LISBON — It’s a shame that you can’t record smells. It’s Monday, and the neighbourhood of Bairro Alto in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is recovering from yet another weekend of heavy partying. It’s almost 3 p.m. and most of the trash on the streets has been cleaned already. In the middle of the bumpy cobble stones you can still see the squashed limes that 12 hours ago were still in somebody’s ‘caipirinhas’.
Bairro Alto is situated in central Lisbon next to luxurious Chiado, and it is known as the party neighbourhood of Lisbon. By night, it is the place where some 3000 party people occupy the narrow streets and go from bar to bar. By day, the streets are calmer and the old people living there finally have some peace and quiet.
Despite its great location and exciting night life, it is debatable if the historic Bairro Alto actually is a place where people want to live.
The sounds of night
A local photographer and the founder of a neighbourhood association ‘I Love Bairro Alto’, Cláudio Garrudo, 37, lives with his wife and daughter in Bairro Alto. That’s somewhat exceptional. Not many families like to live there because of the noise problem, according to a manager of a local housing company.
Garrudo says the noise problem is localized, and he lives on a street without bars so he is not bothered. He adds that the people living on noisy streets like Rua da Barroca are used to the noise.
Garrudo’s friend Leonel Duarte, 37, shares Garrudo’s opinion.
“Bairro Alto used to be a place with many fado places, where people usually sang until five in the morning,” he explains.
But even if Garrudo and Duarte are right about people being used to the noise, about three years ago the bars and night clubs in the area were ordered to close earlier because there were so many complaints about the noise. Nowadays, bars have to close at 2 a.m. and clubs at 3 a.m. According to Garrudo and Duarte, the party crowd starts drinking in Bairro Alto before moving to clubs in Cais Do Sodré, an up-and-coming neighbourhood near the harbour in Lisbon.
A 71-year-old woman, Candida, lives on Travessa dos Fieis de Deus, and says she would like to move somewhere else if she could. Ten years ago, her street was still a quiet place but nowadays she can’t sleep before four in the morning because of the noise. It doesn’t help to complain; if she yells at the party people, they are just rude to her.
Candida has lived in the same apartment for 42 years and pays a low rent, as so many other pensioners living in the area. When they pay about 10 Euros per month, Bairro Alto is the only place they afford to live.
Bairro Alto is known for its bohemian lifestyle. There used to be a brothel that was shut down in 1958, recalls a local restaurant keeper Eugénio Fidalgo, 54. In those years Bairro Alto had a bad reputation.
“Some families that lived in other areas of Lisbon didn’t come here to visit us because they thought it was a bad place,” Fidalgo says.
Today the prostitutes are gone, and according to Fidalgo, the reputation of Bairro Alto is good. However, when walking the steep and narrow streets of the neighborhood, one can’t help noticing the many police cars parked on Travessa da Água-da-Flor. The police patrols in Bairro Alto are a result of concerned people living in the area.
“Three years ago, we, the owners of some restaurants and bars paid to have the police patrolling because at that time there were a lot of gypsies everywhere”, Fidalgo says.
He says he feels safer now when the police are present in the neighbourhood.
Nowadays the problem is not the gypsies but the drug dealers. The police station in Bairro Alto is situated in close proximity to the streets that are known for the drug markets and cheap drinks.
Cláudio Garrudo advises not to enter the northern streets of Bairro Alto.
“I pass by the guys every day and I don’t take drugs. The guys are trying to sell me something every week. They are really a pain in the ass,” says Garrudo.
What’s more, the drugs that are sold, for example, on Rua da Atalaias, are mostly fake. In spite of the drug dealers, Garrudo finds Bairro Alto a very safe place to live.
Ana Matos, 40, owns an art gallery in Bairro Alto called Galeria Salgadeiras. She has had the gallery with her husband since 2003. She says the neighbourhood has changed a lot since the time she has been here.
Before, she says, people were drinking inside the bars but nowadays the bars are so crowded that people are forced to drink on the streets. That equals more noise and more garbage. According to Matos, people who come to Bairro Alto just to party don’t worry about the condition of the streets because they don’t have to deal with the messy streets the next day.
“For the last decades, the people who worked here also lived here. When you live and work in the same place, you take care of the streets”, Matos says.
She tells that nowadays new bars are opened in the area by people who don’t live there. Matos says it makes the feeling of community weaker as people don’t know every bar or restaurant keeper anymore.
Not everyone feels that way. The 75-year-old shopkeeper, Maria Celeste, says that when people go to work, they leave their keys to her so that their kids may come and pick them up after school.
“Now I have at least three or four keys,” she smiles.
Claudio Garrudo is one of the people who trust their keys to Madame Celeste.
“I think the community is getting stronger because of ‘I love Bairro Alto’. People are working for the same goal,” he says.
Garrudo developed the neighbourhood association two years ago with his friend, Paulo Taylor. On their website they offer information about Bairro Alto for visitors.
The site works also for the benefit of small shops in the neighbourhood, like Madame Celeste’s grocery shop Casa Celeste. Garrudo offers a platform for them to promote their businesses – for free.
On the site, one can see a section dedicated only to the people connected to Bairro Alto. Garrudo recalls that in the beginning it was hard to find people who want to appear on the website. Now, as the page views hit 40 000 per month, he has people asking him to get a space on the website.
It seems that there is, after all, a sense of community in Bairro Alto.
More info on Bairro Alto: http://www.ilovebairroalto.com/iloveba.html#/home