The oldest district of Lisbon owes its name to the Arabs: Alfama derives from a deformation of the Arabic word alhaman and refers to the fountains and pools of the lake Alcacarias.
Not only its name gives its origin away but also its appereance, a maze of narrow alleys overlooked by buildings close to one another as a kasbah , and arabesque motifs adorning the facades giving an exotic tone to the neighbourhood.
It was perhaps thanks to the reduced buildings’ height that Alfama survived the devastating earthquake that struck and destroyed Lisbon in 1755, thus allowing this piece of the past to arrive to us intact. No coincidence that even today the inhabitants of the district are of rural origin, descendants of those peasants who, during the Second World War, moved here from the countryside to work on the docks, which in those days knew a period of great traffic thanks to the neutrality of Portugal .
Today as in those years Alfama is made of narrow alleys (becos), squares, benches where old people sit observing the tourists going up the challenging climb that takes here. It is precisely this growing tourist attention that is slowly changing the soul of the neighbourhood, with new antique shops and swanky boutique that has little to do with the true and simple character of the district.
If you want to get to know the authentic Alfama come in the early morning, when the streets are still empty and you can see a truly unique Lisbon: fishmongers and bakery shops that open up and expose their goods on the windows, the smell fo basil, fresh bread and soap spreading in the air, fresh laundry hanging between houses, cats peeking in front of the windows to get their daily ration and azulejos shining under the sun.
A whirlwind of tastes, smells and shapes, East and Europe seems to meet here mingling togetherit’s impossible and even useless to distinguish these two souls because Alfama’s secret and charm lies precisely in this indissoluble interweaving of both worlds.
You just have to breathe in the air filled with spices and perfumes and get gently enchanted by the sensory labyrinth of its streets.