The beautiful and historic Portuguese capital of Lisbon is rightly popular among holidaymakers seeking a city break that covers all the bases – great food, great nightlife, great shopping and a spectacular view from the city’s high points.
Being built on seven hills, there’s no shortage of these, and the funiculars – giant “elevators” will whisk you to the top of them in style. Take a tram ride on the well-worn 28 route and see the city as the locals do, or jump on a train to the nearby town of Sintra and sample some of the finest ports known to humanity!
There’s one aspect to life in Lisbon that the casual visitor may not be aware of, however, and that is its unique musical tradition of fado. Taken from the Portuguese word for “fate”, this operatic urban folk music is both hauntingly beautiful and authentically rooted in the real world. Although they have nothing in common musically, the emotional place that it is coming from is remarkably similar to the blues music of the southern US, since both styles stem from heartbreak, adversity, and the everyday problems of everyday folk.
If you’re going to uncover the secrets of fado, you will need to know another Portuguese word – saudade, a word which loosely translates into “yearning”. So many of its songs invoke this concept, with the various melancholy themes based on Lisbon’s past as a major sea port, and its inhabitants tales of jealousy, unrequited love, loss and despair. Like the blues, however, you would be mistaken if you thought that sampling fado was a miserable experience. Beauty and joy can be found throughout, and a night in a fado café listening to the clear voices of the singers, accompanied by only a 12-stringed Portuguese guitar and a four-stringed viola, is intensely enjoyable.
If you’re after the best places to hear fado being performed, then you can hardly to better than what is regarded as the birthplace of the form – the Moorish-influenced Alfama district, home to the Museum of Fado.
Here, in restaurants such as the Clube de Fado or the Parreirinha de Alfama, you will be served large portions of the delicious seafood that characterises Lisboan cuisine, while being serenaded by a string of fado performers. Indeed, in the latter, the owner Argentina Santos will come out of the kitchen in chef’s garb throughout the night and sing a few songs herself!
The other major centre for fado in Lisbon is the towering Bairro Alto district, high above the rest of the city, and a Mecca for tourists seeking the trendiest bars and the liveliest nightclubs. Here you will also find Cafe Luso, one of the oldest fado houses in the city, plus the Adega do Ribatejo, where professional fadistas perform alongside the venue’s kitchen staff and waiters!
You may well fall in love with fado during your holiday in Lisbon, and be feeling a little saudade yourself when it’s time to go! Fear not – CDs by most of the artists performing in the fado houses are available at the venues themselves, and as the music gains worldwide renown, record stores in the UK are increasingly stocking it – especially the stunning fado of perhaps its greatest star, Mariza.