Hidden Lisbon

Fado music, saudade and more in Portugal's slow-to-reveal capital.

Rooftop view of Lisbon.
  • Rooftop view of Lisbon.

The slightly dirty tile sidewalks welcomed us as we left our hostel to begin our first day in Lisbon. The magic in this city was palpable from the get-go.

Waiting for the tram in Lisbon.

Waiting for the tram in Lisbon.

As we followed the trail of the famous Tram 28, I couldn’t help but notice the juxtaposition of new, shiny buildings and older walls that seem to be on the brink of rumbling down. It was a romantic image; something I wanted to paint or write a song about.

Finally, we arrived at the top of Porta do Sol Mirador and we could see layers of buildings, red, blue, pink and white, leading to a crisp, blue ocean.

"Underrated" by travelers

Our trip to Lisbon was composed of countless unforgettable moments. Our first day there, I managed to knock a full bottle of red wine off of a shelf at the supermarket (big girl, small stalls) and while I was apologizing to the man who worked there, all he said to me was “As long as you’re not hurt, then that’s all that matters.”

After that, we enjoyed a lesson in Portuguese club music and dancing courtesy of the receptionists at Yes! Hostel – we weren’t any good at it, but they laughed as we tried to make awkward, jolty movements look like dancing. The liveliness in Lisbon is like no other; the humble kindness of Portuguese people takes you by surprise, and the variety of experiences it offers is unmatched.

I can say with confidence that Lisbon is one of the most underrated cities in Europe.

Travel tips, the old-fashioned way.

Travel tips, the old-fashioned way.

Lately, it’s been getting more popular, as people veer away from pricier trips to France or the UK and move towards Spain and Portugal, but it still has not received the praise it deserves. On our second day there, we found a map on a bench, a secret goldmine. It was full of notes, tips and tricks about Lisbon and the nearby city (actually a Lisbon suburb) of Belém, known for its delicious pasteís de nata.

Strolling through Lisbon's central Baixa neighborhood.

Strolling through Lisbon's central Baixa neighborhood.

There was a circle around a square in Baixa with big, capital letters warning “TOURIST TRAP!” Our hostel was near this part of town, and while it was a very touristy area, it was a good place to stay; safe and busy, even late at night. However, we branched off into the neighborhoods of Graça, Chiado, Alfama, as well as taking day trips to Sintra and Belém. With its affordability, uniqueness, architecture, cultural richness and – most of all, fado music – Lisbon should be a go-to destination for all.

Fado: the saudade

My friends and I were all determined to listen to live fado music while in Lisbon. George, a fellow from England, casually mentioned he knew of a place in the neighborhood of Alfama and we blindly followed – unaware of the moving night we were about to experience.

After a nice, long walk, we arrived at a hole-in-the-wall bar and entered. Inside, we found a dark and unassuming room with maybe seven or eight wooden tables. It was near empty, and we initially thought we had missed the show since we had arrived just before midnight. The only Portuguese we knew, thanks to George, was “fala Ingles?”

The bartender knew a little and she explained, to our delight, that the music would start in 10 minutes.

To be honest, I didn’t really know where they were going to perform- there was barely any room in the bar, but we ordered a round of drinks and waited anxiously.

A little while later, the lights were off and an older man presented two guitarists in unintelligible (to me) Portuguese. As the guitarists set up, I saw a man rise up from among the audience and move to the center of the “stage” directly in front of us.

Out of nowhere and much to our surprise, this average man opened his mouth and sang the most passionate, beautiful songs with an enchanting voice. He sang two songs and then another man followed suit.

After these two, a woman with a Portuguese guitar in hand took a seat next to the other two musicians. Another woman made her way behind the guitarists to sing.

We all instantly perked up, excited for this particular performance. She started singing and I was enraptured in her voice, in the words I didn’t quite understand but somehow felt the meaning, in the passion, in the music. When she finished, I came out of the trance I was in and noticed tears welling up in my eyes and goosebumps on my arms.

I was surprised by my reaction, but equally as moved. George took the time to explain that fado songs are usually about something called "saudade." Saudade is a Portuguese word that has no direct translation into English. It is a sort of nostalgia towards something or someone you love; a love that is so strong it hurts. It can refer to people, things, and places. Both people and places you have met or been to, or some that you still have to experience. It is a passionate and deep feeling. I found, through reading about it on other blogs, a perfect definition of the word. Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo defines it “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

After learning about saudade, I felt much more connected to the music. I realized it's something I feel terribly often, mostly for places I have not yet been to. I long for them nostalgically like they hold a place in my heart yet have only dreamed about them through movies and pictures.

For the last performance of the night, the man who had been presenting every singer burst out in a beautiful melody, and what followed truly made this night unforgettable. The song he sang was just as passionate but faster-paced. It was catchy and upbeat. All of the sudden, a young woman from the crowd stood up and started singing alongside the man. A few seconds later, another woman joined in.

The small crowd came to life for this last song as we watched, starry eyed. We applauded fervently and the bar quickly cleared out and it was suddenly quiet again. It felt like we had been part of something secret, something special.

We walked back to our hostel, contemplating the beauty of what we had just experienced. That’s how a new and strong love for fado music was planted in our hearts.

– A Tasca do Chico –

Rua dos Remédios, 83
Alfama, Lisboa, Portugal
Phone #: 961 339 697

– Yes! Hostel –

Rua de S. Julião 148, 1100-527
Lisboa, Portugal

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