Lisbon is the oldest city in Western Europe, and the oldest district of this very old city is Alfama. Planted just beneath the Castelo de São Jorge, Alfama was the seed from which the rest of Lisbon sprung.
Alfama has become the gate through which many tourists enter Lisbon, because it’s here that the cruise ships disembark. For this reason, we had come to associate the neighborhood with slow-moving swarms of umbrella-following zombies, and had been immune to its considerable charms. It’s hard to appreciate architecture, when your imagination is distracted with the idea that the woman carrying the umbrella is actually on the run from zombies. Oh no! She’s paused too long in front of that statue, and they’ve surrounded her! Is she trying to talk to them? “Lady, you can’t reason with zombies! Run!!”
But once we stopped being idiots, and started to pay attention to Alfama itself, it was a shock to realize how beautiful the neighborhood is. The alleys are so twisty and small, it borders on lunacy. Many of the buildings are in disrepair, although this doesn’t stop them from being occupied. And the other half, the ones that have been renovated, are all vacation rentals.
We couldn’t help but notice the anti-tourism sentiment running through Alfama. It would be impossible not to notice; the graffiti literally says “Fuck Airbnb”, or “Save Alfama from Tourism”. And it’s just as impossible not to understand. This neighborhood has been utterly transformed by the Airbnb phenomenon. Some of that change has been positive; now that there’s money to be made, historic structures are actually being refurbished. But long-time locals are being pushed out. If you’re a Portuguese person who wants to live in Alfama, you can forget about finding an affordable apartment.
Authenticity hasn’t been completely snuffed out. For every two hipster cafés, there’s one old-time ginja joint selling shots for a euro. Some restaurants are still serving fairly-priced meals. And plenty of locals do live here; you’ll spot them shuffling slowly up the hills on the way back from the market, or hanging out on stools in front of their homes. I imagine their places are rent-controlled. (Look closely, and you’ll see the Airbnb wolves drooling in the darkness, waiting for these old-timers to kick the bucket.)
At least some people in Alfama seems to understand that these old-timers are the heart of the neighborhood. Spread out around the neighborhood, a series of portraits called “Alma of Alfama”, or the “Soul of Alfama”, introduces some of the locals. At the public washing basins, we read about an older woman who’s been doing laundry every day since she was a girl. And then we looked inside the washrooms, and there she was: still at work.
There is no lack of touristy sights in Alfama, including churches, museums and viewpoints, but you don’t have to visit any of these to have a great day in the neighborhood. Take your camera, throw your map into the garbage, and lose yourself deliberately among the alleys. Regardless of where you end up, or which corners you turn, you’re guaranteed to be enchanted.