Tour of Duty: An art pilgrimage in southern Europe #6: Lurching to the Lilting Tones of Fado in Lisbon and Beyond – Lisbon, Port

6: Lurching to the Lilting Tones of Fado in Lisbon and Beyond

June 2003
The first thing I learned about Lisbon is to expect the unexpected. One arrives by train from the south of Portugal at Barreiro, 20 kilometers south across the wide bay of the River Targus (Tejo) from which huge water ferries depart to the city to dock at Estacao Fluvial for passengers. While in transit across the Tejo on both sides are the wide spans of bridges, with the new PonteVasco da Gama shining in the sunlight to the East, 150 million dollars of investment to redirect traffic to the Parque das Nacoes, the epicenter of the World’s Fair in 1998.

As one approaches the hilly Lisbon skyline of many hued ochre-colored buildings and the Castelo on the hill, one is struck by the fact that there are no buildings over six or seven stories and the buildings hug the lines of the natural amphitheatre of hills on all sides.

Once docked and on making a way up the hills of the central business area, suddenly a loud ‘Clang! Clang!’ rings out behind me as a narrow, jerky, toy-like tram rumbles by on a track so narrow it wobbles like a pram. This is the charm of Lisbon, an unpretentious city with little trams carousing the many hills offering glimpses to the wide bay and river below. I was suddenly transported in my mind to San Francisco in the United States, which has a similar feel to it. We made our way north on the Metro to our accommodation at Don Anjos Hotel in Rua Andrade near the Metro stop of Intendente. The hotel is good value at �62 a double per night, where all the staff is pleasant and well-versed in English. It is a bit seedy on the main road, Rua da Palma, but we are close to the centre of town and the Metro, and there are many cheap places to eat and relax after a day’s sightseeing.

The next day we head out, walking downhill the three kilometers into the centre of town and then west up into the famous Barrio Alto, with its narrow streets dotted with little cafes, bookshops, art shops and restaurants. We staked a claim to come back the next day, which we did; to feast on a lunch of grilled sardines, bean soup, fresh crusty bread followed by chocolate mousse and caf� for �24 a double. From our luncheon table we gaze across the cityscape to the steep hill to the east. There stands the Castelo de Sao Jorge (St George) in all its immensity and 11th-century glory. After a quick check of how best to get there we wander to the top of the Barrio Alto and head 200 meters down to the tram stop to catch the No 15 tram all the way to the other side ( 30 minute ride) and alight not far from the Castle. Once at the Castle we are impressed by the ancient-ness (if such a word exists ) of the Fort, and the views through the pines to the river and the city below. In the main forecourt the Ministry of Culture had assembled a collection of larger-than-life sculptures depicting scenes from the weird world of our old friend from the Prado Gallery in Madrid: Heironymous Bosch. It’s weird how things keep coming back: a daylight haunting in an unexpected place atop an ancient building, with its many ghosts whistling through the massive pine trees.

Lisbon is up and down and up and down. Its streets are cobbled with small squares of white and cream quartz that follow the undulations at every opportunity. So one really needs to watch one’s step at all times. I noticed a young girl in a neck brace using an arm caliper. Then up popped a middle-aged man with two calipers, a third almost on cue followed; a middle-aged woman with her children stood in a store with two calipers on her arms; there was also a teenage boy with a caliper and then down the street at the restaurant another young woman. Was there a convention of victims of road rage in town I thought? Suddenly like Hitchcock’s horror film The Birds the streets suddenly seemed to fill with cripples. Where were these afflicted souls from? Why were they debilitated? I hear Portugal has the highest rate in Europe for car crash victims. In one day I counted 57 variously crippled people.

