If it wasn't for the fact that this small attic apartment was so marked by the lack of personality that most Airbnb-rentals comes with, this would be the most romantic example of a bohemian writer's nest. Looking out from the window there is the scenic view of the packed and ramshackled roof tops that gives you a hint of life below, a dense medieval labyrinth filled with the drama of its past.
Since the last time I visited Lisbon I have been wanting to return to this place. As a last night resort after a couple of hazey days down the beautiful Alentejo coast, me and two friends resided here the night before our flight back home. Coming in late, we went out for a quick bite and had really no pre-knowledge about the neighbourhood. The night ended up with drinking Tsingtaos on a Chinese rooftop restaurant while looking out on the citylights that was almost falling down over the steep Lisbon hillsides. In other words, quite far away from the classic image of port wine, bifanas and pomada-futbol. This was not Portugal, this was something else.
Mouraria, as this area is called, is a world of its own. The name itself is related to the Moors that were confined here after the Reconquista, making this to an area of alternative faiths already back in the 12th century. After the devastating earthquake in 1755, that pretty much wiped out all of Lisbon, Mouraria was one of the few city parts that were not destroyed and therefore it is still today characterized by a medieval street pattern. Somewhat forgotten and considered as an area of outcasts it has until recently been associated with poverty, prostitution and run-down and abandoned housings. The last years has seen a big influx of immigrants from all over the world, making Mouraria to an exciting blend of cultures.
While walking these streets, a strange feeling captures me. It is like I have been here before. The smells, the architecture and the colours. They are all signs of another place. And then I realize that this is as much Goa, Bahia, Angola and Macau as this is European soil. This is the aftermath of the Portuguese Empire. After conquering the world, ruling it and then retreating back to its own, this is what remains. It is fierce and raw and it has got the same sad and forgotten vibe about it. From here to Panjim and all the way to Sao Salvador there is in many ways no distance. Here lives the history, here lives the legacy.
Lisbon was great during the summer. Hot, electric and full of energy. But since that visit a comment by a Portuguese woman stayed in my mind. For her, the Lisbon summer was all great, but she preferred the winter, a time of solitude and self reflection. As I am stumbling down Mouraria's small streets in search of the next drink, I am ready to agree. It is the season of the poets, the wanderers and the lone wolfs. A melancholy wind is sweeping through the city and a dark and sad force takes hold of you, but in a beautiful and meaningful way. The feeling of living is strong but too often forgotten. Here it is by your side whether you like it or not. Especially in the night time. Lisbon, and above all Mouraria, gets abandoned and desertal, opened up for dreaming and imagination. This is where to get lost, but also to find what you are looking for.
I watch Sr. Antonio pouring ginjinha to the old men of Mouraria. I am at Os Amigos de Severa, a legendary hole-in-the-wall in one of the backstreets behind Praca Martim Moniz, Mouraria's central square. This bar screams out history. The shorter version is the bar itself. Antonio opened up this joint more than fourty years back and has since then been serving the neighborhood with small cups of the sweet, typical cherry liquer Ginjinha. The bar is small and is only a couple of square meters big. In one of the corners is Sr. Antonio, behind a small counter. This small spot is his domain and here he has spent a lifetime, chatting with friends and pouring drinks. A rough estimation would be that he's been standing at the exact same square meter for about fifteen thousand nights, an uncomprehending number in many ways. In a larger perspective, this is the place of a culture being born. This is where it all started, where it all took place. This is Kongo Square, New Orleans. This is South Bronx, New York. Triana in Sevilla or La Boca in Buenos Aires. The birthplace of a music form. I am referring to Fado.
Because no matter how much Mouraria is a case of the ethnic and multicultural neighbourhood, this is still the place where one of the most typical Portuguese attributes originated. It was in the same house as this bar, where the legend tells the story of Maria Severa, the iconic 19th century singer who has gained a near-mythical status as the first Fado singer that rised to fame. She was according to the story a tall, beautiful prostitute who lived in this building and her family run a tavern on this very spot where she used to sing. She died young at the age of 26 but is still today regarded as a founding figure of the music genre. She is the Gardel, the Armstrong or the Dj Kool Herc of Fado. She is the top of the musical ancestry tree.
Os Amigos da Severa, which means "the friends of Severa" in Portuguese is a homage to her life but also to the Fado community that has always been present in Mouraria. Many great acts are from here, most notably Fernando Maurício, and they all get tribute at this bar. Sr Antonio likes to blast out old Fado tunes from the transistor radio and all over the walls there are photos of musicians and other cultural personalities that have shared one thing in common; the love of this bar. And easy to love it truly is. After a couple of plastic cups of the Ginjinha the body arouses into a warm and thrilled condition and as the bittersweet Fado takes hold of me, I don't know wether to jump in ecstasy or to burst into tears. I feel alive. A weird feeling of belonging strikes me even though I know I don't fit in. I guess it is a sensation of purpose that I encounter, while watching the locals of Mouraria getting something between work and supper. Call it camaraderie, fellowship or just a simple notion of everyday life in practice. I feel envious. Could this be for me? Could I also just spend my life breathing, nothing more, nothing less?
