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Falling in Love With Fado While Exploring Lisbon’s Culture, History

  • This Jan. 21, 2017 photo shows a portrait of the late Amalia Rodrigues on the wall of her home in Lisbon, Portugal. She's considered Portugal's finest singer of fado, a soulful, melancholy genre of Portuguese folk music. Guided tours of the house she lived in offer an intimate look at her life, including exhibits of her costumes. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This Jan. 21, 2017 photo shows singer Cuca Roseta, (standing), bathed in red light during a fado performance at Clube de Fado in Lisbon, accompanied on the left by Mario Pacheco on the 12-string Portuguese guitar and another musician on the right playing a conventional guitar. Lisbon is home to numerous clubs where fado, a soulful, melancholy genre of Portuguese folk music, is performed nightly. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This Jan. 21, 2017 photo shows a display of sneakers and shoes made of cork at the Rutz store in Lisbon, Portugal. The store is located in the Lx Factory, a former industrial complex that's now home to trendy boutiques and eateries. Portugal is famous for a variety of products made from cork, from footwear to wallets and purses. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This Jan. 19, 2017 photo shows a display of canned sardines at a store in Lisbon, Portugal. The cans are decorated with different years, designed as gifts to mark someone's birth year. Sardines are a Portuguese specialty and a number of stores sell nothing but row upon row of the canned fish, often colorfully decorated. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This Jan. 20, 2017 photo shows a picture comprised of blue-and-white tiles on an old building in Lisbon, Portugal. Tiled walls, buildings and even sidewalks are ubiquitous in Lisbon, especially in older neighborhoods with narrow, winding streets. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • FILE - In this May 14, 2015, file photo, an 18th Century coach is displayed at the new National Coach Museum in Lisbon. The coach was ordered by Austria's Emperor Joseph I for the wedding of his sister Ana with Portuguese King Joao V. The museum's collection of gilded, velvet-lined carriages provides a window on how kings and queens got from place to place. (AP Photo/Armando Franca, File)

  • This Jan. 20, 2017 photo shows the Tower of Belem on the banks of the Tagus River in Lisbon, Portugal. The picturesque fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Lisbon's most famous landmarks. It dates to the 16th century when Portuguese explorers sailed the globe, establishing a colonial empire that stretched from Asia to Africa to South America. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This Jan. 20, 2017 photo shows the Monument to the Discoveries on the Lisbon waterfront in Portugal. The stone ship memorializes the Age of Exploration, beginning in the 15th century, when Portuguese seafarers sailed the globe, establishing a colonial empire that stretched from Asia to Africa to South America. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • This Jan. 20, 2017 photo shows a room in the Sintra Palace, about 16 miles from Lisbon, Portugal. The ornate palace walls and ceilings are decorated with intricate tilework and paintings. The palace served as a home to Portuguese royalty for centuries. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

  • FILE - In this May 13, 2014, file photo, worshippers walk on their knees to the Our Lady of Fatima shrine, in Fatima, central Portugal. Three shepherd children reported seeing visions of the Virgin Mary in Fatima in 1917 and the pope is expected to visit this year in May to mark the centennial of the miracle. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)



AP Travel Editor
Saturday, March 25, 2017

Lisbon, Portugal — 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.

Fado

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 $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 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.