Fado of Coimbra

Before leaving for Portugal I’d read that you can hear Fado on the road. Maybe you have to have some familiarity with the music in order to hear it this way. In Lisbon we sat through an expensive but very enjoyable Fado dinner, and then walked into a couple of Fado performances at bars and restaurants in Alfama and around the Rua da Misericorda. We’d heard of the open air concert in front of Coimbra’s old cathedral in May when the university year ends. We’d missed this. So, as soon as we got connected in Coimbra, I checked out reviews. Fado ao Centro was generally described as touristy but good. We were tourists, so I booked two seats at the regular evening performance.

2016-05-28 19.24.00It definitely was touristy, but in a good sense. A little film before the show started told us about the 19th century origins of Coimbra Fado in the life of students at the university, and a little about the twelve-stringed Portuguese guitar. After this there were songs, usually one vocalist with two guitarists, but some purely instrumental pieces, and a small number of songs with two vocalists. Each song was introduced. We liked the setup, and enjoyed the show. There is an opportunity after the show to have a glass of Port with the performers, talk to them, and buy CDs if you want.

2016-05-28 22.40.06A place which surprised us very pleasantly later the same evening was the cafe Santa Cruz, right next to the Santa Cruz church (photo on top). We walked in for an after-dinner drink, and a portion of the wonderful cake called the cruzeiro. Soon the place started filling up with locals, and soon a Fado concert started. The performance was even more enjoyable for us when we realized that people around us knew the songs. The general feeling of saudade which is supposed to be linked to the songs is what an Indian would think of as the emotional content of Devdas and ghazals. When I said this to The Family she asked me why I was listening to Fado when I don’t listen to Ghazals!

My weak answer to that was that it was because I was a tourist. We did not have time to catch a performance in a highly praised venue called A Capella. Maybe that worked out well, otherwise this argument would have been hard to avoid. There is at least one more bar in Coimbra where there is a Fado performance more or less every night.

Alfama

View of Alfama from near Terreiro de Paco metro stationAlfama is a highly atmospheric part of Lisbon. The city rises very sharply from the Tagus river. Our first view of Alfama came as we strolled along the riverside and reached the Terreiro de Paço metro station. The Family recognized the towers of the cathedral from the pictures she had seen. The building to the right in front turned out to be the Jose Saramago Foundation. If we had more time in Lisbon we would definitely have gone for some of their events.

Graffiti in LisbonWe turned into this district, passed the Jose Saramago Foundation, and climbed up a little. There’s a warren of little streets, passages, and stairs leading up. We quickly lost our way, but decided to keep going upwards. I began to notice the abundance of graffiti. Later we came to love Portuguese graffiti; it will be the subject of a future post. Going up eventually brought us to the cathedral.

As we climbed we stopped to admire some beautiful tiles embedded into buildings.Azulejos  in Alfama We found that Alfama is slowly being renovated. The picturesque crumbling buildings are interspersed with fully renovated buildings like this one. We had begun to notice tiles: azulejos in Portuguese. We would see much more of this soon. It turns out that Alfama is full of restaurants and Fado clubs.

Fado in progress at a bar in AlfamaLater we came back to Alfama for the singular experience of listening to Fado. This musical form apparently has two different styles: the Lisbon style is said to begin with sailors, but now it is common for women to sing Fado of Lisbon. We heard a beautiful performance of this style in Alfama (photo here). Later we would encounter the Coimbra style too.

We explored other parts of the city in the evenings, but Alfama was always the most predictably interesting. If you don’t know the secret ways of Lisbon just follow us and gravitate towards Alfama.

First impressions of Lisbon

Wall near Baiza-Chiado metro station in LisbonThere wasn’t much time to prepare for the trip to Portugal. I read during my layover in Munich. The historical entry point to Lisbon was the Praça do Comércio. We arrived on a brilliant Sunday afternoon and decided to go off to this square after a quick shower at the hotel. The Metro in Lisbon covers downtown pretty well. We got off at the station called Baixa-Chiado and walked.

Cfe near Cais de Sodre in LisbonPast Praça Luis de Camoes we turned into the steep Rua Alecim, and walked down its length. The interesting building whose photo you can see above is just opposite a cafe. We were a little tired, and thought that some caffeine would do us good. The cafe was such a beautiful hodge-podge of couches, tables, and odd decorations that it could well have featured in a movie (see photo alongside).

Approaching Placa de Commerce in LisbonWe walked out fortified, and found ourselves in Cais do Sodré after a short walk. This was interesting, but not where we wanted to go. So we backtracked, and found ourselves walking along Rua do Arsenal. The evening sunlight made even blank walls look beautiful. The long street eventually brought us to the Praça do Comércio.

Placa de Comerce in LisbonThere was a violent pillow-fight going on in front of the statue of King José crushing stone snakes. We sneaked past the skirmish and crossed the road to the Tagus river. The crowd here was a mixture of locals and tourists.

