Steep streets. Up once. Now down harder. And then up again. I'm sweating again. It's 11 p.m., but Alfama won't sleep for a long time.

Parents slowly push prams with babies. Children play football in the square in front of the Fado Museum. The best is a slightly inconspicuous 12-year-old, holding a bag of crisps in one hand and wearing flip-flops. This does not stop him from bouncing the ball and performing spectacular tricks. He makes eye contact with tourists and encourages them to play with him. Those who underestimate him are in for an unpleasant surprise. The boy is in excellent form, I don’t think anyone can beat him today.

Despite the late hour, there is a buzzy mix of languages everywhere. Portuguese is a minority here. Fado songs can be heard playing for tourists from nearby pubs and restaurants. Dramatic, sad, but also a little theatrical. Elegantly dressed waiters call out to passers-by: “only tonight!”, “authentic Portuguese music!”, “three-course dinner for 50 euros per person!” Sounds tempting? Just right for the pockets of wealthy American tourists.

I keep walking, wondering why it’s so nice here when it’s so ugly. Shabby walls, façades that haven’t been redecorated in a long time, drying laundry hanging from every other window. Apartment doors flung open. Out of the corner of my eye I see a half-naked couple lying on a mattress watching television.

Embark on a search for Lisbon authenticity

It’s sometimes said that you wouldn’t want to meet a particular person in a dark alley. Alfama is nothing but dark and narrow streets. A little neglected, winding, full of narrow passages and countless stairs. Fortunately, I don’t meet any suspicious characters here. Unlike a dozen years ago, when I couldn’t walk down the street without someone running up to me or shouting from the alleyway: “ei Maradona você quer comprar haxixe! Or: maconha, olha só os olhos!”

A poster shows that someone’s missing a cat. It has probably joined one of the gangs that roam the area. Judging by the size and general laziness of these guys, they’re doing pretty well. And they operate perfectly legally.

Searching for lost authenticity

I went to Alfama district because I was looking for anauthentic Lisbon experience. After all, it is the most characteristic and oldest district of Lisbon. A must for anyone who wants to touch the true Portuguese essence. So I put out my sensitive antennae and tried to absorb everything. The climate, the history, the buildings, the words.

But Alfama was not enough. I eagerly tick off the famous sights such as Miradouro Das Porto Da Sol, once the eastern entrance to the city, or Miradouro Graça, near where I stayed. Nevertheless, I greedily devour pastéis de nata from Pastéis de Belém, known as the best pastry shop in the city. , admire the murals and stop at almost every building decorated with multicoloured azulejos. Unsatisfied, I take Tram 28 to visit the ruins of the Roman Theatre. I sit down in Estrela Park, which seems to be very popular with the locals. A moment later, the guide I hired tells me how Portugal was once a world power, with huge reserves of gold and salt, and what life was like during the dictatorship of António Salazar. With emotion in his voice, he also mentions the numerous earthquakes and tsunamis that have hit the capital over the years.

And just when I think I’ve almost touched the heart of Lisbon, a reflection hits me like a bolt of lightning.

Wait a minute. Is this authenticity? This walk through the obligatory tourist checkpoints? It’s a bit like saying that I know the real Krakow because I’ve eaten an obwarzanek and seen the Cloth Hall, or that I know Prague because I’ve visited the Kafka Museum and stumbled blindly across the Charles Bridge.

It’s the same everywhere

Lost in my thoughts, I didn’t even notice the sun rising and a new day dawning. My stomach growled. Fortunately, Lisbon has no shortage of great places to eat breakfast. Among the best are Seventh Branch Chiado, Quase Café and Pasteleria Santo Antonio.

I’m there in ten minutes. Tired, I order something and after a while I experience the true fulfilment of delicious food. It was colourful, varied and delicious. I hear happy voices and conversations all around. This time Portuguese is the dominant language. And the coffee is better than ever.

It turns out that real Lisbon residents like slow mornings, meeting friends, good coffee and leisurely breakfasts. That’s just what I like – an authentic inhabitant of a big city 3,000 kilometres east of Lisbon.

See Lisbon through the eyes of locals



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