Getting lost while overseas can be quite frightening but at times, it is just what you want to do. I have discovered hidden gems and charming, talkative locals simply because I wandered aimless along narrow lanes and up and down steep stairs without worrying where I was going.
I did this recently in Alfama, the oldest part of Lisbon, Portugal, and discovered it was a quarter just begging to be explored. It spills downhill south of the castle to the Tejo Estuary and is a "must" for those looking for the soul of the city.
Visiting Alfama is to experience the architecture, the sounds, and the smells of old Lisbon. On its narrow and winding streets I found all sorts of treasures and on its steep stairs, I learned much about what makes Lisbon so special. Life is lived, for the most part, on the street and the smells and noises are a major part of its atmosphere.
It is still possible to see Roman and Arab remains, two of the most dominant civilizations in Lisbon's past. The narrow streets place little value on building facades but a much greater value is given to the interiors of the houses. Some houses still stand on foundations dating from the times of the West Goths but the whole structure of the area was essentially shaped by the Arabs. Although no houses remain from this era, the confused arrangement of its maze of streets and alleyways certainly does.
There are a few grand buildings such as the cathedral and some other churches that are worth seeing. The solid Se Cathedral from the 12th century resembles a fortification rather than a religious building, but the inside, with its gothic arches and ancient cloister, is well worth a visit. The castle is a major attraction. This is entwined with Portugal's early history and is where the Christian Crusaders defeated the North African Moors in 1147. The citadel was transformed into a royal residence and prospered until the early 16th century when Manuel I built a new palace down by the river.
Alfama was initially an upmarket area before it became home to the poor and unlucky, together with delinquents, dockworkers and sailors. Some of this remains today but the quarter has now largely shrugged off its grim image. The advent of mass tourism has brought gentrification to the area.
It is now full of curious little cafes — many of them serving bacalhau, the rehydrated, salted cod that is one of the city's staples. Many old houses are being repainted and repaired. Whitewashed houses are picturesquely framed by a sudden riot of colour and a blaze of geraniums, while upmarket restaurants and fado houses attract individuals and tour groups.
You should have plenty of time when you visit Alfama. You can easily spend half a day or more looking, wandering, and taking in all the action, sounds and smells of daily life playing out on the streets. It's probably best not to plan a route in detail because you will have trouble following it anyway. Just follow your instincts. Wandering through the labyrinth of alleyways, small archways, tiny squares, and little flights of stairs, will lead you to many idyllic and picturesque corners.
Getting lost is par for the course. Blind alleyways reveal a bewitching world of medieval customs and rituals, where women haul their washing to public fountains, others sell fish from their doorways, and late at night the brooding sound of fado music seems to come from every nook and cranny. The restaurants with fado range from large affairs which attract tour groups to small "holes in the wall" with only half a dozen tables.
There are a few streets not to be missed. Rua da Sao Pedro is one of the most animated streets where craggy old fishermen and fishwives still offer the catch of the day. Largo do Chafariz is the tourist hub where steep stepped streets meander to view points where the shimmering River Tejo (Tagus) is framed by a latticework of terracotta rooftops, a few pines, and clumps of bougainvillea. Most of Alfama's shops and tourist restaurants are clustered in this area.
On Tuesday and Saturdays, Campo de Santa Clara, a lop-sided square set below the looming dome of the Santa Engrácia Church, is transformed into a colourful and sprawling flea market, the largest in the city. This "thieves' market" is a huge jumble sale of hand-me-down curios, unwanted bric-a-brac, and second-hand cast-offs. Don't expect any bargains, just go for the atmosphere.
Along Beco do Carneiro, houses are stacked a metre apart, nestled with tiny taverns and chaotic corner grocers. If you are looking for fado music, tiny A Baiuca on Rua de S.Miguel stages amateur fado shows where residents literally walk in off the street and sing in front of diners. The atmosphere is great, the food less so, and you need to be aware that the food and drinks that are brought to your table without you ordering will be charged for if you touch them.
There are several notable hotels that cater for budget travellers as well as the more discerning visitor if you chose to stay in this area. I don't believe it is the best place if you want to do some wider Lisbon sightseeing, but there is no disputing the local atmosphere.