IN LOVE WITH THE SOUND OF A CUL­TURE

Cen­turies of farewells per­me­ate a melan­choly mu­sic, writes Beth J Harpaz.

Herald on Sunday - - PORTUGAL -

Have you ever heard a song so ten­der and soul­ful it brought you to tears, even though you couldn’t un­der­stand a word?

That’s how I feel about fado, a Por­tuguese folk-mu­sic tra­di­tion that blends the drama and rhythm of fla­menco with the sen­ti­men­tal­ity of a torch song. You don’t need to speak Por­tuguese to ap­pre­ci­ate these melan­choly bal­lads. They are songs of love, loss and long­ing, rooted in Por­tu­gal’s sea­far­ing cul­ture, which for cen­turies has bid farewell to sailors, not know­ing when or whether they’d re­turn.

I re­cently took a quick trip to Lis­bon with my sis­ter — un­like those early ex­plor­ers, our re­turn was guar­an­teed — and we man­aged in four nights to visit four fado clubs. By day, we toured Lis­bon’s Museu do Fado (museud­o­fado.

pt), as well as the home of the late, great fado singer Amalia Ro­drigues. We also vis­ited many sites hon­our­ing Por­tu­gal’s great ex­plor­ers, who, be­gin­ning in the 15th cen­tury, es­tab­lished a colo­nial em­pire that spanned the globe.

Fado

Our first fado club was Sr. Vinho (srv­inho.

com). We feasted on seafood and vinho verde, Por­tu­gal’s de­li­cious “green” wine, then sat spell­bound as three women draped in shawls per­formed in the dark­ened room, one af­ter another, ac­com­pa­nied by a 12-string gui­tar. The next even­ing, at Clube de Fado

(clube-de-fado.com), we knew some­thing spe­cial was un­fold­ing when a well-dressed en­tourage of 10 swept in, with much hand-kiss­ing and pho­to­tak­ing. All our Por­tuguese-speak­ing waiter could say by way of ex­pla­na­tion was “Famoso!” Grad­u­ally we learned the en­tourage in­cluded a leg­endary Brazil­ian singer, Fafa de Belem, along with Cuca Roseta, a pop­u­lar singer who’s part of fado’s new gen­er­a­tion. Three house singers had al­ready per­formed, but Fafa and Cuca gave im­promptu con­certs. The crowd went wild. It was the Lis­bon equiv­a­lent of Tina Turner and Ali­cia Keys ap­pear­ing unan­nounced at a New York club. Our third club, Casa de Fa­dos (ofaia.com), of­fered out­stand­ing food and ser­vice but the show was com­par­a­tively staid. Then at mid­night Satur­day, we hit the jam-packed bar scene at Tasca do Chico in the lively Bairro Alto neigh­bour­hood. Any­one can get up and sing there, and it was fun to hear heart­felt am­a­teurs. Live like a lo­cal Break­fast was sim­ple and de­li­cious: cof­fee and cus­tard tarts called pasteis de belem, served at tiny cafe coun­ters. Many of those shops also sell shots of gin­jinha, a po­tent cherry liqueur. (The air­port duty-free store sells small gin­jinha bot­tles, a per­fect sou­venir.)

Grilled sar­dines are a sum­mer­time spe­cialty but sar­dine pate is of­ten part of a meal’s cou­vert, a small plate that might in­clude olives, bread, cheese or sausage. You’ll also see stores sell­ing noth­ing but rows of colour­fully wrapped canned sar­dines.

Another yummy lo­cal dish is grilled chicken. And make time for the TimeOut Mar­ket (timeout.

com/mar­ket), a mod­ern food court in a his­toric mar­ket where dozens of ven­dors serve thin-sliced cured ham, Asian food, gelato and more. Hang with the hip­sters at Lx Fac­tory

(lx­fac­tory.com/EN/wel­come), an old in­dus­trial com­plex now filled with an­tiques shops, home de­sign stores and bou­tiques like Rutz, where every­thing is made from cork, from sneak­ers to pock­et­books. The Lx Fac­tory’s Rio Mar­avilha has a rooftop bar with ex­pan­sive views of the Ta­gus River, the 25th of April Bridge and the statue of Christ that over­looks the city.

Live like a king

Por­tu­gal fea­tured on nu­mer­ous “where to go” lists for 2017 and is one of Europe’s most af­ford­able des­ti­na­tions. My sis­ter and I shared a $100-a-night room in a five-star ho­tel. Granted, it was Jan­uary, Lis­bon’s least-crowded month, but it was still a bar­gain. Metered taxis were so cheap — a few euros per trip — that we never both­ered with city buses or sub­ways. Our elab­o­rate fado club meals av­er­aged €50 to €60 a per­son but or­di­nary restau­rants were much cheaper. At these prices, it’s rel­a­tively easy to live like a Por­tuguese king.

We got a sense of how real kings lived at the mag­nif­i­cent Palace of Sin­tra, 26km from Lis­bon. My favourite spot amid the palace’s tiled rooms and trea­sures was a ceil­ing dec­o­rated with 136 mag­pies, sym­bol­is­ing a king’s flir­ta­tion with one of the queen’s 136 ladies-in-wait­ing. Back in Lis­bon, the Na­tional Coach Mu­seum

(museu­doscoches.gov.pt/en) dis­plays gilded, vel­vet-lined coaches used by roy­alty, some dat­ing to the 1600s.

We also wan­dered the nar­row streets of the me­dieval Alfama Dis­trict; mar­velled at tiles cov­er­ing walls, build­ings and even side­walks, and took self­ies at the Belem Tower, a stun­ning 16th­cen­tury fort on the banks of the Ta­gus

River. Another land­mark on the Ta­gus is the Mon­u­ment to the Dis­cov­er­ies, a stone ship erected in the 20th cen­tury to memo­ri­alise the Age of Ex­plo­ration.

At Jeron­i­mos Monastery, amid the vaulted ceil­ings and in­tri­cate carv­ings, we vis­ited the tomb of ex­plorer Vasco da Gama, whose rev­o­lu­tion­ary ocean ex­pe­di­tion reached In­dia in 1498. We’d trav­elled a long way for our mere five-day visit, but it was noth­ing com­pared to his jour­ney.

Belem Tower at sun­set. In­set: Graf­fiti of tra­di­tional por­tuguese fado. Pic­tures / 123RF.

Food court Time Out Mer­cado da Ribeira. Pic­ture / Getty Im­ages

Por­tuguese cus­tard tarts. Pic­ture / 123RF

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