As we rumbled past aboard the Green painted No 28 tram late that afternoon, I called to my wife in a loud voice above the mechanical screeching of the tram, “No 44!” When we got off she retorted in a voice laced with heavy patience, “Get a life! Look out and take in the greater life of Lisbon and forget the cripples.” I tried, but I did get to 57 before I was tucked in bed that night. I have a theory that either Lisbon is so attractive that people are not attentive and get run over crossing the roads or the footpaths of smooth quartz are so slippery or eroded (which they are) that accidents are just waiting to happen. It’s a problem being a professional sociologist – one imagines the weirdest social consequences when maybe none exist at all – but it looked suspicious, so may victims in one place on one day.

What of the art of Lisbon? We didn’t go to any galleries, only cluster of churches, monuments and the Castelo. The Bosch sculptures at the Castelo were weird and wonderful and unexpected. The art was in the barrios, especially Alfama, a barrio near the docks and beneath the ancient walls of the Castle where people have lived their whole lives in cramped, twisted, cobbled streets so narrow in places that neighbors can pass meals across to each other or shake hands. In the streets below greengrocers, fishmongers, boot repairers, caf� owners and small mini marts ply their trades. A coffee table book of black and white photos I flicked through outside the Castle revealed the faces of the people of the Alfama, some who I actually saw, such as the greengrocer’s plump, jolly wife.

As we sat having a caf� looking above at the multi-colored, festooned ribbons from a religious festival some weeks before, we heard the strains of a melancholic female voice. Such was its hypnotic appeal we got the name of the CD and bought Maria Rodriguez’s Amalia, a collection of sad lilting songs of Fado music, accompanied by 12-string guitar. The history of the art of Fado originated in the cafes and bars of Lisbon in the 16th century, where sailors and their spouses and lovers sang these sad songs in lament for the men at sea for long periods. It is a unique art, totally different to the Spanish Flamenco and the wailing of the gypsies; this music is melodic, soft, contemplative and thoughtfully sad. I am a fan of Fado now as the music creeps up and weaves you into its sad spell.

We took a short side trip by train to Belem, where King Manuel I in the 1540s built the imposing Convent of Jeronimos in his own distinctive style of architecture, complete with Gaudi-like finials of fruiting bodies and pine cones and columns adorned with a collection of carved animals and plants. Manuel I took the images of the newly discovered strange creatures and plants from Portugal’s Golden Age of discovery and adorned monumental buildings with these, to establish a brief period of fetishism in Portuguese architecture. Across the road on the River Targus is the gigantic monument to the Portuguese navigators and explorers, the “Padrao dos Descobrimentos” with Prince Henry the Navigator leading from the front. Further along the shore was the Torre de Belem, built in the 1540s by Manual I as a type of touchstone to mark the start of great sea voyages where explorers were away up to five years on a voyage around the globe. Portuguese sailors discovered parts of Japan, China, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, India, Africa and on a huge map in the area of the Padrao monument, it shows that 46 colonies were founded around the then known world.

Finally we set our own sails so to speak: to Cascais on the western tip of Portugal, 30 miles west of Lisbon to find our own poop-deck in the Equador Hotel, 12 stories high with a clear view out to the Atlantic and across to the cliffs of the bay 50 kilometers to the South, a vantage point to watch the traffic of container ships and the occasional cruise ship plying up the channel to Lisbon. I got to No 23 on the count until I was threatened with being thrown off the balcony!

Cascais is a pretty, clean tourist town distinguished by pleasant, warm-scented air of pine, as the area is dotted with local pine forests. In Cascais we had our special meal at Al Sul restaurant run by amiable host and chef Joaquin Graca. My wife was very game and tried the strong shark soup, while I chose more wisely the safe clean white flesh of grilled mackerel. We finished off with chocolate-coated profiteroles to die for, accompanied with large strawberries. We washed all this own with a litre jug of sangria, our stock beverage when we are too tired or stupid to sort out the local wines.

We spent three days in Cascais, but one of these was on a local bus heading north to the royal retreat city of Sintra, high up in the pine-covered hills behind Cascais.

