav, a very long time to find the apartment booked online. We drove down alleys where the car was within millimetres of both walls, past bemused locals who peered into the cab at us, we looked back, my friend with ferocity myself with an ingratiating grin,I began to wonder if Alfama was an entirely good idea.
We had looked up guest houses in the area and on one list of recommendations somebody had described the area as ‘ Smelly dirty red light area where it is dangerous to walk after dark.’  Clearly the guest book owner hadn’t translated this – but it is the sort of remark that I would take as a challenge anyway. But now, driving round and round talking frequently on the mobile to our landlady I wondered.
One thing that occurred to me many times during our visit is the fact that you are in effect walking or driving in somebody’s front room. The Alfamans eat and just sit outside and probably get peeved at crews of nosey tourists meandering around  Thus a gaggle of young boys looked up when we got out of the cab and watched us get back in as the driver told us we were in the wrong place. When we finally found the apartment immediately next to a church –handy for locating from the distance – there were several rather dour old women sitting on a wall, they stared at us blankly. The view from this open area was stunning though marred by the sight of an enormous cruise ship that looked like a block of council flats in Hackney with nothing ship-like remaining. (Yes, I do know there are no council flats left they have all been bought up but the image is accurate)
Our landlady spoke excellent English and we settled in, I realised we needed the basics (I crack up if I have no food handy) we trotted out together to find a shop. Two young girls helped us to locate the main street, through what looked like a cul de sac with six people enjoying their evening meal. They looked up and pointed us to a corner where narrow steps led down ever downward until we arrived at a narrow street where every second shop seemed to be a café and most offered Fado as a side order. We dithered a bit then decided on a café where youngsters were smoking and eating, I hardly smoke any more but I like smoky places they make me feel at home. The octopus and all kinds of other fishy things along with broad beans and unspecified vegetables were very good indeed.
The next morning the church bell was deafening and I could hear the responses of the congregation, a mumble but audible.
By the church there is a nice big area and the dour old bints were replaced by kids playing football, mostly against our wall. This area is clearly a valued asset of the neighbourhood; daytime kids play and people sit. Early evening  it becomes a snogging area with various impassioned  couples totally engrossed with each other. Late at night, when the snoggers are gone it is an adult playpen where cavorting takes place until early morning. One teeming night a crowd seemed to celebrate this with rain dances at five am. We could hear these activities but couldn’t see because our window faced the courtyard. This brought a nice tension to our nights.
After a day or two everybody ignored us as we walked through the area or sat on a bench at night for hours. Fado drifted into our ears as we lay in bed and we got lost many times in the streets but always found our way home. Nobody attacked us or bothered us.  The Lisbonites like their dogs and haven’t yet discovered the merits of the poop scoop so care needs to be taken when walking. We met a very nice puppy called Bob Marley and only one breed specific dog – a Yorkie so I speculate that birth control for mutts has not become widespread in Lisbon, which has a wonderful variety of canines who look very happy.
One of the main points of going to Lisbon was to see an exhibition of Paula Rego’s work We saw her Proles Wall on the first day, a Sunday when most of Lisbon appeared to be going to the beach. Paula lived up to expectations, funny, profound, enchanting as ever we bought cards for friends and wandered among parks in hot sun Bliss to have to find a shady place to drink beer .And the trees impressed me There are a great variety of trees and some appear to grow from the tiniest piece of earth, they give shade and light up the grottiest street. Lisbon seemed to me a place where there is a tolerance of people, dogs and trees, no sign of the ruthless pollarding of London trees. And people mostly left us alone but one time in a restaurant the entire company advised me of the best fish to choose.  I ate fish every day at least once, sampled lovely cakes and gained ten pounds in weight – worth every ounce of joyful eating. I did come unstuck with cuttlefish with ink which even I couldn’t eat, a learning experience. In fact my love took a picture of me resembling  a vampire on her tea break with ink from nose to chin. I have ‘lost’ it. We also witnessed a large demo that looked exactly like a London demo with bright red flags and coaches parked nearby but no police were in evidence and it was all good natured stuff.
I recommend Lisbon with its lovely Miradors and Alfama in spite of vertiginous hills and steps. Bairro Alto has some of the best clubs ever that don’t even get started until after midnight I didn’t make the effort – too busy digesting fish!
I shall definitely return to Alfama and have made a deal with Marisa the apartment owner for a special I shall return for the cod in cream if for nothing else and the flan!
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