Notes from Lisbon

Updated - July 10, 2017 02:53 pm IST

Published - July 08, 2017 08:37 pm IST

Enjoying the waves and the sun at Lisbon.

Enjoying the waves and the sun at Lisbon.

As she picks her flowing red skirt, her embroidered black shawl slides down her slender, bare shoulder. Even though her back is turned towards me, I can imagine her ethereal beauty. I’m gazing at a stunningly evocative street art painting of Maria Severa, the legendary, almost mythical, 19th century fadista (fado singer) from Lisbon. Her voice (and no doubt, beauty) caught the imagination of the Count of Vimioso, which eventually led to the popularity of fado among the city’s elite. Severa is a fabled figure in the world of fado even today, and her home on Rua do Capelão in the Mouraria area of Lisbon has been restored and turned into a cultural centre dedicated to fado.

In 1755, a massive earthquake flattened most of Lisbon, miraculously leaving the adjoining neighbourhoods of Alfama and Mouraria largely intact. Here, the winding cobbled streets snake up and down one of the seven hills of Lisbon, as pretty pastel-coloured houses seem to tumble down from the hilltop Castelo de São Jorge all the way to downtown Baixa. Alfama’s medieval streets are home to many fado clubs and tascas (taverns), where you can lose yourself in the strains of Portuguese guitars accompanied by the mellifluous voices of modern-day fadistas. Alfama may have laid claim to fado, but it was in Mouraria where it really originated, in the 1840s, when Severa graced the taverns with her honeyed voice.

Multicultural hub

In the 12th century, Afonso I, the first king of Portugal, re-conquered Lisbon from the Moors and then confined them to their own ghetto, Mouraria (literally, Moorish Quarter). Eventually, it devolved into a hub of underground activities and acquired a notoriety, and till recently was considered a slum area. Mouraria was a multicultural neighbourhood and has a significant population of African, Chinese, and Indian communities even today. As I walk around its narrow streets, I see people of all hues and even catch a bit of Hindi wafting through some of the shops. There is a bustling street food market at Praça Martim Moniz, where people of all ethnicities mingle and the air is redolent with the familiar smells of curry and spices.

In 2009, the town hall initiated a project to revamp Mouraria’s reputation by restoring the neighbourhood’s streets and buildings, and also came up with programmes to integrate the local Lisboetas with the largely immigrant population of Mouraria.

A year before the government initiative, a private, non-profit organisation had already been formed to revitalise the area. At the colourful office of Associação Renovar a Mouraria (ARM, renovaramouraria.pt ), I meet Inés Andrade who has lived in Mouraria for more than 25 years, and who, along with a few passionate locals, is at the forefront of this mission to attract people to the area. Food is one of the attractions. “More than 50 nationalities live in Mouraria so you can get food from all over the world, be it traditional Portuguese food or Indian or Brazilian or African or Chinese; you can spend six months just eating around Mouraria without repeating an experience,”

Andrade says. ARM organises food walks and guided cultural tours of the neighbourhood as well as fado tours that relive the musical legacy of the area. “We also host cultural programmes, film screenings, and live music performances for the people of the neighbourhood as well as for visitors,” continues Andrade. The proceeds of all these activities go towards community support programmes like literacy classes, homework assistance for children, health consultations, Portuguese language classes for immigrants, and the like.

Later, as I wander about the neighbourhood, I see that some of the pale pink, butter yellow, and powder blue walls of Mouraria sport striking black & white photographs of elderly people—Dona Amélia reading a book, friends John and Jorge companionably downing a drink, Dona Maria holding up a bunch of flowers. It’s a tribute by British photographer Camilla Watson (who has been living in Lisbon since 2007) to the locals who live in the area, and whose “spirit makes this corner of Mouraria special.” The people of Mouraria open up their doors (and hearts) as more travellers seek out this part of Lisbon drawn by the picturesque jumble of colourful houses, a multiculti vibe, and the soulful strains of fado.

My guide Carmo Botelho sums up what I have been thinking: “Mouraria is going to be the next ‘it’ place in Lisbon.” I can only nod in agreement.

The author is a travel and food writer. She is mildly obsessed with coffee and all things Italian.

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