Washing in Alfama in LisbonAfter a brief halt at the river-front, and admiring the far-away Bridge of 8 May (named after the day of the revolt against the dictator Salazar), we walked to Terreiro do Paço. A little further on we could see the old cathedral, so we moved in towards the district of Alfama. We passed the Jose Saramago Foundation, and climbed up along a series of very picturesque streets. There was washing hanging from windows every now and then.

Lisbon's cathedralWe climbed up a steep road and found ourselves right outside the Igreja Santo Antonio de Lisboa. We stopped for a quick look at the church, and then went on to the cathedral a few steps away. A picturesque tram thundered past us. We could walk past the church on a downward sloping road to reach the local Fado bars. We were too tired for this, so we took the other road at the fork. A few steps up and we saw a nice fish restaurant: one could see that it was nice by the number of people inside. We joined them and ended the first of our epic walks across the town.

Getting started on getting ready for Portugal

The easy part is over: we have tickets and hotel bookings for Portugal. The next step is harder: getting to know the little bit about a new country which makes your stay more interesting. There are many different directions to explore.

The sounds of a country are often hard to anticipate. I’d heard very little Portuguese a week ago, it has more or less disappeared from Goa. A few words: velha and novo, saudade and igreja are all that remain. Now, listening to Fado on youtube, my exposure to the language has exploded. Just shows how little I started with. The written language is a different ball game. If you have bluffed your way through a couple of Romance languages, then surely you can navigate written Portuguese.

The Family and I sat down and researched writers. Fernando Pessoa and Jose Saramago are names we already know and have some familiarity with. Brief searches quickly threw up many more names. But surprisingly, it was difficult to find books in English translation. On second thoughts, if translations had been available then we would have known more authors. I guess this is a part of what one of the articles calls "cultural marginalization".

Films? During the years when I was immersed in world cinema, Portugal had just emerged from the worst period of its recent history. Its cinema was not available in India. This lack of familiarity meant that Portugal was overlooked in most video libraries in the decade after that. If Portugal had a consulate in Mumbai perhaps one would have been more exposed to its culture. But the Portuguese consulate is in Goa, and it hosts no events in my city. So my exploration of Portuguese cinema has to start from zero. Given the number of major awards Portuguese film makers are winning today, this is bound to be a pleasure.

Maybe I have some familiarity, at second-hand, with the food of Portugal. Goa has sorpotel, just the right accompaniment for long relaxed evenings with a drink on the beach. The word xacuti sounds Portuguese to my untrained ear, but it could well be a local Goan dish. Vindaloo is definitely practised very differently in Goa and in England, so I wouldn’t be very surprised if a Portuguese version turns out to be different. I’m prepared to be completely surprised by the food in Portugal: I expect lots of fish.

But the real fun is to look for sources on travel to Portugal. One part of this is to choose a guide book. The first search on Amazon threw up half a dozen books. The Michelin Green guide is not my plate of cod. I’ve had a wonderful time walking around Rome with the Blue guide, and would not mind doing the same in Lisbon, except that it is currently unavailable. That left me with the usual suspects: the Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, AA and DK. After some thumbing through the books in the usual downtown bookstore I settled for the Rough Guide.

The other part of the fun is to browse blogs. A comment on my previous post led me to the very new Kat’s travel blog, and on. A great find was the addictive Salt of Portugal; I’m still dipping into it for tips on what to do. A food blog called (as nearly as I can make out) The Algarve Kitchen caught my attention with an explanation of the phrase "Cha com agua salgada". I’m sure there’s much more out there, just waiting to be read.

In this slow way I’ve just begun to figure out how to collect the material I need to go through in order to become an instant expert on Portugal.

The discovery of Portugal

PortugalMapI asked "Portugal?" She said "Yes." That’s how we decided to spend about 10 days in the country which Goa has a lingering relationship with. Portugal has an embassy in Delhi certainly, but its only other representation in India is a consulate in Goa. As a result, if you apply for a visa to Portugal from Mumbai, then your application is processed in Goa. As we discussed this, I checked up on my faint memory that Portugal’s current prime minister has a tenuous connection to Goa through his father. These relationships are only in the mind, as I found when looking for flights. There is no direct flight between Mumbai, Delhi or Goa and Lisbon.

There is so little I know of modern Portugal: only a handful of people, and a wonderful film on the Portuguese musical form called Fado. Even there, the movie was made by Carlos Saura, a Spaniard. I browsed a list of Portuguese film makers, and realized that I haven’t seen modern Portuguese movies. I score slightly better with Portuguese novelists. I recalled that a google search for the name of the bridge which joins Panaji and Vasco in Goa led me to a stunning photo of the Vasco da Gama bridge in Lisbon. We are looking forward to Portugal: it will be a journey of discovery.

We blocked out our basic travel plans. Although the country is not large, we have too little time to cover it thoroughly. We decided to skip the south entirely. The main stops then will be Lisbon, Coimbra in the center, and Porto in the north. Coimbra seems to be the historical center. Porto is the gateway to history: with access to paleolithic art, and Celtic and Roman remains. Lisbon also looks like a lovely town, as does Sintra nearby. Now the work begins: there is a lot of reading, viewing and listening to be done.