Sunday, May 18, 2008

alfama, lisbon

Like San Francisco, the city it very much reminds me of, Lisbon is built on a series of hills and its geography contributes much to the feeling of the city; it's many wonderful views need to be earned through punishing climbs, but are worth the effort many times over. The houses are built in a jumbled, haphazard fashion, their positions dictated by the contours of the hills.

Perhaps the most beautiful district I encounter during my few days in Lisbon is the Alfama, a dense labyrinth of buildings on the steep slope between the mediaeval Castle of São Jorge and the river, which consists of narrow streets of terraced homes, baroque churches and the remnants of the city walls which, during the city's Moorish past, constituted the boundaries of this now hugely grown capital.

Historically the part of the city where the poorest are most densely populated, Alfama remains a beguiling combination of picturesque and down-at-heel. Unlike the Bairro Alto, it is free of grafitti and its colour palatte is restricted to whitewash and terracotta, which - lit up by the sun - creates an impression of a Mediterranean paradise. Step a little closer and the buildings are worn and crumbling, yet this part of the city is actually evidence of an incredible sturdiness; this 12th century district easily survived the great Earthquake of 1755. Goodness knows how.

I walk through its streets, sweltering as I clamber uphill, noticing the crowds growing with every step. Before long, police are stood managing the traffic, and I realise that even by the district's normal standards it is unusually busy today.

Then I'm astonished to see a bicycle race past me at an angle not far from vertical. The sound of whistling and cheering surrounds me. So as I climb higher, past iron fences, I discover that I have timed my visit to Alfama to co-incide with the much celebrated - and ludicrously dangerous - downhill, which consists of cyclists racing at full pelt downhill through the narrow cobbled streets. To make matters worse, they do so navigating not just eager locals and tourists, but a series of jumps and steep stairs, too. It's an incredible sight - of which more later.

One thing I like about Portugal is the ease with which people move from bar to bar; there are no cover charges, so it's perfectly okay to buy a beer in one place and wander to another without having to down it or leave it behind. In Alfama, everyone - perhaps because of the climb or the now sweltering heat - has a plastic glass of beer and the atmosphere is celebratory. I sit in a crowded square watching the cyclists clatter past and drink in the good mood. What wonderful timing.

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