When we travel, we try to find the “Brooklyn” in every city. In other words, we prefer to stay in a neighborhood that is well situated, hip, and has it’s own flavor. More importantly, we’d rather not battle tourists the second we step out of our door each morning. You’ll notice how I just attempted to separate us from other wandering sightseers–we’d rather think of ourselves as “travelers” than tourists. This is for good reason, “tourist” has raked up such a negative connotation over the years. No one wants to be a part of the masses that swarm all the typical attractions and dine at the traps conveniently laid out along the heavily trafficked main route.
Quite sincerely we try to earn our traveler label by immersing ourselves in a culture–hours of research go into finding the most “authentic” places to stay, things to see, and food to eat. But what does that word “authentic” really mean in regards to discovering a new place? I’d like to think my nose for authenticity is most keen when it comes to food; I’ll find the tiny restaurant in an unknown neighborhood with the up and coming chef, or the random bodega where locals will actually stand in line for tacos.
With regard to sights, my husband and I tend to try to visit the “can’t miss” attractions as early as we can in the morning. We also often elect to get a guide so we can learn the history and the stories around the places we visit. I always chuckle when I think of a tour we were on in London where our guide stopped us in a pretty inconspicuous alley to explain the Great Stink of 1858. As she spoke we looked around and began to understand the beginnings of the sewer system in London; previously the Thames was used as a receptacle for all waste. Near the end of her fascinating explanation, as we stood there listening to the detail, almost able to smell the remnants of a hot summer and human excrement floating in the river, a couple walked past and became increasingly curious as to what had captivated the group’s attention. Their eyes shot around the alley confused, nothing there seemed significant. So as to not miss anything, the girl began frantically snapping photos with the camera hanging around her neck. She caught every angle before she looked back at her partner, shrugged–still unaware of what all the fuss was about, and then summoned him to move along. I see this pretty frequently when we travel–an adamance to photograph everything that may be post-worthy, but very little desire to actually know what one is looking at. I have to conclude that the subjects in these pictures are simply images–they are not places; they are captured but not remembered. They seem quite unlikely to leave a permanent impression on one’s being or truly broaden their perspective of the world. Perhaps this is what separates a traveler from a tourist–intention, or what we hope might be gained in visiting a new locale.
On our most recent venture to Portugal, we approached our exploration with what we were sure was our usual curiosity and mindfulness. In Lisbon, we decided to stay in the Alfama neighborhood. Although we read that it could be a little bit of a pain to get to since it is situated well above all the other neighborhoods, every blogger and AirBnB reviewer assured us it was gorgeous and as “authentic” as it could get. They weren’t wrong. Each night uber drivers would drop us off near, but not in front of our apartment way up in the hills; the old narrow roads offer very little access for cars and must for the most part be traveled by foot. With each exit our drivers would smile and comment that we seemed to be seeking the “real” Lisboa experience by staying in the Alfama, the oldest and traditionally poorest neighborhood in the city.
Our pride and certainty in our choice of accommodations dwindled from the moment our host led us from the train station, and up the hills with our luggage. There were others just like us all around- English speaking and fiddling with whether it was easier to drag our suitcases over the bumpy stone streets or just pick them up and carry them. It wasn’t long before we started to feel eyes on us; we peeked above only to realize our every move was being captured by locals hanging out of their windows. As we caught stares, some of the faces behind them would smile, some would look away, and others seemed to glare. Although our host was incredibly gracious and helpful and the Portuguese people up to that point were more than friendly, I couldn’t help but wonder just how welcome we would be for the next six days. My hubs noticed the #fuckairbnb tag just around the corner from our apartment as soon as we walked up; it wasn’t the only place this sentiment was displayed.
As we experienced and collected the feelings of our temporary neighbors, we paired them with an explanation from one of our guides, Eduardo, a local who had lived in Lisbon his entire life. His parents had actually grown up in the Alfama but moved when he was born, not wanting to raise him in the area that was considered poor and even dangerous at times. He explained that AirBnb was changing the neighborhood significantly and many longtime tenants were being forced out of their homes to make room for transient visitors. We felt a bit horrified listening to him, realizing that in our quest for authenticity we had been active participants in the gentrification of the area. The modern ikea-laden apartment we were staying in was likely once the much more humble home of two or three families.
Noticing our disappointment in ourselves, Eduardo quickly assured us that the changes were not all bad. “It’s complicated,” he told us as we winded around a quiet and narrow passage. He explained that property laws in Portugal were kind of a mess, and many landlords were stuck with tenants whose “leases” had been passed on and unaltered for as many as a hundred years. He continued, “It is difficult because do I think someone should be kicked out of their home, no? But I also understand that the landlord is not able to keep up the property in 2017 when he is getting 25-30€ a month for rent, it is a complicated situation.” Indeed.
While we have always been aware of what our presence in a neighborhood could mean when we rent an AirBnB, we had never experienced such palpable feelings as we did in the Alfama. When we were in Vienna, Austria, we stayed in a larger building with more units. We learned from a guide that the complaint there was less about tenants being pushed out, and more about locals disliking the fact that they didn’t know their neighbors. Their buildings were becoming half residential/half hotel and it was not how they wanted to live. All of this (and this last experience especially) has made us much more conscious of our footprint as we consider travel to other areas. As much as we’d like to avoid the tourist spots, we have to remember that we are visitors. We will try harder in the future to ensure our search for authenticity buoys the economy without sinking the local spirt.
I think if we return to Lisbon, we might stay in Alcantara, which is still convenient to everywhere in the city but much more up and coming with a lot of young entrepreneurs moving in. We visited the LX Factory there and also ate some incredible food at 1300 Taberna. We loved the ambitious energy we felt walking around that area, there was so much possibility. We would also consider the more established Campo de Ourique neighborhood for a future landing spot. While some may find it a bit far out and sleepy, we enjoyed the quieter vibe and found there were plenty of restaurants and shops to discover. We fell head over heels in love with the Mercado de Campo de Ourique and found it vastly superior to the more frequented TimeOut Market near the center.
I’d definitely say that in Portugal, we accomplished two of the main goals we always have while traveling: We had a blast and we learned; we came back with a little better understanding of the world than we had when we left. Each trip is an opportunity to expand our knowledge and deepen our capacity for compassion by coming to know and appreciate other cultures.
Why do you travel? What are the things you consider when deciding where to stay on a tip? Do you frequent hotels or have you become an AirBnBer? Anyone else have the same or different experience in the Alfama? I would love to hear from you!