We caught Scott Bus lines to Sintra via the coast road that took us out across the windy moors to the lighthouse at Cabo da Roca. One could imagine some lonely writer belting way on his typewriter in this area writing his mystery novel. It just had that misty, slightly spooky feel. Sintra itself was shrouded in cloud when we arrived, and it was the coolest we felt in Portugal. We bough t a day pass with the bus line for �7 on leaving Cascais, and this entitled us to a free round trip shuttle to the monuments. First stop was the ruins of the impressive Castelo Mouros (Moorish castle) built in the 11th century, its battlements still there, high above the surrounding countryside and snaking along the high ridge of Sintra like a mini Great Wall of China. The atmosphere warmed and the sun broke through and, as I turned to look across to the other side of the fortifications, suddenly there appeared a golden-domed castle from the gloom. “What the hell is that?” I exclaimed.

It was my first glimpse at the fanciful Palacio Pena, built by the queen of Portugal and her German husband, the Duke of Sax-Coburg-Botha, in the mid 18th century. That was our next stop.

This palace is ‘eclectic “with a big ‘E'” as my wife would say – a mixture of Arabic, Indian, Moorish and Manuelian-style, complete with a monstrous ogre holding up one entrance. Palacio Pena stands on a sheer cliff on one side, and the day I was there it was calm and sunny on the leeward side and the wind howling like a band of furies on the windward side. My hat took a ride 50 feet down the courtyard, as if possessed with a life of its own. The Palace has extensive grounds of German beech and oak planted by the German Duke, mixed in amongst the local pine. Different theme rooms dazzle inside, but the ballroom was my favourite, with a 100-light chandelier and four greater-than-life size Turkish soldier statues holding a further 25 lights each. The room was dripping with rococo-style furniture and arabesque antiques. It was an impressive structure and a must-see location in Portugal outside of Lisbon, that can easily be reached by train from Lisbon on a day trip.

On the journey home we passed through many seaside towns clustered onto the Atlantic coast, but Azenhar do mar with its steep cliffs and Pria dos Mariqas with its surf beach were the most memorable stops. The bus ride alone was worth the memory as the bus forced many a car to back up in narrow streets the size of lanes to get through, and the smell of eucalypt forest and pines and the maze of agriculture of vines, hops, fruit and vegetables and barley made this a trip worth the taking.

Not content with the vistas of Sintra, we had heard of a town to the north really worth the worry to visit. We left for Obidos in the North, the furthermost stronghold of the Moors in Portugal. We were not disappointed even after humping our packs a mile or more to the front of the town. When you get off the train at Obidos, there was nothing to say where the town is located, and the castle compound looks over you from high on the hill. Not going up there – no way. To cut to the chase, Obidos is a walled town within which beautiful buildings ranging from the 14th to 18th centuries cluster together in the space encircled by the 11th-century Moorish battlements. Don’t miss Obidos, for the sheer integrity of its very being – it is perfectly preserved not in part but in its entirety – not to be missed. It is worth the 150-kilometer train trip so stay overnight within the town itself, though accommodation is not cheap.

Obidos is memorable to us for another event: an authentic Portuguese meal consumed at the O Conqistador restaurant. I stuck my neck out and ordered the baked baby goat (Caprito) with rice and liver and green bean and potatoes – fabulous!! My wife, as if to outdo me, chose the eels from the local lake, with salad. The eels came as small crusty grey ribbons complete with heads. My wife crunched them down heads and all, and politely asked if I would indulge. I ate one without the head. She admitted not having her glasses and she didn’t realize she was hoeing through the heads and felt a bit worse for wear on the walk home.

On this occasion we ordered local wine (Quinto de San Francisco), a red wine of vintage 1999, which was excellent, and its name brought back the memories of Lisbon, the other San Francisco by the bay. As we strolled home in the moonlight looking back to a town that had not changed its outer shell for a thousand years we reflected on history, culture and ancient ways in Portugal that still come to life in today’s world in special wine, food and Fado music.