by Thomas O’Dwyer
One of the few pleasures left in modern travel is to visit an unfamiliar place and to attempt to feel its historical and cultural pulse – if it still has one. The British author Lawrence Durrell endlessly sought the “spirit of place” in his travels. He developed the rare talent of being able to transmit that spirit to his readers – the long-dead voices of Alexandria, or the mythical deities riding the breezes of the Greek islands and Cyprus.
Two weeks ago I went to Lisbon for the first time. By accident rather than design, Portugal had been the only European country I had never visited. If I had to produce a few keywords to summarise my knowledge of the country, I might have come up short. There was Vasco de Gama, a Carnation revolution against a dictator named Salazar, the writer José Saramago, port, cork trees, Fatima, and fado music. I might even have mentioned Brazil. Sorry Portugal, that was about it.
I was appalled by my ignorance of the ancient, imperial, and cultural history of a European nation. Some of my travelling companions were American, reminding me of another dreary fact of modern travel. Wherever you go, you can’t escape America. Perhaps in the 50s BCE, some lone travellers felt the same when they visited remote Celtic Britain. They found they still couldn’t avoid Roman garrisons and bathhouses.
It wasn’t just the Starbucks on Lisbon’s grand Avenida da Liberdade, or the McDonalds across the road from the world-famous Pasteis Belem pies. The American visitors noted the city’s hills and tramcars and the duplicate Golden Gate bridge across the Tagus river estuary. The Sintra coast road not only looks like the California Pacific road, but it attracts thousands of bikers from around the world (including America). They thundered down it like they were shooting some Sons of Sintra MC epic for Netflix.
The place to taste Portugal proper had to be the workers’ streets in the warren of the Alfama. It is one of the few relics of a murky medieval quarter that has survived. (A vast earthquake and tsunami flattened Lisbon in 1755 and destroyed almost all that had been there before then). More specifically, we needed one of the fado houses located there. In Lisbon, fado music is unavoidable in the oldest neighbourhoods and is sung in many restaurants called Casas de Fado (fado houses). As the fado singer and two guitarists enter, the lights dim and the artists wait until all conversations stop. The silence is an integral part of the show; there is no chatting and no clapping until each song ends. In older traditional houses, performers tolerated no noise and would angrily declare, “Be silent! The fado must be sung.”
And so, we slipped into the dim light and old-world elegance of Faia, one of many restaurants that combines relaxed eating with sets by fado singers between courses. Everybody assumes that fado is the native music of Portugal, like flamenco in Spain, but it’s not that simple. Virtually nobody seemed able to explain what fado is. A musicologist might, but one slightly bored barman told me that fado could be a song about anything. He was not a fan. I was perplexed. I had just flown in from Ireland, where everyone is enthusiastic about Irish music and song, even the young who also embrace the ultra-modern. Fado has not been universally popular in Portugal for a couple of decades, though there are signs of some revival. Many Portuguese resent the notion that fado is “the nation’s music” – they consider it a tired old genre local to Lisbon and Cambrio. An enthusiast will tell you that fado is the soul of Portugal, “our very own song.” An unbeliever will tell you it’s time it was put out of its misery.
The fado tavern owners say they are always full and overbooked. “Everyone comes here, everyone from well-known fadistas to people no one knows. Everyone listens, and everyone deserves applause,” a Faia employee said. Faia, like several other such restaurants, is a reference point in Lisbon nightlife. For half a century, its daily fado evenings have attracted big names as regulars, starting with the founder, Lucilia do Carmo, who was prominent in the history of fado. The staff can reel off a list of famous fadistas you’ve never heard of who have performed. On our night there, the star performer was Lenita Gentil, also a legendary fado singer. She was the final act after one young female and two male singers performed sets of three songs each between courses from an excellent menu.
The origins of fado – fate in Portuguese – are difficult to trace but, in common with much urban music, it originated in sleazy working-class clubs and bars in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Fado could indeed be “about anything”, but it must follow a traditional structure. It is characterised by mournful tunes and lyrics, originally about the sea or the urban poor. It expresses resignation, fate and melancholia. In Portuguese, it’s saudade, longing, and loss of love leading to a ruined life.
Whenever one hears a lament
of a guitar singing
one is instantly lost
with a desire to weep.
O people of my land,
now I’ve understood.
This sadness which I carry on,
it was from you that I received it.
(Traditional fado, O Gente Da Minha Terra; O People Of My Land)
Some think that fado came from the songs of the Muslim conquerors of the Iberian peninsula, full of nostalgia and sadness. Others relate it to themes from medieval troubadours about friendship, love, betrayal. Others again compare it to Brazilian music of slaves brought to Lisbon around 1820, thus relating it to the origins of jazz and blues in America. A fado song called Mãe Preta (Black Mother), a version of a Brazilian song, gained massive popularity in 1950s Portugal and was abruptly banned by the dictator Antonio Salazar. The song was about the hardships endured by a wet-nurse slave, feeding her white master’s child while her own baby went without.
Lenita Gentil was raised in Marinha Grande, in central coastal Portugal and was discovered to be a talented fado singer as a teenager. An appearance on a TV premiere in 1964 launched her career of TV shows, records, song festivals, and international travel. Even without understanding a word of the lyrics, a fado performance like Lenita’s is powerful, riveting, swirling with passionate anger at life’s unfairness and with defiance of unjust fate. An Australian blogger wrote that fado is like Marmite – you either love it or loathe it. Some resentment lingers among Portuguese leftists that fado was part of dictator Salazar’s attempt to impose his narrow nationalist image on all the country. These were his three cultural “Fs” – the Fs were a common invented culture with a hint of bread and circuses – Fatima, Fado and Futebol.
