Squirrel’s Secret Spot 17: Mouraria


If you have read my last post, you will understand that I am, at the moment,  a bit allergic to popular tourist spots and their attendant crowds of tourists.  But also, I am sure we all realise that touristy places usually don’t reflect the lives of the locals very much.

So it is with a little trepidation that I share with you this quiet little gem in Lisbon which I am nominating as Squirrel’s Secret Spot or SSS #17 because I wouldn’t want this often overlooked place to be suddenly over run by the plague of locusts tourists.  Then again, I reassure myself with the thought that the number of readers of this blog would make up a very plague or a very lonely horde.  So we are probably safe if you keep the secret to yourselves.

Mouraria is Lisbon’s secret neighborhood.  Lying on the slopes of the hill and under the shadow of the imposing castle, Castelo de São Jorge, it is the sister neighborhood to the more famous and more frequented Alfama area which is on the other side of the castle. Both neighborhoods are probably the oldest parts of Lisbon as they survived relatively intact after the great earthquake of 1755 flattened most of the city.

Mouraria means the Quarter of the Moors because it was first settled by the Moors in the year 714 and even after Lisbon fell to the Portuguese in 1147, they were allowed to live on there.  It has always been a multicultural neighborhood and remains so today.

But why have I included Mouraria in my very select group of Secret Spots?  It is enchanting and it feels like a hidden secret.  One moment you are in a busy wide pedestrian avenue which seems typical of downtown Lisbon but just a few steps down a narrow opening between buildings and you enter a different world.  At once, you leave the bustle of the city  and you enter a peaceful, quiet village-like neighborhood.  It seems like magic.

Mouraria is one of several places that claim to be the place where the music genre, Fado was born (see last post).  The story goes that the very first star of Fado was Maria Severa Onofriana (1820-1846) and her house is still there in Mouraria.  Fado is all about lamenting one’s fate so it is perhaps no surprise that Maria Severa did not have an easy life.  She was a prostitute living in the slums and occasionally singing her sad songs in local taverns.  One of her lovers was an aristocrat, Francisco de Paula Portugal e Castro, the Count of Vimioso.  It was he that help elevate this song styling and made it popular among high society. Maria Severa died  of tuberculosis at the age of 26 and was buried in a common ditch at a local cemetery.

Rua da Guia is lined with portraits of famous Fado singers who contributed to the growth of Fado’s popularity.  Most are actual photographs but the one of Maria Severa is just a stylised drawing as no picture of her exists.

Mouraria’s narrow streets are also lined with 15 photo portraits of local residents.  These and those of the Fado luminaries were photographs transferred onto concrete or wood by a special process by British born photographer Camilla Watson.  She loved Mouraria and the people there and continues to be a member of the community and she wanted to thank the community for making her feel so welcomed.  These photos help the visitor enter into the community too.

There are lovely surprises around every bend.  It could be a quaint restaurant serving sardines, a charming little plaza, a park bench with a view, a street with neighbors talking on their doorstep or from their balconies, a neighborhood watering hole with no space to swing a cat but a long, long revered history, an old historic home, beautiful wall murals expressing the spirit of gratitude and hope in the community or it could be tables and chairs filling whatever space they could find along a narrow lane and serving the best samosas I have ever tasted, apparently for generations.  Mouraria is so many small gems that make me want to go back and spend a lot more time there.

But for me, my short visit ended by going past a street of brilliant murals, down a steep stairway and then with one step, emerged between two buildings and onto a part of busy central Lisbon that I had walked before without knowing that an enchanted place was hidden just out of view.

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