“You’ve never head of Amália Rodrigues?” It was late in the evening, and I was talking to Alvaro, our couchsurfing host in Pontevedra, Spain. In the morning, Linda and I would head to Portugal for our first proper visit, and fado was high on the agenda. I was woefully under-prepared. “You’ve got to listen to this,” Alvaro had been searching Spotify, and he hit play.
It’s tango-like, it’s bluesy, it’s melodic. And over the top is a soulful voice that commands attention. Fado and I hit it off, and I became even more excited about the Food and Fado tour we were booked on in Lisbon.
Arriving in Lisbon
Fast-forward a couple of weeks, and we were dragging our tired arses off a bus from Porto. We wandered, lost, around the nearby underground station until we found our bearings and figured out how the transport system worked. We had no accommodation booked that night, no real agenda: all we knew was that our tour was going to start in two hours, and that it left from Restauradores square. We decided to just catch the metro there and find somewhere to stay. Linda had checked the accommodation search, and there were hostels and pensions nearby.
After a couple of failed enquiries we followed a sign, passed a couple of beer bottles and climbed a narrow staircase with faded walls. It was none-too-attractive until we passed a security door and found ourselves in a tidy little reception area. The owner put me in mind of Basil Fawlty with his too-enthusiastic manner, his clasping hands and a mouth that tended towards John Cleese at the corners. The room was clean and had a view over Rossio square, the price was right, and we had just enough time for a shower before we met our group. Done.
The Lisbon food and fado tour
Our group of 11 was led by Augusto, an energetic young guy from Madeira, and after a quick introduction he was off: talking passionately about the Visigoths, the Romans, the Moors, and every other group that’s left its mark on Portugal’s culture. 30 minutes later he’d already pointed out two of his favourite restaurants, showed us how to check the freshness of fish on display, warned us off the tourist-trap outdoor restaurants, taken us into a semi-hidden local’s bar inside an ex-palace, and introduced us to the story of Amália, fado’s brightest light.
Back on the tour, we found ourselves just across the square from our pension. A Ginjinha was opened by an ex-monk in 1840 and only serves one thing: a sour-cherry liqueur called Ginjinha. Sipping the sweet spirit from a plastic espresso cup, it struck me: this is how to start a tour… with an alcohol volume of 40% or so.
Within another hour we’d seen two city viewpoints, eaten cod cakes, ridden a historic tram past some great street art, downed a local beer while overlooking the river, and heard a few more local legends; then we were hurrying to our final destination: a tiny bar in Bario Alto where fado is the main attraction. There was a queue out the door, and the seats were as crowded as the football scarves layered on the ceiling. There was a table waiting for our group though, and once we’d squeezed ourselves onto the benches, food started to arrive: cheeses, cold-cut meats, bread, sausages (that we’d later set on fire before eating), and a big carafe of house wine.
The bar’s proprietor stepped to the middle of the floor, and an expectant hush fell. A few people were impatiently shushed, and then he began to talk, gathering laughs from those in the crowd who spoke Portuguese. Looking around, I guessed 80% of the crowd was local, which is unusual for a tour destination in a well-touristed part of town. Urban Adventures was delivering on their tagline: Day tours, with a local.
The owner sang first, and the room was silent while he did so. Two musicians were accompanying him: one with a normal guitar, another with the lute-like Portuguese guitar that’s synonymous with fado. He drew to a close after a few sad numbers, and the room exploded with applause, then chatter and the clinking of glasses. Fifteen minutes later, another carafe arrived, another singer took his place, the guitars were tuned, the slow-to-notice were hushed, and the music started again.
None of local performers we heard sounded like Amália Rodrigues, and none of them looked like her either — tending towards moustaches, beer-bellies, and other signs of ageing masculinity — but there really couldn’t have been a better introduction to Lisbon.
IndieRail is brought to you by ACPRail.com, providers of a wide range of rail passes and train tickets including Eurail, BritRail, Rail Australia, Japan Rail and more. Great pricing, friendly service. We’re glad to be working with them. Local day trips are provided by Urban Adventures. We’re sharing stories as they happen thanks to Droam: mobile data without boundaries. Check out our next destination…