Past meets present in Lis­bon

5 days of folk mu­sic, sar­dines and his­tory in Por­tu­gal’s cap­i­tal

The Dallas Morning News - - INTERNATIONAL - Beth J. Harpaz, The As­so­ci­ated Press

LIS­BON, 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 — and 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, as well as the home of the late, great fado singer Amalia Ro­drigues.

We also vis­ited many sites hon­or­ing Por­tu­gal’s great ex­plor­ers, who begin­ning in the 15th cen­tury es­tab­lished a colo­nial em­pire that spanned the world.

Fado clubs

Our first fado club was Sr. Vinho. We feasted on seafood and vinho verde, Por­tu­gal’s de­li­cious white 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, we knew some­thing spe­cial was un­fold­ing when a well-dressed en­tourage of 10 swept in, with much hand­kiss­ing and photo-tak­ing. 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 blues club.

Our third club, Casa de Fa­dos, 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 neigh­bor­hood. 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 pâté 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 col­or­fully wrapped canned sar­dines.

An­other yummy lo­cal dish is grilled chicken. And make time for the Time­Out Mar­ket, a 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, 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.

Por­tu­gal is on nu­mer­ous “where to go” lists for 2017. Among those plan­ning to visit this year is the pope, who’s ex­pected in May for the cen­ten­nial of the mir­a­cle at Fa­tima, the vil­lage where three shep­herd chil­dren had vi­sions of the Vir­gin Mary in 1917.

Por­tu­gal is also one of Europe’s most af­ford­able des­ti­na­tions. My sis­ter and I shared a $100-a-night room in a fives­tar 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 $55 to $65 a per­son, but or­di­nary res­tau­rants were much cheaper. At these prices, a mid­dle-class Amer­i­can can live like a Por­tuguese king.

His­toric spots

We got a sense of how real kings lived at the mag­nif­i­cent Palace of Sin­tra, 16 miles from Lis­bon. My fa­vorite spot amid the palace’s tiled rooms and trea­sures was a ceil­ing dec­o­rated with 136 mag­pies, sym­bol­iz­ing a king’s flir­ta­tion with one of the queen’s 136 ladies-in­wait­ing.

Back in Lis­bon, the Na­tional Coach Mu­seum dis­plays gilded, vel­vet-lined coaches used by roy­alty, some dat­ing to the 1600s.

We also wan­dered the nar­row streets of the me­dieval Alfama District; mar­veled at tiles cov­er­ing walls, build­ings and even side­walks, and took self­ies at the Belem Tower, a stun­ning 16th-cen­tury 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 memo­ri­al­ize 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 trav­eled a long way from the U.S. for our mere five-day visit, but it was noth­ing com­pared to that.

Photos by Beth J. Harpaz/The As­so­ci­ated Press

The Mon­u­ment to the Dis­cov­er­ies is on the Lis­bon water­front. The stone ship memo­ri­al­izes the Age of Ex­plo­ration, begin­ning in the 15th cen­tury, when Por­tuguese sea­far­ers sailed the globe, es­tab­lish­ing a colo­nial em­pire that stretched from Asia to Africa to South Amer­ica.

2014 File Photo/The As­so­ci­ated Press

Wor­ship­pers walk on their knees to the Our Lady of Fa­tima shrine. Three shep­herd chil­dren re­ported see­ing vi­sions of the Vir­gin Mary in Fa­tima in 1917 and the pope is ex­pected to visit this year in May to mark the cen­ten­nial of the mir­a­cle.

A por­trait of the late Amalia Ro­drigues hangs on the wall of her Lis­bon home. She’s con­sid­ered Por­tu­gal’s finest singer of fado mu­sic.

Sar­dines are a Por­tuguese spe­cialty. Some cans are dec­o­rated with years, de­signed as gifts to mark some­one’s birth year.

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