EPIC Group Travel Writers: Finding fado in Lisbon

A musician playing fado music.

The apartment was a short-term rental through VRBO and located on a hill in the Alfama, one of the oldest districts in Lisbon, Portugal. We were on the 3rd (or 4th depending on what country you were in) floor, requiring careful negotiation of a narrow wooden stairway, which seemed endless at the close of a long day. My bedroom included a balcony facing a narrow cobbled street where the old yellow trolley cars clanged up and down. On our first morning, my 4-year-old granddaughter and I happened to catch a random parade with historically dressed soldiers on white horses as it passed by. It was perfect.

Portugal is known for port wine, gorgeous tilework (azulejo), and fado (a Portuguese style of music). Hearing fado was the last item on my “must do” list and the clock was ticking to hear live fado music before flying back home to the States.

One evening, I stopped by a neighborhood restaurant up the hill from our apartment advertising fado in scrolled writing on a small sign in the window. I asked the doorman if I could come in for a glass of wine to listen. He apologetically told me this was only possible if I reserved a table for dinner. Recognizing this was an upscale restaurant, I knew my family and I would not have a relaxed meal with my 4-year-old granddaughter in tow so I did not make a reservation.

When at a flea market on another day, a gregarious woman I met while having coffee told about a fado club a few miles away. But before I went through the process of hailing a taxi, I decided that for my last day in Lisbon I would purposely “dress up” for dinner, although we were only going to the family restaurant downstairs from our apartment.

Donning black pants, white shirt, a pretty new scarf from Tangier, uncomplicated makeup with a dash of mascara, along with a bit of simple jewelry, I managed to spark up my tired-looking traveler appearance. This was my secret tactic to get inside the upscale restaurant before heading to the other fado club via taxi.

After dinner, my family returned upstairs to pack, and I ventured back up the cobblestoned hill.

Walking past the tall restaurant windows, which were covered with white gauze curtains, I approached the same door and same host from a few days prior. Again I inquired, “Would you mind if I purchased a glass of wine or two while listening to your music?” Without hesitation, in his halting English, he politely asked me to wait a moment while he checked with the owner. My strategy worked!

After a short wait, a crisply attired maître d’ ushered me into a long narrow room filled with the ambience of quiet elegance. The dining room glowed with candle-lit tables swathed in white linen with crystal chandeliers hanging in delicate balance above. The maître d’ seated me a couple of tables back from the stage with a perfect view of the musician.

Casually scanning the softly flickering room, I noted only two couples dining separately, and one lone man at a table in the very front of the room. His table held three white candles sitting tall in a large crystal goblet of white sand. It was obviously an extremely slow evening in the maybe 40 capacity restaurant. No wonder they let me in.

A male performer played guitar and sang melancholy songs like “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”, which was definitely not fado. One couple left soon after I arrived and the other couple stayed for a few more songs while entertaining the staff with stories about riding their bicycles from Amsterdam to Portugal.

On my second glass of wine, I soon became the only customer, other than the man up front and an older gentleman who arrived during intermission sitting very still by the front door with a beer in hand. Perhaps he was also a neighborhood interloper who wanted to hear fado without purchasing an expensive dinner?

With no other diners, the young server and I had an enjoyable conversation about life, family, and travels. His English was very good and it was quite sweet to hear him talk about his young family and the life they dreamed of living. There was no fado, but I was relaxed and content.

Curious about the man at the table up front, I observed he was dressed extravagantly and the servers deferred to him by keeping his wine and water glasses full. They were very polite and soft-spoken when around this man; they seemed to almost bow. Candlelight flickered shadows across his rigid profile and even in the dim light I could see he wore a long lapis blue satin jacket, brown leather pants, and handmade yellow-leather-pointed shoes peeking from beneath the tablecloth. My waiter let me know he was the restaurant owner.

The intermission concluded and the guitarist returned to the stage again but this time the quiet older gentleman near the front door slowly stood, placed his beer glass on the chair, and positioned his robust figure in front of the stage facing sideways toward the long, empty region of the room. Wearing a plain zippered jacket over a simple striped shirt, he appeared to be a working man rather than a performer. Clearing his throat and closing his eyes, he began to sing.

Guitar chords thrummed along as his rich baritone voice crooned melodies, which even in my limited experience, I immediately recognized as fado. This was the deeply rooted Portuguese music I was seeking I couldn’t understand a word of the lyrics but there was such fervor in his delivery, I imagined the songs could only be of love and loss. This was the passion of soulful and sultry fado I was seeking.

The performance ended and reluctantly I made my way to the front door stopping next to the owner. I thanked him and then asked if he’d like me to send him photos of the evening and he gladly gave me his card. Voicing my appreciation to the entertainers and servers, I said “Obrigada” (“Thank you” in Portuguese using the female tense) and they applauded me while replying “Obrigado” in the male tense as if pleased that I knew the difference.

Outside in the dark, encased in a foggy drizzle, I gingerly navigated damp uneven cobblestones until finally arriving at our apartment building door. Slipping in the old skeleton key into the ancient iron lock and pushing open the heavy wooden door, without a second thought I bounded up the three flights of stairs using a new-found gait never experienced during the previous days of climbing those wretched steps.

In my experience, music is truly an elixir for the body and soul, and when traveling, hearing local music in foreign countries offers an experience travelers should write on their “must do” list. It’s even worth dressing up a little for the event.

Sample of Portuguese Fado:

— By Vivian C. Murray

As an offshoot of EPIC’s Monday morning writing sessions held at the Edmonds library, the EPIC Group Travel Writers meet at Savvy Traveler once a month. Participants of this fluid group love to travel and write stories about their journeys. You are invited to attend on the second Wednesday of the month from 3:30-5 p.m. Free to members and non-members of EPIC Group Writers. 

  1. Loved hearing your story. Have not been to Portugal but have traveled from South of France to Paris, Budepest and Slovokia and to a lot of Denmark including Rebe (the oldest town in Europe beginning in the 800’s). As a young woman I worked at the American Embassy then in Bonn, Germany traveling to Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria, Italy. Many many memories.

  2. Wow, Jane! You traveled and worked for the American Embassy, too? Have you written down your experiences? Please feel free to join us on the second Wednesday of the month from 3:30-5:00 at The Savvy Traveler in Edmonds if you’d like some support, guidance, and tips for writing your stories down for future generations. And, thank you so much for reading and loving my story! ~Vivian

  3. This is what EPIC Group Writers is all about. People documenting their stories, fiction, non-fiction, travel, and more, while receiving the support tools, and guidance of how to do it along the way. We all have stories to tell whether we travel the world or not.

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