"Walking on these streets, until the night falls, my life feels to me like the life they have. By day they’re full of meaningless activity; by night, they’re full of meaningless lack of it. By day I am nothing, and by night I am I. There is no difference between me and these streets, save they being streets and I a soul, which perhaps is irrelevant when we consider the essence of things." Fernando Pessoa, The book of disquiet.
I spend my stay in the Portuguese capital by playing with my kid during the day and wandering the desolated streets during the night. The famous words by the literary son of Lisbon, Fernando Pessoa, haunts me as I can't decide wether these are true sentences of geniality or if I don't understand them at all. It doesn't really matter anyway. Like Pessoa I feel just like a flaneur of my time, that just floats forward through both city terrain and life. The low-quality but always available Lisbon hashish encourages these thoughts of mine. A cold but reassuring feeling strikes me. There is no need to be afraid. Tomorrow could be the end but that doesn't really matter tonight. Tonight is for living. I think about the people that I met at Os Amigos da Severa. It is the third night in a row that I have been standing at the bar counter listening to the Fado diva Amélia Rodriguez while sucking on that sweet red blood. Since my first visit I have been returning because I have been worried that my first experience didn't relate to reality. The second and third glance could often be somewhat disappointing. The fear of a large group of Erasmus-students crashing this party with some weird German accents and a post-pubertal insecureness makes this anal barblogger as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room filled with rocking chairs. This may sound harsh and hostile but I want to make clear that I have no problems with tourists. Well of course, as long as that tourist is me.
No, Os Amigos seems to be the genuine sort. This night I got into talks with Nuno, a longtime regular and a close friend to Sr. Antonio. For him, this bar was one of the cornerstones of this little neighbourhood and he almost described Sr Antonio as a sort of paternal figure for many of the people living here. He should know, as he is the leader of a Christian community organisation, working against crime and drug abuse in the area. He told me that when people with no money needed something to eat, they could just stop by here and Sr. Antonio would give them some of his simple but tasty vegetable soup. But first and foremost, this bar had a meaning for the people living here as it represented the traditional identity of the bairro. In a time when such a central neighbourhood like Mouraria could be nowhere near to escape the claws of gentrification, this was for many of the residents a place of meaning and belonging. This was something to be proud of and to stand tall for.
It is my last day in Lisbon. I am in a deep hurry to catch my flight but I just remembered that I forgot to shoot the mandatory photo of the exterior of the bar. I run down the tortuous streets of Mouraria to catch a last glimpse of Os Amigos da Severa. Already twenty meters before the bar I hear the music and laughter from the place. Just as it always has done, life continues in the same way, night after night. Something inside of me says I can’t do what I would usually do; compromise my hurry with a last drink. My mind is already gone and it almost feels unfaithful to the sentiment of this city. The pace and mood I felt yesterday has vanished and I decide that I have no choice than to flee this place. I take two quick shots with the camera and I almost dodge who ever that could be inside. On the way back I realise that nothing last forever. Not me, not Sr. Antonio and certainly not his bar. A sad emotion sweeps over me but I do what we all do when encountered with the fact of mortality. I move on. Maybe I’ll consume a lot of worthless shit at the tax-free. Probably I’ll just take the easy way out and search for the next hayride. Just lean back on my defense mechanisms. Lisbon at winter carved out my inner me and sprayed it out on a canvas. This luggage is too heavy to carry on board. Hopefully, it will all be vaulted there on the streets of Mouraria so I can come back to collect it again. I sure hope that when that time is here, I can come back to Os Amigos da Severa so I can brave up on Sr. Antonio’s sweet, red potion again.
Drinks? Yes, Ginjinha. It is an aguardiente flavoured with sour cherries and it is one of the big romances of the Portuguese people. It is usually consumed at a Ginjinha-bar but often found in a quite touristic setting downtown. So if it is the Ginjinha you are looking for but you want to get away from the pedestrian streets of Baixa, this is the real alternative. 1€ a cup.
Munch? I have seen many bars where there are free bar nibbles but never a place where a whole meal is included. Yes, I have yet to visit Granada. But a whole meal is exactly what Sr. Antonio's Sopa de Macarrão is. It is a simple, poor man's soup with nutritious vegetables and macaroni. Now, this soup is for free but coming here with sufficient funds, you better make sure to cash up for it as Sr. Antonio also got a rent to pay. Actually, he too is dealing with a raised rent as the neighbourhood is transforming and a good way to help this neighbourhood institution to prosper is to put a little extra in to this one-man company.
Where? Rua do Capelao 32, Lisboa 1100-113, Portugal.
I'm always on the lookout for for more bars to enjoy and write about. Do you know about an interesting place in your city or elsewhere, let me know and maybe I'll stop by!
Photo 1:Maria Severa - Fado-Sängerin.jpg, By Francisco Metrass (1825-1861), wikimedia.org, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMaria_Severa_-_Fado-S%C3%A4ngerin.jpg, Photo 2: baron_rouge_comptoir.jpg Photo 2, Pessoabaixa.jpg, wikimedia.org, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/51/Pessoabaixa.jpg