Fatima represented religion, the shrine where three illiterate children were said to have received messages from the Virgin Mary. Football and fado exclusively meant Lisbon. Portugal found its way to democracy in the peaceful Carnation Revolution of 1974, three years after Salazar’s death. No shots were fired, and the revolutionaries offered carnations to the soldiers and placed them in the muzzles of their guns. April 25th is a national holiday commemorating the birth of democracy.
Back in the bright light of a Lisbon morning and its delightful September weather, the miserable, dark roots of fado vanish. It is a charming and optimistic city with memories of dictatorship all but erased. The Salazar Bridge, modelled on the Golden Gate, was swiftly renamed April 25th Bridge. Lisbon is a city that has been reinventing itself without losing its identity. It is modern but retains a relationship with its layers of history. Across this hilly city on the Tagus River, public structures and spaces are being stylishly reborn. With an eye on booming tourism, boutiques, galleries and new spots for eating and drinking abound. Most big hotels have rooftop bars packed with visitors enjoying spectacular views across the river and the city and its bright orange sunsets. Portugal is an Atlantic country, pretending to be Mediterranean. It has an exceptionally balmy climate and a quality of light that has intrigued travellers for centuries. The air is gentle, and the sun seems to spend the afternoon deliberately highlighting the yellow, blue, and pastel-shaded buildings. In his engaging book Lisbon: Queen of the Sea, Barry Hatton writes:
“Where does the special quality of Lisbon’s light come from? It is a question so often asked and for so long that it has become something of a parlour game. The light in Lisbon is something to marvel at, even beneath winter clouds. It is not so much a feature of the city as a hallmark. It is a textured brightness, a creamy glow, at once vivid and silky. Some people believe that Lisbon’s orgy of light is a consequence of the broad estuary, or the river or the ocean, or all three. Others put it down to the city’s closely packed white buildings and terracotta roofs, or attribute it to a happy blessing of latitude.”
Aside from the steep hills, the first thing to be mastered in walking Lisbon is the tricky paved streets. The Portuguese are immensely proud of their calcada portuguesa, paving stones which they exported all over their empire. The paving, based on an ancient Roman system, is made of mosaic cubes of black basalt and white limestone. They are painstakingly laid by hand to form patterns which have more than a hint of Islamic influence.
The first massive work of laying a stretch of paving was done with convict labour in 1848. In 323 days a wavy pattern called Mar Largo (broad sea) was spread in Lisbon’s central Rossio Square and is still there. First stepping onto the square can be disorienting as if stepping onto a boat rocking in waves. Aside from the optical illusion, the problem with the calcada is their slippery surface, especially on the hilly streets. In wet weather, they can be as lethal as ice and even in dry weather, quite tiresome. Wary of the public pride in the attractive patterns of the historic streets, the city council is quietly phasing out the stones in new and outer areas of the metropolis.
The existing paving will not be removed, however, since it would destroy the unique character of Lisbon. Not content with paving the streets with tiny blocks of ice, Lisbon likes to cover walls with blue azulejo tiles. The word comes from azulayja, Arabic for polished stone. The Moors brought this style to the Iberian Peninsula. In Portugal, the azulejo gained popularity in the 16th century after King Manuel I visited the Alhambra in Spain and he decided to copy its designs for his palace at Sintra.
This beautiful area of wooded hills and valleys still hosts the homes of the very rich alongside its ancient castles. (The performer Madonna lives in a $6 million palace here). The orange and yellow Pena palace, now swarming with tourists, is a Disneyesque romantic edifice built during the 19th century. It closely resembles German models of medieval castles replete with the romantic fantasies of that time. From here, there are spectacular views of the local beauty spots. Within 100 years of Manuel’s enterprise, the country became the largest manufacturer of azulejo tiles in Europe. Tiles are everywhere — street nameplates, benches, fountains, murals, railway stations, and numerous buildings.
Every country has its favourite culinary cliches – the British have their fish and chips, the French their escargots. In Lisbon, it’s the unlikely pasteis de nata, custard pies. If you can’t imagine anyone queuing for a custard pie, visit the Old Belém Confectionery, down by the river shore. In this cafe, only three members of staff and the owner know the secret recipe for the sweet custard tarts that have been produced here since 1837. The pies, called Pastéis de Belém here, have a light, crispy pastry filled with vanilla-flavoured custard, lightly charred on top. They are remarkably addictive with a strong espresso coffee.
Lingering in a late-night bar in Alfalma with a friend, sipping Vinho Verde, we saw nothing of the miserable longings so beloved by fado. Fate has taken a hike. Pub Portugese was packed with young people having fun. chatting, swapping phone pictures. No one was shouting, “Silence! The techno must be heard.” The young pub manager was more than happy with upbeat modern Lisbon. “It is the most beautiful city,” he said. “We have the sea a few steps away; we have the beautiful river; we have good food, we have good wine. We have some problems with house and apartment prices but doesn’t everywhere? People are coming here in droves, so we must have something.”
The walls of the pleasant old pub were filled with artistic bric-a-brac, cartoons, drawings, portraits, faded photos. In an ornate frame above our table was a poem in gold lettering on a purple background.
a noite e dos poetas
e dos que
morrem de amor
Well, well. The fado isn’t giving up the fight for Lisbon’s soul so easily. The poem says:
The night is whores, poets, and those who die of love.