A view of the Lisbon Alfama District

Faded Majesty of Lisbon's Alfama

Notes on Lisbon's historic Alfama District as inspiration.

Paris had ruined all my romantic notions of the western European city. A single city – littered, rude, cheap and crass, and to me long ago, it symbolized all of Europe. Overrated and overpriced, and so I had gone on imagining the rest of urban Europe to be much the same. That is until Lisbon.

Lisbon feels tropical, connected to Africa, on a biting cold day, and in its southern sun, like a mix and match of its neighbor’s architectures. It is colored in a smudgy gray, festooned with pinks and canaries and aquas and limes. Its slight inhabitants dress urbanely like their country cousins; just in tighter weaves.

Over lunch a long time ago with a Portuguese friend, I came up with the idea of hosting a Portuguese Empire party; literally a party themed on Portugal's historical colonial empire. Let's forget for brevity its success or outcome. I came up with this idea with only the faintest notion of what Portugal is, or was. Perhaps it was subconsciously strategic that the two food critics at my old school newspaper were both Portuguese, and that sure, they'd love to help and do the cooking.

My Portugal, the one I imagined in preparing for my party, turned from a whim into a dream. Portugal was a place whose territories occupied the strangest realms of the world: the places where other countries failed to show interest or failed to see any worth. As the sea race to control trade with India and the Spice Islands heated up over the centuries, Portugal's dominance of the seas dwindled to a secondary power, and yet they still coaxed a fair portion of the world into their grasp. The Portuguese world was a sleepy backwater; multilingual, steamy, a dozen lands and a thousand islands.

In 1755, an Earthquake rumbled in Portugal's Algarve lands to the south. Half the city collapsed and fifteen thousand perished. Much of Lisbon's history fell with the Earthquake. Except one area.

Before the earthquake, this area, the Alfama District, was the hottest wealthy neighborhood in Portugal. Hip and wealthy, it also carried a Moorish architectural past.

Roman and Arab are literally painted and constructed on top of and over each other, making the whole place a mash of centuries.

The Alfama Detail

Details from a door in the Alfama.

My Portuguese Empire myth came from music: Cesaria Evora and Jobim and others. Music that was a dialogue of other times. It is a surprise then to learn that the Alfama also continues to be a center for that old Portuguese-style blues; the fado. And even with the pattering of rain, you can hear some old man crooning or a guitarre picking behind some alley or courtyard.

The rain is pouring heavily now, and we're treading along the streets to the Alfama District.

We stop in a small cafe - there seem to be thousands of such cafes in this city - and we share a coffee and a bowl of fruit.

When Jane and I stepped into Lisbon, I stepped into my Portuguese Empire. Lisbon really is that cobbled city of my imagination, and the Alfama, being the last standing of old Lisbon, is the epitomy of my imagined Portuguese Empire.

Lisbon Alfama

Apartments in the Alfama

Portuguese author Jose Saramago calls the Alfama a 'mythological beast' and continues to explain that he, nor anyone else can exactly know what it is. For what it's worth, the Alfama is a labyrinth of dark, wet alleys. Of old richly embellished tiles that facade entire exteriors. It is most of all a labryinth of Lisbon's history, set upon a glimpse of urban Lisbon lifestyles. For the Alfama is residential, with few specific tourist stops.

We walk slowly. The doors of apartments feature old bronzework of dragons and beasts. Scratched paint shows dozens of layers beneath each wall. For people who like history without walking through old churches and museums, the Alfama is a mood piece of a hundred eras. A glimpse of the faded majesty of the Portuguese Empire.

The Alfama Detail

The first problem that planning this party involved was finding out what the Portuguese Empire was, and how to cook in the styles of each of Portugal's colonial territories.

The island of Cape Verde, off the coast of Western Africa. Goa, in Western India. Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Brazil. Mozambique. Macau.

Portugal focused its territorial expansion on the Atlantic by the thirteenth century; they were one of the earliest masters of the high seas, and used it to their benefit. From Vasco de Gama to Magellan and beyond, Portuguese sailors literally connected the world by sea.

Over time, modern politics and economic realities shrunk Portugal's overseas colonies. In 1999, Portugal turned over its last far-flung colony, Macau, to China.

All of the shapes and colors of old Portugal seem to still exist here. And the colors of places from the other side of the world As if I would know. Perhaps, it is my imagination - created all those years ago in a crowded apartment in Los Angeles.

Explore more in Europa

In Venice, Istrian Croatia and Slovenia, I explore whether another Venice can be built in the future.

On the Island of Paros, I explore whether a musical improvisation master could have thrived in the ancient Mediterranean.

On a road trip to Iceland's remote Westfjords, I explore the decline of the iconic Atlantic Puffin.

In a road trip to Spain's Mediterranean coast, I ponder the value of itinerary-free travel.

Exploring Sicily's Tyrhennian Sea coast, with notes on the effect of climate and migration.

The Alfama district of Lisbon hints at the global influence of colonial Portugal.

Celebrating a family feast in the strange, modern setting of Pomerania, land of my ancestors.

Exploring small towns of Iberia, where some of Europe's most fabled cheeses were born.

Exploring the Bavarian and Swiss alps in search of the region's famous handmade cheeses.

Sketches, illustrations and notes on improvisation and worldbuilding in the Germany's second largest city.

Notes, drawings, sketches and illustrations in different mediums from Paris.

Drawings, notes and Moleskine journal sketches from my travels on the island of Sicily.

Notes on Gibraltar and its famous macaques, plus an interview with one of their protectors.

Drawings, sketches, Moleskine journal notes and illustrations from Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

Midnight tapas in Madrid, the plains of La Mancha and ancient alleys in Cuenca.

My companion notes, sketches and illustrations to my story on the Venetian Adriatic.