Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Falling in love with Lisbon:The Portugal Diaries, Part Two

My husband had been in Lisbon before (almost 40 years ago), but it was my first time and I sure hope not my last. I was astonished by how much of old Lisbon has been preserved; it’s an open air architectural museum—the upside of Lisbon’s relative poverty. If Lisbon had become an economic powerhouse, much of this would probably have fallen victim to urban renewal.

True, some parts of Old Lisbon are kind of down at heel, but the beauty remains. Just about every building in Old Lisbon is covered with gorgeous tiles and since we had the good fortune to have perfect weather—-temperatures in the mid 60’s, bright blue skies--we saw the tiles glistening in sunlight.

We had expected a break from the ice and snow of Philly but didn’t expect almost 2 weeks of sunshine and springtime temperatures and we certainly didn’t expect so many flowers in February. I thought we would see some early Spring flowers –camellia, bergenia, magnolia and plum trees-- but I sure didn’t expect to see flowers which bloom for us in May blooming in Portugal in early February.
Iris blooming in Lisbon in early February

The Portuguese lived up to their reputation as friendly, hospitable people and the food was wonderful. Some restaurant recommendations for anyone planning a trip to Lisbon: A Travessa, a beautiful restaurant located in a former monastery with amazing food--expensive but worth every penny; Tasca da Esquina, an incredible bargain with seriously good food at affordable prices.

We also recommend our hotel, the York House, for anyone in good physical shape. It is perched on a hill and you have to walk up 4 flights of outdoor stairs to get to the hotel, located in a former Carmelite convent. It was a challenge but we (more or less)got used to the steps and most days we could sit outside and have a drink in the lovely hotel courtyard. The hotel staff were very helpful and the breakfast fantastic. We’d like to go back but as we get older, given all those steps, it just may not be an option.

We decided that no trip to Portugal would be complete without at least one night of listening to the melancholy strands of Fado music. Most of the Fado cafes charge for dinner and music, so if you want to hear fado, you’re stuck with combining it with a not so good and very expensive dinner.

We searched for a Fado cafe that had a reputation for reasonably priced food and that was frequented by locals. We had stumbled upon a tango place like that in Buenos Aires—Omeros cafe. We were the only tourists in the place. Most of the people appeared to know each other and were real tango aficionados. We felt like we had crashed a private party.

We wanted to reproduce that experience in Lisbon and we came close with Sr. Vinho. I don’t think I'll become a Fado aficionado but I really enjoyed that evening, and the best way to hear Fado is with an audience that is clearly in love with the music.

Apparently Fado had fallen into disrepute because of its association with Salazar’s dictatorial regime, but four decades later that connection has been forgotten and Fado is once again hugely popular.

There was something about Fado that reminded me of the music of Chilean folksinger Violetta Parra. Links to her music can be found at my post on our trip to Chile, Be careful what places you revisit; sometimes it’s best to keep the memories intact.

Since Parra lived in Europe for some time it’s likely she encountered Fado and there could be some influence. Rick, who is real Edith Piaf fan, said he heard echoes of Fado in Piaf. Again, it’s highly likely that Piaf would have heard Fado, and the possibility of influence is at least plausible. Maybe at some point I’ll try to do some research about both the Parra and the Piaf Fado connection, but my musical knowledge is probably not up to the task.

Bottom line: a trip to Lisbon has got to include an opportunity to hear Fado. (The TimeOut Guide to Lisbon has an excellent section on Fado and is by far the best English language guide to Lisbon.)

Lisbon is very much a "be there" city; there aren’t that many "must see" monuments. The joy of Lisbon is mainly hanging out in a really beautiful place, taking in the vibrant street scene. No need to rush about ticking off 50 major tourist sights. Lisbon street near our hotel

The "must sees" are the Monastery of San Jeronimo in Belem (a Lisbon suburb) and two amazing museums. Don’t miss the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian , containing the astonishing collection of an Armenian immigrant to Portugal who donated his entire collection to the Portuguese government.

Another must see is Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. The Portuguese definition of “ancient art” includes masterpieces up to the early 19th century, including some astonishing Portuguese painters, such as Nuno Gonçalves whom we had never heard of. If you go to the museum on a sunny day, make sure you make time for the outdoor cafe with its wonderful view of the Tagus River opening out into the Atlantic. In our usual slow tourist (and getting slower) style we spent a couple of hours hanging out at the cafe, sampling some first rate Portuguese wine and enjoying the spectacular views.

Lisbon is definitely on our long list places we want to revisit. Unfortunately, at this stage in life hard choices have to be made.


  1. It all sounds relaxed and beautiful, Karen, and the thought of old tiles sparkling in warm sunlight is enchanting. Did you have wonderful port sitting in that lovely courtyard? (I just visited your hotel online)
    I'll not try to win you over to fado (well, maybe I'll try a bit) but here are a few links to sample. The first is the queen among queens, Amalia Rodriques:

    This is her sister Celeste, also a well-known fadista:

    Madredeus casts a somewhat wider net and they offer a sort of fusion fado (they've sung with full orchestration but this link is for a serenely spare piece):

  2. Thanks! I'll try to incorporate these links into post!

  3. You captured Lisbon (and Portugal in your other posts) quite well.
    This is definitely not a city to visit with a checklist of "must-see" sights, because the real attraction is the city itself as a whole. It's its authentic atmosphere and way of life, its picturesque streets and hilltop views.
    Just one recommendation if you return: the Tile Museum, housed in an old monastery. It's quite beautiful and unique. It's one of the "seven wonders" of the city!: