This Lisbon district, built along the riverside in the city centre, was once an old haunt for sailors, drifters and prostitutes – but now Cais do Sodre is the newest most hip place to be in Lisbon.
Video: Magda Wallmont
How can one of the city’s seediest districts rise from the ashes and turn into one of the hippest and trendiest places, where people now compete to find a table or room at the bar? Cais do Sodré managed it with a vengeance. This Lisbon district, built along the riverside in the city centre, was once an old haunt for sailors, drifters and prostitutes. Its narrow streets and dingy-looking buildings seemed to favour those living on the fringes of society, but without the arty bohemian types that are often drawn to such atmospheres. Its bars and discos named after famous ports of call around the world, were aimed at sailors docking in Lisbon for a short leave. Cais do Sodré (cais means quay in Portuguese) was the real thing, where violence and danger lurked around every corner, with street fights and muggings and drunks sleeping it off in some dirty corner. It was as seedy as it gets.
For decades it remained so, and then, slowly, things started to change. In the 1980s one of its most notorious clubs – called Jamaica – was turned into a hip place, which started attracting the crowds that were left with nowhere to dance after clubs in the more hip Bairro Alto district closed their doors. But the move proved premature, as the neighbourhood remained seedy and fading into its own decay. Disco clubs like Tokyo, Europa, Rotterdam stood alongside bars the likes of Viking, Oslo or Copenhagen, and it was only in the late 1990s early noughties that a new attempt was made to take advantage of its seedy clubs which were licensed to operate until morning. Tokyo and Jamaica became two of the most loved alternative clubs in Lisbon, and a new music venue called MusicBox proved pivotal to draw in a new crowd of hipsters.
Working girls slowly started to seek other districts to practice their skills as bar and club patrons started to change. Then the buildings that housed Tokyo and Jamaica were declared unstable and were closed down by the authorities for the risk they posed to public safety. During those months of forced closure, Cais do Sodré seemed to have lost some of the crucial elements that made it what it was. Yet, what seemed like the end of the neighbourhood was actually capitalised into a new beginning, surrounding the district’s main street Rua Nova do Carvalho.
After being closed in May 2011, both clubs reopened later on in September – and Cais do Sodré was prepped up for a bigger boost. In November, Pensão Amor (Love Pension, named after the old guesthouse which used to be located in the building) opened its doors, seizing the same renovation swing. This multidisciplinary art space, with bars, a bookshop selling erotica and hosting a variety of shows, evokes the ambience of the old Cais do Sodré, as the old ads for strip shows and other imagery in the same line that adorn the peeling walls immediately attest to.
Other venues which have opened up since in this revamping fever, include the tapas bar Povo and the Bar da Velha Senhora. The former is an updated version of a fado house, offering a variety of petiscos – Portuguese style tapas – and several nights of fado with young, new singers. The revivalist tone is also present in the caricature of former days where places of ill repute were the rule in Cais do Sodré. Bar da Velha Senhora (Old Lady Bar, named after a legendary old-school madame) wants to revive the burlesque spirit through its old cabaret ambience. The place hosts several shows in its dimly lit space, evoking the olden days when Cais do Sodré was synonymous with sleazy, risqué shows and hedonist decay.
Meanwhile, Sol e Pesca, a bar which blends the ambience of an old Lisbon tasca with a fishing-tackle shop – which it once was – will have you fascinated with the rows of stacked tins containing sardines and other types of seafood on display amongst fishing nets and other related paraphernalia. The place serves drinks and food – yes those vintage-looking tins are there to be opened and consumed -, along with other Portuguese classics such as bread and olives. News has it that renowned chef Anthony Bourdain made an appearance and focused part of an episode of his TV show “No Reservations” filmed in Lisbon on the bar.
Rua Nova do Carvalho, which was recently painted bright pink to promote the new Cais do Sodré, doesn’t seem to miss the good old days, and has happily embraced its recently acquired status as the newest most hip place to be in Lisbon.
Rua do Alecrim, 19
Telephone: 213 143 399
Rua Nova do Carvalho, 32-36
Telephone: 213 473 403
Bar da Velha Senhora
Rua Nova do Carvalho, 38
Telephone: 213 468 479
Sol e Pesca
Rua Nova do Carvalho, 44
Telephone: 213 467 203
(Photographs: Bar da Velha Senhora/Pensão Amor/Sol e Pesca. All Rights Reserved)