In the Mouraria district, one of the most authentic but also multicultural neighborhoods of Lisbon, right at the foot of the church of São Cristovão, the ancient Santa Maria de Alcami Mozarabic, we find a shop that makes Vintage a way of life. This is Paolo’s Tropical Bairro.
Italian, from Monza, born in 1979, in Lisbon since 2016. Paolo’s story with Lisbon is that of many foreigners who have ended up being adopted by the Lusitanian city. Arriving here on vacation, Paolo is struck by the city, its extraordinary light, and begins to think that perhaps Lisbon could be the beginning of a new project.
The vintage world has been part of Paolo’s life for many years. And, to be honest, with his story he opens up a world to me. He explains to me that in reality there is what is defined as a subculture that is linked to the vintage world, with gatherings, thematic parties, complete with dress code, and a whole world linked to collecting, music, objects. A world truly to be discovered. And Paul is there to project us into this universe.
Before arriving in Lisbon, he lived in Milan and was mostly dedicated to online sales and at some fair. But his idea had been for some time to create a place, in which to unite various aspects of this culture. Then the holiday in Lisbon and many evaluations: the place, the cost of living, the bureaucracy to follow to open a place there and so he begins to think about it seriously. And in the end, the big change. He arrives here and opens a first shop, in society, and in the meantime begins to integrate into the Italian community.
Among the first people he met was the writer Daniele Coltrinari (author of Lisbona é un’assurda speranza, editor’s note) and then the community of Italians in Lisbon. And so day by day Paolo takes his place in his new city. And he comes to live in Mouraria.
And the Mouraria will be the second big turning point. One day, the lady who owns this shop, which sold jewels, ceramics and local handicrafts, approaches Paolo and tells him that she had heard of his she was looking for a place all her own and proposes to rent him this shop. And Paolo accepts. And so Tropical Bairro was born.
But Paul’s life is much fuller and more complex than that. And then Alex and I follow him, to try to understand all the various facets of his “typical” day.
11:00 am: the shop is open and it’s time to start.
Paolo sets up the shop and puts on some good music. Oh yes, the music, which just cannot be missing. Because Tropical Bairro is not a normal shop, but more an expression of Paolo’s love for vintage culture.
In the shop we find clothing, vintage of course, and collectible records. Two different but complementary products, two expressions of the same culture.
Paolo arranges the clothes on the stands with care and great precision, and then, behind his counter, he devotes himself to music.
This is a passion that he carries with him as a kid. And Paolo is also a DJ.
But let’s not rush too much, let’s go in order. We had arrived at the shop.
There are more chaotic days, others calmer, some customers come in to take a look, someone buys. Others stop for a small talk. And Paolo continues to tell his story, while he polishes his beloved vinyls and plays some music.
The atmosphere here is obviously different from that of a classic shop. The background music, the relaxed atmosphere, make it an extremely pleasant environment, where people come in and feel at ease.
And I keep chatting with Paolo, who tells me about his past as a scenographic builder and his collaborations also with Italian TV, a job that accompanied him from his 19 to 27 years more or less.
And then the passion for music that has never been lacking.
What is most striking about being with Paolo at his shop is the comings and goings not only of the customers but also of the people of the neighborhood.
So I take the opportunity to ask him what it was like to be, as a foreigner, in such a popular neighborhood. But Paolo immediately tells me that he never had the feeling to be a foreigner in the Mouraria. The important thing, he explains to me, was to maintain a low profile, not to impose himself, but to respect the place where he is. Knowing how to integrate with the people who were already there. And today Paolo has integrated very well into that spirit, typical of Mouraria, which welcomes you into his “family” creating a bond between “neighbors” rather than between competing shops.
“And how do you manage the shop, the purchases, in particular of discs?” I ask him. And Paolo explains to me that that is the most complicated part because, if technology comes and help him for clothes, with online research and suppliers, for vinyls it is more complicated. Most come from private collections and the purchase is often the result of more elaborate work. Paolo must make an appointment, visit the collection, evaluate, and then deal with the aspect of the buying. And sometimes it’s also about making long enough trips to contact collectors.
Being able to manage everything on your own, therefore, can be really complicated at times.
But the working day is almost over, at least as far as the shop is concerned. And Paolo prepares to close.
But I take time out of one last question: “Why Tropical Bairro?” Paolo explains to me that the name comes from the link with music, the rhythms of the tropics that are so much part of his culture and his musical passion. And he wanted to pass it on in the name of his shop as well. At the same time he wanted a link with Lisbon and its Bairro (ed. District). And playing a little with Portuguese and English in the title, “Tropical Bairro” came out
19h: It’s really time to close. The sun has become less intense, a Pakistani child plays football, someone drinks a beer on the steps of São Cristovão, and the shutters of the Tropical Bairro are lowered.
