I walked out of my hotel in Bairro Alto on a Sunday morning and could only wonder about what had happened the night before. There were bars, beer, wine, a funny Russian, funnier Portuguese, a foosball table, Mira being really drunk, and thousands of people in the ancient stone streets just partying. I smiled to myself as I realized that everybody who stumbles out of into these streets after a good long Bairro Alto night wonders the same thing- “what happened?”
I suppose I was not that drunk, as I somehow managed to drag the stumbling and drooling Mira through the graffiti mazes of the old neighborhood back to our room in the hotel. It was a night. We had fun.
Screaming over a mad game of foosball, Mira and I jumped up and down cheering on the Portuguese kids (who were way too good at foosball to be normal) to up the level of competition and get louder and louder as they knocked the silly little ball back and forth across the beaten up and battered wooden table with the stiff-ugly little soccer men. A gigantic Russian who spoke English in a nearly incomprehensible Hunter S. Thompson sort of way got into the fray and began buying drinks for everyone. Soon, the room was going crazy with fooz-ball and a flaming haired Portuguese gal began dancing real drunkenly and the bartender scolded all of us for having too much fun. We piped down a notch and a kid that we befriended a little earlier in the evening turned to me and asked if I had any drugs.
Oddly, I did.
An American chic dropped a chip of hash off on me at a previous bar- she was worried about being caught with it or some such story- and I took it just because it was free. It also was not my impression that the Portuguese police were really regulating the flow of drugs in Barrio Alto either, as every Moroccan within ten blocks was standing on every street corner propositioning all passerbys with offers of “hash, hash, cocaine, no buy, just have a look.”
I am not joking. A Moroccan who was cocksure that I was a drug addict because of my beard and tattoos followed me down a street trying to pawn some cocaine off on me by saying:
“No buy, just have a look.”
What, did he expect that I would simply enjoy the thrill of appreciating the appearance of his drugs? “Oh, your cocaine is so milky white, I am so glad that I just had a look.” The Moroccan character has really begun to interest me . . .
But anyway, against my usual travel habits I took the hash off of the American chick that somehow ended up with it. It was her first day in Portugal. I found no real risk attached to lightening her load . . . and it was free. I had no idea that it would come in handy.
So, mine and Mira’s Portuguese fooz-ball playing friend wanted some drugs, and I could not have wanted to oblige him more. So I handed it over to him and smoked it in the bar’s back corner while talking about Bill Hicks and telling jokes.
Then Mira went cross eyed, and we stepped out into the drunk strewn streets. Thousands of people were pooling around and clogging up every alley of Bairro Alto. We fought our way through the sea of drunken Portuguese and made it back to our cheap hotel. Mira stepped into the room and collapsed.
It was a fun night.
The neighborhood of Bairro Alto in Lisbon is a really interesting- dare I say unique- place on the planet. It is a massive, old neighborhood on a hill in the center of Lisbon, that is just chock full of bars. It is probably 10 blocks long and 6 wide, and has hundreds upon hundreds of pubs that almost solely make up the first floors of every building. On the second and third floors are the residential quarters of old people (I am not joking). By day the Bairro is a quiet little neighborhood of hobbling old ladies, and by night it is a booming party district for Lisbon’s underground and youth culture.
I must say that I have come and gone through many of the world’s party and youth cultural centers a touch disappointed. But Bairro Alto simply amazed me. It was oddly ungentrified- it was real, genuine, unspoiled. The walls of every building are scrawled with graffiti, and the district appears to be the very visualization of my long lost anarchy dreams. People begin to arrive in Bairro Alto at 1:30 AM and the party goes on until five or six. My impressions of this district are of smiling, drunken faces, drug dealers, art, soccer, beer bottles breaking, and drunk girls puking. All without the gut-wenching wails of police sirens. These streets have been privy to all-night parties for many years, and the chorus of drunken wails goes on as it has always had. Barrio Alto always had a bad reputation, and I hope that I add to it.
Bairro Alto refreshed me to the world in some regards. It sparked me to again realize that the substance of the earth has not been completely bought and sold; that there are places where you can live real culture free of make believe shows and hawkers hanging off of you like barnacles This is an area for locals, for the Portuguese- the drinks are cheap and plentiful. Bairro Alto is here because people want it. It has not succumbed to the thorough of commercialism or tourism.
I like Bairro Alto.
From the Wikipedia:
“Bairro Alto (literally upper quarter in Portuguese) is an area of central Lisbon, Portugal. It functions as a residential, shopping and entertainment district. Bairro Alto is one of the oldest districts of Lisbon, and it used to have a poor reputation until not so long ago. However, it was always a popular place. Dozens of fado singing clubs animated the area. All the major Portuguese newspapers had their offices in there. Prostitution was visible and considerable. Lisbon’s dirty underground culture was based here.
Since the 1990s, the Bairro Alto went through some major changes. Lisbon’s city council made extensive repairs, dozens of new restaurants, clubs and trendy shops were opened, and many young people moved in. Cars were banned (except for residents and emergency vehicles) andstreets are now pleasant. Today, the Bairro Alto (or just the Bairro) is the heart of Lisbon’s youth and of the Portuguese capital’s nightlife. Lisbon’s Punk, Gay, Metal, Goth, Hip Hop and Reggae scenes, all have the Bairro as their home, due to the number of clubs and bars dedicated to each of them. The fado, Portugal’s national song, still survives in the new Lisbon’s nightlife. During daytime, the Bairro is still a traditional district where old people go shop their groceries, while the younger generations visit art galleries . . .”
More photos from Lisbon: Lisbon Portugal Photographs
Article on Portuguese graffiti: Graffiti in Portugal: The Other Side of the Wall
More photos of Portuguese graffiti: Graffiti in Portugal
Wade from www.VagabondJourney.com
December 10, 2007