The Fisherwoman's Blues...Deep in Lisbon's Alfama
|Appearing tonight...entering through the kitchen...authentic European culture!|
By Rick Steves
Every morning in the Alfama, the ramshackle neighborhood where many apartments still lack bathrooms, old-timers wearing pajamas and flip-flops trod the narrow streets between their flats and the public bath.
Late at night — rather than watch TV — these same old-timers gather at restaurants, which serve little more than grilled sardines, to hear and sing Portugal's fisherman widow blues...fado. While most visitors "experience" fado in big-bus tourist traps, enduring bland food and a greedy welcome, good travelers still shuffle themselves in among real locals enjoying real fado.
That's the kind of place I seek out. At the door, a chalkboard announces "Fado music nightly at 20:00." A has-been bullfighter and a brawny Angolan bounce me in. I grab the last chair in the tiny place — next to two mustachioed mandolin pluckers hunched over their instruments, lost in their music. An old bald singer croons, looking like a turtle without a shell. There's not a complete set of teeth in the house.
A spry grandma does a little jive, balancing a wine bottle on her gray head, then taunts the old bullfighter using a tablecloth for a cape. The kitchen staff — two droopy women, hairnets floppy with grease — peer from a steaming hole in the wall back-lit by their cooking. Black-and-white photos of fado singers from the '50s and murky album jackets decorate the walls. The waiter drops a plate of fish and a pitcher of cheap cask wine on my table and — like a Portuguese Ed Sullivan — proudly introduces the next singer.
She's the star: blood-red lipstick, big hair, a tragic shawl over her black mournful dress — but the plunging neckline promises there's life after death. She strikes a pose before the mandolins. I can smell her breath as she drowns out the sizzle of sardines with her plush voice. Sorrow skids into downbeats, intensity rides a musical rollercoaster. "Why is the sea salty...from the tears of women who await their men...on the sad shores of Portugal." Suddenly it's surround-sound as the diners burst into song, joining the chorus.
Even the Angolan and bullfighting bouncers sing along, with near operatic voices. Looking around the tight and cluttered room, I see that the tourists — the only ones not singing or laughing at the banter — are few. Seduced by the musical camaraderie, I stay until after midnight. After stepping out, I sit on the steps of the church across the square. The little restaurant throbs in the night as the deserted lanes of the Alfama — with so much neighborhood life ground between the cobbles — await old men in pajamas starting another day in Lisbon.