But our story is not over!
As I told you, there is a passion that has always accompanied Paolo since he was a teenager, and that is music. And he has always dedicated himself to DJ’s job.
I ask him how this passion of his was born and he explains to me that it all began with films and soundtracks. When cinematic music struck him, he would go in search of the film’s soundtrack and from there to the song, then the artist and his music. A real research.
And this is how Paolo discovers Reggae music, the American one of the 1950s, and begins to discover the influences between Jamaican music and that of New Orleans. And then the Latin, Brazilian and above all African, in particular that of Cape Verde and Angola.
And it was precisely the music that welded the meeting between Paolo and our Alex, who knows Cape Verdean culture and music well, who worked in Angola. And it is from there, from the common passion for this music, that a meeting, “um dia de cada vez”, was transformed into a friendship.
And when the shop’s shutters are lowered, the curtain rises on Paolo DJ, on his ability to mix sounds from many countries.
After all, he confesses to me, one of the things that fascinated him about Lisbon was the musical culture that came from the former Portuguese colonies.
10pm: Time to start. The vinyls are ready, Paolo has prepared his selection.
And there he is, with his original headset in the shape of a telephone handset, in perfect vintage style of course, to slide the vinyls on the plates. And his music spreads.
“What do you feel when you play? Do you get lost a bit in your world and in your music? “, I ask him. And Paolo explains to me that it is precisely what he tries not to do, to isolate himself in his music. For him it is important to share, to be able to convey those same emotions to those who are listening to him, to observe those around him to also see his reaction to the music of that moment.
“It’s not always easy,” he explains to me. “You have to know how to adapt to the place and occasion in which you are”.
On some occasions Paolo’s music plays the background in a lounge bar, other times it animates parties and evenings in which the “must” is to dance.
And it is in his role as DJ that Paolo is probably more comfortable than him.
What is certain, whether when you enter the Tropical Bairro, or when the Tropical Bairro comes to you through his music, you cannot help but be carried away by this fascinating world about which Paolo still has a lot to tell.
A very famous fado says: “Uma casa Portuguesa com certeza” (a Portuguese house, no doubt) and when you enter in Zé dos Cornos you may think that this phrase was meant for them.
Let’s put a family, add traditional Portuguese dishes, join a nice handful of joy, a pinch of irony, season with the typical welcome of the beautiful Minho region, and here you have Zé dos Cornos, a traditional place from four generations.
To try to reconstruct the long history of this family and the place, we ask Marco for help. João Marco Ferreira to be precise. But not to confuse him with his father, João Ferreira, for everyone he is Marco, the youngest of this family.
Marco, through memories also linked to conversations with his grandmother, helps us retrace the history of the Ferreira family and Zé dos cornos. But his father João can’t resist, and from time to time he leaves the counter to join Marco’s story and also tell some of his details and memories, giving rise to an extraordinary father-son duet that immediately introduces us to the atmosphere of this place, a place where you can breathe a family feeling.
But let’s try to go in order and, with some steps back in the time, let’s try to retrace this story.
Originally this place was not a restaurant but a carvoeria, that is a charcoal shop, a place that sold coal, oil, and everything that could be used to light and heat the houses. At the time, there was no electricity in the city. This was a job that normally did in Lisbon the Galicians, who, given the geographical proximity, often worked in Portugal. And this place belonged to Celia Cabo, and was managed by two Galician sisters.
Domingos João Ferreira, João’s grandfather and Marco’s great-grandfather, originally from Ponte de Lima in the beautiful Minho region, after his military service decides to buy this place and therefore continue with the tradition of coal.
The shop served the entire Mouraria area and beyond.
As in a perfect family saga, the family shop passes to his son José, for all Zé, who arrives here at the age of 13 and who, later, begins to manage it together with his wife Maria.
And here is the first evolution of the place: together with the charcoal shop, Maria begins to prepare some dishes in a small space next to it. Simple things, such as could be found in this kind of place. The family lived and worked here.
The kitchen, Marco explains to me, was located where today there is a small bathroom and, where the kitchen currently is, there was a room with a large table, and behind this room, the family house with a small courtyard. A typical Portuguese house.
And here João intervenes to tell us that as a kid he practically had to go through the shop entrance to go home.
The charcoal shop of Zé is transformed, thanks to Maria’s dishes, into the Casa de pasto (a tavern) of Zé Ferreira. But people kept connecting Zé to his work as a charcoal burner, and it becomes Zé Carvoeiro – Zé Coalman.
But how did we get to the name of Zé dos cornos (Zé of the horns) then? I ask Marco.
