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Blindfolded, you can get a real sense for Lisbon

Join a Sensorial Walking Tour of Alfama, Lisbon.

Robin Esrock

It took some vision to remove the sight from sightseeing. Conceived by a creative design company called Cabrecega, in collaboration with an operator called Lisbon Walker, a walking tour blindfolds its participants for a sensory discovery of Alfama, Lisbon's labyrinthine old town. The goal is to open up your senses and experience a world without sight, while learning about the practicalities and challenges of the blind.

Cabrecega was inspired by the so-called dark restaurants that have sprung up around the world, where diners eat in darkness often served by blind waiters. They contacted ACAPO, the Portuguese Association for the Visually Impaired, and found a guide named Carlos Silveria who would happily introduce sighted walkers to his world. Blind since he was a baby, Carlos tells me how sight sends the most signals to the brain, and in effect "annihilates the other senses." With proceeds donated to ACAPO, this experimental concept is not only a fascinating walking tour, but also an introduction to the true value of our senses.

Blindfolded walkers are led by a seeing volunteer and we are told to trust them. They will not lead us to harm, and the ground won't move beneath our feet, says José from Lisbon Walker. "Unless there's an earthquake," he quips. I Velcro on the comfortable blindfold, and close my eyes. Keeping them open would allow my eyes to constantly search out light, so it's best to keep them shut.

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I hold my volunteer's elbow as we are led forward, instructed about any impending obstacles. Immediately, I am overwhelmed with a sense of vulnerability. Without my lifeline to Hugo's elbow, I would probably panic. The streets of Alfama are narrow, the alleys small, the stone stairs choppy. Nervous with caution, unsure of myself, I feel like an infant taking his first strides. Without Hugo, every step would be a challenge, and a potential disaster.

As we make our way down a street, I find myself constantly imagining my surroundings. Is that a church wall? A large hall? A busy market? Other than the murmur of Portuguese, I could be anywhere. At various points, Carlos pauses to explain the practicalities of his day-to-day life: how he knows what clothing he's wearing, what he imagines a particular colour to look like. He tells us that modern technology like computers and cellphones have enabled him to live a more independent lifestyle, and he is grateful for new gadgets.

Alfama is the oldest district of Lisbon, and through the years has been built up into a maze of alleys and squares, lined with small shops or cafés. There's a myriad of smells, sounds and people, and it's the perfect place to awaken sleeping senses.

After a half-hour, my hearing becomes more acute. I become aware of birdsong and footsteps, passing traffic and conversations. My head snaps back and forth as I try to locate the source. My skin also awakens, feeling the sun on my face as I walk in and out of shadow, or brick walls that brush my arm as I walk past. José asks us to guess where we are, and in my mind's eye I see a tunnel (it is a corridor), but feel the wind as if standing on a viewpoint (it is a public square). After touching trees and leaves, I stop in at a grocer to touch various types of fruit, which take some time to identify. If a car comes too close, Hugo calmly repositions me to safety.

Alfama has traditionally been a poor part of Lisbon, where neighbours would share water or ablutions. In an old communal washing room, Jose explains some of its history - it was one of the few parts of the city to survive a massive earthquake in 1755 - and I find myself clinging to his words, as opposed to drifting off to whatever eye candy I can normally find. I also realize that his earlier comment about earthquakes was to be taken literally.

Slowly I become accustomed to Hugo's nudge, which indicates an obstacle, and begin to walk faster and more sure-footedly. After 90 minutes, it is time to remove my blindfold, which I am advised to do in the shade, and slowly.

As light floods in, stabbing my optic nerve, a dull pain appears and quickly vanishes. Colours explode, requiring me to take a few seconds to compose myself.

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The Sensorial Tour was the longest I had ever been awake, aware and concentrating on a changing sensory landscape, all the while with my eyes closed. With new-found respect for the visually impaired, and knowledge about an interesting part of Lisbon, I wonder if it's time for other associations for the blind to take note. Every city should have a blindfolded walking tour: As a participant, it has to be unseen to be believed.

Special to The Globe and Mail

To find out more about Sensorial Tours in Lisbon, e-mail

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