Lisbon: Fado, Sardines and the Age of Exploration
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 (fado museum), 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 globe.
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 hand-kissing 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 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 colorfully wrapped canned sardines.
Another yummy local dish is grilled chicken. And make time for the TimeOut 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, 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 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 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 euros ($55 to $65) a person but ordinary restaurants were much cheaper. At these prices, a middle-class American can live like a Portuguese king.
We got a sense of how real kings lived at the magnificent Palace of Sintra, 16 miles (26 kilometers) from Lisbon, one of several places we visited on a Gray Line tour. 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-in-waiting. 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.