And he explains to me that in reality it all begins on the day when Zé, whose portrait dominates the entrance of the restaurant, comes home with a pair of horns, the ones to hang on the walls as a hunting trophy and which still dominate today on the head of his portrait. From there, people began to call it Zé dos cornos. Marco also shows us a sticker, one of the first made for the restaurant, where in fact we see Zé with these horns.
And so I joke with Marco, because I knew a different version, namely that this nickname came from the fame of womanizer who accompanied his grandfather. And Marco and João laughed. And they tell me that the name does not come from there, but that this is not exactly an urban legend because Zé really was a Don Giovanni.
João tells me that when there was a woman at the restaurant, she didn’t get rid of his father so easily. And he says it has always been like this, until the end. Unfortunately, Mr. Zé cannot be here to disprove as he passed away in 2013 after a fulminant liver disease.
And today to hold the restaurant, there are João and his wife Carmelinda, for all Minda. Another generation, the third, another story.
In the meantime, the place hasn’t changed a lot, also because Mr. Zé, João tells us, didn’t like big transformations, he was very conservative, and convincing him to modernize the place was not easy. For example, the steel counter of the restaurant has been there for at least 40 years and it was already 32 years ago that this tavern took on its current appearance, except for some minor renovations.
The great innovation of this place was the great embers that were offered to them and that allow to the tavern to prepare its specialties: grilled dishes, meat and fish cooked on the grill. So delicious!
There are other family members in the kitchen, most notably Minda’s sister Maria. And it was thanks to Maria, albeit indirectly, that Minda and João met.
And then Marco explains to us that Minda worked in Braga and had arrived in Lisbon to help her sister Maria after her childbirth.
Maria lived not far from the restaurant and Minda therefore passed in front of the tavern door. And when João saw Minda … “He never more gave up on me!” Minda intervenes. “Of course I wasn’t expecting him, I had another boyfriend in Braga!” she continues, amid general laughter.
Minda is like this, the soul of this place, a woman of great spirit and sympathy.
And so in the end Minda and João got married, 28 years ago. And now they live together, they work together… “I can’t take it anymore” she says laughing. But theirs is a really beautiful union.
Maria also tells us that always staying together in the family is not always easy, sometimes at work there may be small tensions, but then affection always wins over everything and they forget and very quickly everything is ok.
And in the last years, Marco, the son of Minda and João, the fourth generation of this extraordinary family, has also been working in the tavern.
Marco says that he had started working in another field, but that after his study he finally decided to join the family.
As he tells us, it’s hard work, mostly because of the working time, but it’s their place, their family and what they do best.
This tavern keeps intact the spirit of the typical Portuguese “tascas”, with large tables and wooden stools. And the tradition of this place has always been to combine complete strangers at the same table, a truly impeccable way to find yourself having lunch and making new friends.
Marco tells us that when, for example, people of the same nationality arrived, he joined them at the same table to make them feel more at ease. And he has, in this way, also lit the spark between some people. He tells us, for example, that years ago he had seated at the same table an Italian and a Brazilian who had ended up chatting for a long time and they had continued long after that lunch at Zé dos cornos. Finally they got married and even wanted to organize the wedding dinner there in the tavern, where their love was born.
There are many stories to tell, Marco tells us. Zé dos cornos remains an authentic place despite the great publicity it has received over the years and which has attracted many tourists. An advertisement not sought, Marco tells us, but happened, with old customers who recommended the place to others, journalists who showed up at the door, they also talked about them on Dutch TV. And many famous people have passed and still pass by. “But for us, famous or not, it makes no difference,” says Marco, because anyone who arrives is welcomed in the same way.
Definitely a place out of the ordinary, where tourists and regular customers have met in the last years, where hospitality reigns supreme and where you can still enjoy a cup of red green vinho. A Minho specialty that is very rare to find outside that region, because it is produced only for local customers. But like a good Minho family, the Ferreira da Zé dos cornos have it.
One more reason to visit this place and immerse yourself in a familiar, fun, relaxed atmosphere while enjoying a plate of meat or grilled cod, sipping a glass of wine, “red green” of course.
Zé dos cornos is in Beco dos Surradores 5.
In the Mouraria, the neighborhood that was granted to the Moors after the Christian conquest, what is considered one of the most mystical and ancient places in Lisbon, the cradle of Fado, where the spirit of Maria Severa hovers among the narrow streets, there is a place which is now part of the spirit of the Mouraria: the tavern “Os Amigos da Severa”.
In this now legendary place, where it is said that Maria Severa herself (considered the first fado singer in the nineteenth century, Ed.) sang, we are welcomed by Mr. Antonio, who everyone call Antonio da Severa.
Antonio was born in Beira Alta in 1953, he moved to Lisbon with his family, who arrived in the capital for work reasons.
