A postcard from the Bairro Alto

2014-09-09 14.40.19My apartment sits in on the edge of Bairro Alto high above the city opposite the Convento de Nossa Senhora de Jesus and five minutes walk from the Palácio de São Bento, the Portuguese parliament. When it rains (and when it rains, it rains), you can hear the flow of water as it heads down to the bottom of the street and the squeal of car tyres as they struggle for grip on the steep road. At the bottom, the famous Tram 28 makes its way up the Calçada do Combro past the church of Santa Catarina with its spectacular interior and into the tourist area with its restaurants, bars and fado houses.
Here there are fewer visitors, the occasional tuk-tuk taking tourists on a tour around the Bairro Alto or those passing through on their way to see the parliament. This is a working class area. Not the same as my childhood, but it is familiar enough.
Two doors down from me on this terraced street is a bar/pasteleria where the old men while away the hours and others pass through on their way to and from their work. Another two doors down and a garage, a wide door leading to a space for two cars, a workbench and not much else; a world away from the main dealers with their high tech diagnostic machines. At the bottom of the road, there’s a little cultural centre for the Mozambique community in the area with an exhibition space and a small space not much larger than a front room where musicians and dancers practice from time to time. On the corner, a bookshop with two more just a minute away next to second hand furniture shops and a TV and radio shop selling equipment, that I can remember from my childhood, to those who cannot afford or do not want the latest gizmos.
Food is fresh in this area. Fruit and veg shops, butchers, bakers (and yes, there’s a candlestick maker), fish shops and pastelerias serving the famous pasteis de nata and other savouries to make the mouth water. It’s food that looks inviting and succulent rather than the anaemic looking selection available in most UK supermarkets. There are mini ‘supermercados’ but  these are tiny with the customers moving around each other and the store in an alternative elaborate version of Twister.

Go eastwards however, along the Avenida de Liberate or the Rua do Loreto, and you could be in any major city – Hermes, Nike, H&M, FNAC, all the international brands for those who can afford them. At the Colombo shopping centre or at the Estádio Jose Alvalada are the big supermarkets – Continente, Lidl. The modern world awaits around the corner.
2014-09-14 18.44.34‘Obra a Ovra, Lisboa melhora!’ (‘Work by work, Lisboa improves’) proclaim banners on building sites and for some it will. Lisbon could easily become the new Barcelona or Valencia and the redevelopment of the waterfront area is a step towards this. The developers are moving in here too. How long will this street stay this way before the full shadow of global capitalism reaches here? Two, three, five years at the most? The estate agents post leaflets through the door most days.
What happens when children from families who have lived here for generations can no longer afford a home? When the offer to sell your business, which barely provides a living, is too good to turn down to the man in the sharp suit? How long before this area is empty during the day as more become holiday lets or those who can afford to live here go off into the financial district in order to pay the high cost of living? How soon before they will want a delivery van to bring them food?

About Peter Domican
Marketer and change professional. Writer and photographer.

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