Portugal was once a great Empire on the world stage. The country is now a small country and an attractive travel destination, with its subtle culture remaining a legacy – and my discovery of its distinctive character first-hand was rewarding and delightful.
This time, let’s turn a new leaf to discover the history of this country by walking in the oldest district in Lisbon, Alfama, and head to one of the most important heritage at the top of the hill, the São Jorge Castle.
City Walk: The historic Alfama
A great way (and also one of the most popular) to see Lisbon is to ride on the Tram route 28.
While it seems the blogging world has yet to get bored with the “Top 10” of everything: National Geographic has listed the yellowish Electrico #28 in Portugal as one the of classic Top 10 Trolley Rides. Check out My Charming Lisboa Encounters for more about the route!
Tram route 28
Open Hours: 5:40 am – 9:15 pm
Ticketing: Single Trip €1.4; One-day Ticket €6
For €1.4 tourists could get around Alfama with ease as the route passes through many of the city’s attractions and scenic spots. After the face-off moment with a pickpocket on the tram, we immersed ourselves in the old Alfama district.
Alfama is a maze-like old town in Lisbon and it is situated on a slope between São Jorge Castle and the river. Through the many alleys and stairs, the district is filled with houses with red roofs and white walls, and this is also the hub of the Moorish culture in Lisbon. Al is a prefix of the Arab word Al-hamma, meaning spring, or bathhouses. During the dates of the Moorish rule from North Africa, this is where they settled and the folk migrated to the East due to the fear of earthquakes, leaving behind mainly the poor and fishermen. Only a couple of buildings remained after the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, the layout we were walking in today is still the same.
São Jorge Castle was at the top above Alfama, it serves as an important defense with a view of the entire area. Now, it has become a perfect place to oversee the cityscape from different perspectives. Someone has described that Alfama was like a magic carpet that spread beneath the Castle, and it’s a charming spot for any tourists to be. But more on the castle later.
Here, we became maze runners. It is the oldest area of the city with spider-web alleys in between the terracotta-roofed houses, shops, and cafés along the way. Take a moment to stroll and witness the daily life of the locals, small the soap of the laundry as they hang by the window, listen to the chatter of the neighbors, or appreciate the melodies of the singing from the squares. Many of the buildings in Alfama are still under restoration, and there’s no better way to experience this place than finding a local seafood restaurant and soaking in the city’s charm.
More, there are monasteries, (Monastery of São Vicente de Fora), churches (Church of Santa Engrácia), museums, and flea markets (Thieves Market) scattered within walking distance. Exploring Alfama was fun as we would be surprised by the breathtaking sceneries at different lookouts at different turns.
São Jorge Castle
The highlight of the district would probably be the São Jorge Castle, a fortification standing on the hilltop. The history of the castle dates back to the 5th century when the Visigoths selected this site to establish their defense on the highest point of Lisbon. The Moorish added a high tower afterward, and when the Portuguese claimed Lisbon, the castle has become a royal residence. Actually, a number of coronation ceremonies were held in this place. For hundreds of years, this castle has been protecting the country from a strategic location.
This location, now, just consider the property value of its prime location and spectacular view. The castle was severely damaged by the 1755 earthquake and the site was left in ruins with shambles of physical evidence of how the ancient Portuguese established the city in medieval times. Climbing up the wall of the castle, modern-day tourists could be benefited from the unobstructed panoramic view of the Lisbon city center to the Tagus River.
Sitioi Arqueologico was an exhibit that showcases the traces of the three cultures in the past. The metallic rooftop protects a village that dates back to the 7th century AD to the 3rd century. Visitors can still see the kitchen in the Iron Age. The houses with white walls are re-built as the Moorish residence. The center is the ruins of the palace.
There is another amazing treat. While we were wandering in the castle, we suddenly heard beautiful melodies coming out from the courtyard. Someone was performing on his folding chair, with his guitar case and a stalk of his CDs in front of him. In an instant, we were drawn into his relaxing music wonderland. He was really fantastic. We were not drawn by his masterful skills (he has the skills), but it was because his guitar playing was so approachable and so natural to the surroundings. Every note from each strumming was bouncing on the stone wall and echoed in the courtyard as if the music was filling up the gap in the ruins; the castle has no background music better than these amazing tracks.
Music is always the best medicine. After the trip I sometimes still go back and immerse myself into his music world, listening to the recordings and videos on Youtube recorded by other castle visitors. I wondered why on earth this self-taught, civilian master-guitarist is not world-famous, and then convinced myself that it was probably for the best to leave such artistic and sensible performance to where it truly belonged.
If you are interested – look it up, I was talking about Pedro Godinho.
After our day in Alfama, we went back to the Santa Justa Lift and appreciated the beautiful sunset as the sun goes down. We went back to the commercial Baixa district and looked for food – and that’s another story to tell.