At that time Antonio was 10 years old. He himself begins to work very early. He tells us about a job for the water company, in which he physically distributed water to people. Hard work, but getting busy was necessary.
Then, returning from military service, the big change: Antonio was just over twenty years old and decides to invest his savings in buying a tavern, his place, in which to start building his future.
And so in 1976, 45 years ago, he became the owner of the “Os Amigos da Severa” tavern.
This place is an incredible, original and out of time (and out of this world). Landmark of the neighborhood, many traditions come together in it: ginjinha, fado, Our Lady of Fatima …
No, I am not confused. I actually said Our Lady of Fatima
Because when you enter in this tavern, between bottles of wine and ginjinha, photographs and ancient paintings, she, Our Lady, stands on the counter to bless the place and whoever enters it.
Antonio tells us that it is a gift from a customer, which dates back to many years ago. This person had proposed to Antonio to offer him a statue of Our Lady of Fatima to protect him and this place, which for this client was a special place. And Antonio accepted, giving this statue a place of honor on his counter. It has since become a small sanctuary. It may sound irreverent, but it is an interesting example of how official and popular religious devotion come together. In the hands of Our Lady many rosaries and Antonio explains to us that many people pass by to ask for a grace and, when their prayer is answered, then they leave a rosary as a thank you in the hands of Our Lay. And even Antonio, when he makes a toast, never forgets to dedicate a word to Our Lady and invoke her blessing on him.
But in addition to this corner of faith, in this mystical place you can really find everything.
On the walls old record covers, of fado, of course. There are Amalia and Fernando Mauricio, a myth for the people of the neighborhood. Actually, Fernando said that as a child he would sit on a barrel, right outside this tavern, to listen to fado. And even today, fado is never lacking here. The “vadio”, vagabond, the most popular and spontaneous one. And when there is no one who sings, then there is radio Amalia, which broadcasts fado at any time and which never fails in Antonio’s tavern.
Antonio proudly displays the ancient paintings on the walls of his tavern, those representing Maria Severa, but also the inevitable Santo Antonio, to whom the June festivities so loved by the neighborhood are dedicated.
And then there are the photos, lots of photos, from different years. But the one who always has the most important place is Antonio, the spirit of this place.
Just follow the photos along the walls to reconstruct the history of this place.
There is Antonio younger, in the company of musicians, who usually animate the tavern’s evenings, there are more recent photos and even a comic that represents him.
Antonio is not only the owner of “Os Amigos da Severa”, Antonio is “os amigos da Severa”. Anyone who passes by, looks out even for a moment to greet him, or to have a quick drink, preferably with him, who is always available to keep you company.
At Antonio’s you go in for a cold beer, or a glass of wine without too many pretensions, or a ginjinha, which unlike the other bars here is served in a less alcoholic and cold version.
Antonio is very proud of it. He shows us a sentence stuck to the refrigerator which reads “Of Severa and Antonio I remember a good thing, there is a famous ginjinha which is the best in Lisbon”
And Antonio’s ginjinha is really famous, as it is also mentioned in a book of wines and spirits.
And if there were still doubts as to whether Antonio’s life is closely linked to this place, he continues to tell us how he now knows each of his clients. There are the regular ones he doesn’t even have to ask what they want, because Antonio already knows. And even with people passing by, he can figure out what he would like to drink. Years of experience, contacts with people. After all this is what most him like it. In this place Antonio has combined the need to earn with the pleasure of being among others, in the neighborhood that he loves most.
Antonio has been living in Mouraria for some years. Before, he lived in the Benfica neighborhood, but he had always been a “resident of Mouraria”. “The house is what we choose, where we feel good” he tells us. And he loves this place; it is no coincidence that he welcomes us proudly wearing the neighborhood shirt.
It is now part of the “Bairro” (neighborhood), a real institution. He knows it, has lived it, has seen it change, passing from the poor and infamous neighborhood to the neighborhood finally recognized as historic and authentic.
And Antonio’s tavern is part of this place that the Moors have left us. It was there, according to history, already two hundred years ago. And in the last 45 years the life of this place has been intertwined with that of Antonio, who proudly shows us the documents of the time, to attest to a link between him and that place that has lasted for a long time.
When you decide to walk through the Mouraria then, right next to the house of Maria Severa Onofriana, which now is an important fado house (Maria da Mouraria), stop for a glass with Mr. Antonio. Take advantage of it to breathe an air of authenticity, without letting yourself be impressed by the rather original aspect of the place, but enjoying a unique atmosphere.
After all, at the tavern “Os amigos da severa” it’s like having a drink with friends.
And as the sign that looks at us from above says: “Drink, without fear, until you drink one glass too much, we will keep the secret and take you home”.