The spicy scent of Cape Verdian cuisine wafts down its winding alleyways, where palm trees sway among a colorful bric-a-brac of houses perched high above Lisbon: Welcome to the infamous Cova da Moura, Portugal’s answer to the favelas of Brazil and now a tourist magnet.
After dark, taxi drivers refuse to venture into the belly of Cova da Moura, a drug trafficker’s haven half an hour north of Lisbon that was long seen as one of Europe’s most dangerous slums.
Yet by day tourists — about 1,000 a year including academics, architects and sociologists — are now willing to pay the 5 euros (US$6.20) it cost for a tour of its narrow, history-filled streets.
One autumn day, a group of a dozen Germans stood poring over a giant graffito of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.
“These are idols for many of us,” said 27-year-old guide Reginaldo Spinola, who is originally from former Portuguese colony Cape Verde, like three-quarters of the local residents.
Inspired by the favela circuits launched in Brazil in recent years, the tours have a twin goal: “To clean up the neighborhood’s image as a drug and crime haven, and give the local economy a boost,” said Miguel Lourenco, who runs the tourism project, “Sabura.”
“This isn’t Montmartre or Barcelona’s gothic quarter, but our cultural heritage can take visitors into the world of Cape Verde, its food, crafts and music,” he said.
Baseball cap twisted backward, Spinola shook hands and exchanged a few words in Creole with neighbors as he told the story of Cova da Moura.
“This is a little village of 7,000 people — everyone knows everyone else,” he said.
The first to settle the hill above Lisbon were Portuguese returning from the colonies, but after Cape Verde attained independence in 1975, they were joined by a mass influx of immigrants who built homes there illegally.
Along with men and women from former colonies Angola and Guinea-Bissau, they flocked to Portugal at a time when it was hungry for cheap labor.
Forty years on, with the economic crisis biting hard, Cova da Moura is plagued with unemployment. Those who work struggle as badly paid laborers or cleaners.
“A lot of young people sell drugs to put food on their families’ tables,” Spinola said.
Some have left to seek better fortune elsewhere, in Switzerland, Germany or France.
“Cova da Moura is a gateway to Europe,” Spinola said.
Armed with Portuguese qualifications, others have headed home to Cape Verde, even though life there is now twice as expensive as it is in Portugal.
Godelieve Meersschaert first came to Cova da Moura from Belgium in 1982 as a young psychologist looking for a new experience.
“I liked the neighborhood and I’m still here,” she said.
Together with her husband, Eduardo, originally from the Azores Islands, she founded an association called Moinho da Juventude — Mill of Youth — which has been working to improve local living conditions, including fighting for access to running water and sewage.
These days, the soft-spoken 69-year-old is on a new mission: to save Cova da Moura from demolition.
“Ten years ago, city hall wanted to tear down the neighborhood and offer the land up to property developers. It is very well located, at the gates of Lisbon,” Meersschaert said. “They organized a campaign of slander on television to get people worked up against us.”
From there came the idea of opening up to tourists, to show another side of Cova da Moura.
Police raids are frequent by night, but Cova da Moura is considered safe to visit — with a local guide — after sunrise and the gangs seem to have reached a tacit decision to leave tourists alone.
One dealer even had an abortive go at a new career as a tour guide — before he was sent to jail for driving without a license.
Judging by the German tourists’ reaction as they clap and cheer to a local rap video shot to denounce police violence, the public relations operation is a success.
For Sabine Oster, a pharmacist from Frankfurt, Germany, the tours “show you the other side of Lisbon, instead of just visiting the same old monuments.”
“Exploring Cova da Moura is more than worthwhile,” she said.
So how bright does the future look for the neighborhood?
Although new waves of immigrants continue flooding Cova da Moura, new construction is banned.
“When a local resident dies, if his children live far away, the town demolishes his home,” Spinola said, gesturing at a patch of newly cleared land. “They want to knock down the neighborhood. It’s a gold mine for developers.”
In the middle of the 2000s the government tried to bring local crime under control, while funding a major literacy campaign, but in 2011, on the verge of bankruptcy, the state pulled out.
“The authorities are no longer doing anything at all for Cova da Moura,” said sociologist Elsa Casimiro, who has studied the close-knit community. “But the area will survive, because there is a great solidarity here.”
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