When we were looking for an apartment for our big move to Lisbon, the neighbourhood we’d be living in was a big part of that decision-making. Turns out, Mouraria is the perfect area for us, as this medieval neighbourhood holds onto the heart and soul of Lisbon’s past, while looking towards the future.
A Brief History
Mouraria was named after the Moors, the Islamic Berber dynasty that ruled most of the Iberian peninsula for about 400 years (from when they first invaded across the straight of Gibraltar from 711). The newly formed Kingdom of Portugal, working their way down from what is now Northern Portugal and Spanish Galicia, conquered Lisbon in 1147, under the rule of Dom Henriques Afonso (Portugal’s first King). After the “Siege of Lisbon“, Dom Henriques allowed Muslims to stay in the city, but relegated them to remain in one area on the north-western slope of the Castle… this area became “Mouraria“.
Since the medieval formation of Mouraria, the neighbourhood has famously been a constant point of settlement for many immigrants, which is clearly still apparent today, as it’s definitely Lisbon’s most ethnically diverse area. Around every twist and turn, there’s not only a new discovery, but also many stores and restaurants from various cultures around the world. On one corner, you will find a Loja Chinês (Chinese-owned store) with all the asian ingredients that you’d hope to find in Toronto’s Chinatown. Down the next alleyway there’s a Bengali restaurant with a menu board with photos and (cheap) prices on the window. Then there’s a kebab house, an Indian restaurant, a Nepalese restaurant, and various African stores and barbershops (immigrants coming mostly from Mozambique, Angola, and the Cabo Verde Islands).
Lisbon’s UNESCO Heritage
Although not a UNESCO heritage site itself, Mouraria is most famously known as the birthplace of Fado, Portugal’s UNESCO certified music. Fado is perhaps both the best representation of, as well as the result of Portuguese “saudade“. Saudade is a difficult term to explain for non-Portuguese speaking people, as there really is no direct translation. At least, not in one word. It’s a feeling of longing for past glories, lost loves, and for a brighter future. It’s the pain in your soul that you feel when you return home from a long vacation in a place that’s completely captured your heart. The anxiousness inside you when you must leave your family for a long time, and aren’t sure when you’ll be able to see them again. Saudade is as integral to the Portuguese soul as anything else that is iconic of this historic country, and the hauntingly melancholic, yet beautiful sounds of Fado might just be the best way to understand what saudade is, and where it came from. It was born out of both hardship, and hope. The most enduring constants in Portugal’s long and turbulent history.
Maria Severa Onofriana (just known as “Severa” – 1820-1846) is widely attributed to be the first fadista (fado singer), and had her home in Mouraria. You can walk down Rua do Capelão / Rua da Guia and see Severa’s presence, with the home she used to live in, now marked as “Casa da Severa” with a guitar on the street in front. There’s a hauntingly beautiful mural of her a wall close by in the Largo da Savera, the square named in her honour. Murals of other fadistas, such as Mariza, the most famous and success Fado singer in modern times can also be found in the area. Severa was born to poor parents who immigrated to Lisbon from other parts of Portugal (Santarém and Portalegre), moving to different neighbourhoods of the city before finally settling down in Mouraria. Her father was of gypsy heritage, which gave Severa darker skin-tone and more exotic look. Like her mother, she was a very successful prostitute in Mouraria, an area frequently visited by British and Portuguese sailors.
Due to Severa’s high skill in singing, she became quite the sought after escort in her day, which led her to gain the attention of more influential men. It was her love affair with the Count of Vimioso that helped her to spread Fado to the aristocratic society, and thus, Fado quickly became part of the Portuguese soul.
Severa died at the age of only 26 years old, in a Mouraria brothel, from Tuberculosis. In typical saudade fashion, it’s rumoured that her final words were “Morreu, sem nunca ter vivido” (“Died, without ever having lived”).
Rebirth, and Martim Moniz
Like many poor immigrant neighbourhoods, Mouraria has long history of being forgotten. For generations, it had a reputation of prostitution, griminess, poverty, and other factors associated with old time lower-class life. During the era of the Estado Novo, the period of Portugal’s Salazar dictator ship (1933-1974), some of the historic streets and buildings of Mouraria were torn down…. some say to begin to gentrify the neighbourhood, but mostly as a physical representation of the symbolic need for the dictatorship government to wipe fado and the bohemian traditions from the Portuguese lower class to make them easier to control. It was a classic example of “The Man” vs “The People”.
In the mid-2000s, the Portuguese government decided to take on a revitalization project to clean up and rebuild crumbling parts of Mouraria, as well as to bring back the soul of Lisbon that the Estado Novo tried so hard to get rid of. Lying at the beginning of one of the “Y-shaped” arms projecting out from the Baixa, Praça Martim Moniz became the centre of this rebuilding project. The praça (town square) essentially is an urban park with Mercado Fusão running the length. Although not quite the typical street market we might be used to thinking of, this mercado has quickly become one of our favourite neighbourhood hangout spots. Plenty of sunshine and just over a handful of food stands, make this a great spot to eat and people watch. It’s the perfect setting for a quick and cheap meal, with cuisines ranging from Chinese and Indian, to South American and Burgers. Of course, just like every place in Lisbon, all the food stands sell lots of booze (do they even need liquor licenses around here???) and the eclectic feel almost reminds me of a Kensington Market kind of vibe, with Rua da Palma running out of the top of the park, being Toronto Chinatown’s Spadina, lined with endless cheap Chinese stores selling random things. I love it.
We had our first quick meal on our arrival here, at the South American food stand, El Cartel. The empanadas were perfect for a quick bite, and the ceviche was amazingly refreshing and perfect with a beer, mojito, or caparinha in the Lisbon sunshine. Today, we couldn’t figure out what to eat and just needed some food, so we went back to Martim Moniz and grabbed some cheapy Chinese food from Dragon Square. Ok so, it’s what you expect… food court style, nothing amazing, but for only €5, it’s what you expect, and the vendors are so nice, you just can’t help but be happy… especially when you’re sitting in the sun with a view of this historic neighbourhood and the Castelo São Jorge looking down on you!
Holding on to Lisbon’s Heart
Mouraria was one of the only two neighbourhoods in Lisbon (the other, Alfama) to survive the 1755 earthquake/fire/tsunami that destroyed the city. This makes it one of the only areas to still be made up of the many twists, turns, alleyways, and hidden staircases that are so typical of medieval neighbourhoods. Some pre-earthquake buildings can still be found if you know where to look. Tight corridors make up the cobbled streets made with typical Portuguese “calçada” construction, laundry lines hanging from every window. The buildings are rundown, yet charming. People from various ethnicities and religions can be seen walking around, and the avós and avôs – the old generation Portuguese, can be seen leaning out their windows watching the the world walk by. One local artist made a tribute to them, posting photos of local long-time residents down a beco (alley) around the corner from us.
Along with Alfama, I can honestly say that Mouraria truly holds the heart and soul of Lisbon and it’s colourful history. Mouraria provides the perfect representation of saudade, as well as the diverse history of this great city. Over the centuries it’s been ruled by different cultures and religions, and since Portugal was formed, Lisbon’s been a hub for many people from around the world to pass through. Mouraria has always been a place for all these different people and cultures to come together…. something that provides me with great comfort, coming from a hometown with the diversity of Toronto.