Lisbon day 3

Thursday 4 July

It was shaping up to be a scorcher in Lisbon, with the temperature set to peak at 41°C. After the disappointments of the day before, we were determined to tackle three different attractions. The first was the exhibition of art by Joana Vasconcelos at the Palácio National da Ajuda; the second was the Monasterio de Jerónimos de Belém, and the third was the “blues” of the Alfama—Fado.

As we were leaving the Alfama, we noticed that the local Fado joint recommended by our host was open, so we made a booking. It was called A Baiuca. The proprietor seemed at pains to reassure us that we would not be hearing professional Fado singers. We were looking forward to hearing the local talent, however: we were, after all, in the neighbourhood where Fado was born. We were advised to turn up early to secure a good position, but it was hard to see what would not be a good position, as the restaurant was barely big enough to swing a cat in.

We walked to the Praça do Commercio and retraced yesterday’s journey to the Palácio Nacional. This was the main residence of the Portuguese Royal family during the 19th Century, and it can be viewed via a self-guided tour. It also doubles as an exhibition space, and while we were in Lisbon it was hosting an exhibition of art by a Portuguese artist called Joana Vasconcelos. (I need at this stage to issue a spoiler alert: if you intend to view this exhibition, it is better not to know in advance what you are in for, as the surprises are part of the fun.)

The art works varied in the degree to which they filled each of the rooms. Sometimes they filled a room completely. This occurred early during the tour when we walked into a room that had been plunged into darkness, and we had to find our way through a “garden” of artificial flowers, each of which shed a feint coloured light and rustling noise.

For most of the tour, the art works consisted of a small, complementary addition to the outrageous décor. The further we progressed though the palace, however, the more ironic and audacious the artworks became. They culminated in several pieces that both took our breath away and made us laugh aloud. One was splendid chandelier that took up most of the vast room in which it was exhibited. On close inspection, it became apparent that it was constructed entirely of tampons.

The pièce de résistance was located in the throne room of the palace, and it consisted of a pair of vast, high-heeled shoes that were constructed entirely of cooking pots and lids that were identical in their design but variable in size. They complemented the outrageous pomp of the royal décor, but they also upstaged the thrones entirely. The ballroom contained—of all things—a helicopter adorned with pink flamingo feathers. You can view some of the images online here: Unfortunately, the photographs do not quite capture the brilliance of using a 19th Century palace as a setting for postmodern feminist artistic irony. If you can catch this exhibition, it makes for riotous viewing.

As we emerged from the palácio, the heat of the Lisbon summer day was peaking so we caught the bus back down the hill to the Monasterio de Jerónimos de Belém. We had to queue a long time for tickets as there was only one person at the ticket desk. This seemed odd given the popularity of this attraction. It was worth the wait, however. We have seen a lot of religious architecture during our travels across Spain and Portugal, but this monastery was built in a style that was new to us. The Manueline style is no doubt unusual because a great deal of it was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1755. It is characterised by extensive use of natural forms such as vines and leaves and shells, as well as classical motifs.

The monastery contained a number of interesting exhibitions in addition to the intricate, nature-inspired architecture itself. One was a historical timeline that combined the history of the monastery with the history of Portugal and events in world history. Another was an exhibition concerning the Portuguese historian and novelist, Alexandre Herculano, whose remains are interred in the monastery. I was amazed that a historian and public intellectual is so obviously revered in Portugal. Reverence for historians is barely imaginable in Australia.

Before we left the monastery we sat in the adjoining church for a while, mainly because it was a beautiful retreat from the heat outside. When we had gathered our strength again, we caught the No. 15 tram back to the Praça do Commercio and sought out some lunch in the Alfama. Unfortunately, two of the restaurants recommended by our host were closed, so we found a small, cool café in a back street where I ordered fava beans with meat & chorizo, and Susie ordered a ham omelette. Afterwards we retreated to our apartment and took a siesta with wet towels wrapped around our heads and an electric fan trained on us.

When it grew close to 8 p.m., we made our way to the Fado joint. As the proprietor showed us to our table, I did a “double-take”: at a table sitting near us were two of my colleagues from the University of Sydney, Hans Pols and Warwick Anderson. Stranger co-incidences have no doubt happened, but of all the music venues on the other side of the world, and of all the possible nights that we might have chosen, our travels had coincided in this one tiny restaurant in the Alfama. It was not possible to chat, as you are expected to listen to Fado attentively, and the musicians and M.C. will go silent and glare at you if you do not observe this convention. (There was a table of Americans sitting near us who were apparently a bit slow to appreciate this until they bought the music to a standstill and found everyone glaring at them.)

Food and wine is an integral part of the experience, however, and the waitress was keen to make sure we had plenty of both. Susan ordered seafood rice and I had bacalau—the traditional salted cod. Susie had a cold, white port as an aperitif, and as the evening wore on, we washed down the enormous portions of food with beer and a bottle of vinho verde. It turned out to be quite an expensive night out, but this was understandable given the size of the restaurant and the tendency for diners to occupy their slither of real estate for the entire evening.

Throughout the evening the musical accompaniment was provided by two guitarists: one played a conventional classical (Spanish) guitar and the other played a Portuguese guitar, which is strung with six courses of steel strings. The musician with the classical guitar laid down the basic chords over a walking bass line which was picked out by the right thumb, much like the folk guitar technique popularised by Pete Seeger in the 1960s. The musician with the Portuguese guitar used finger picks, as are used in some other styles of American folk music, and added musical embellishments that added a layer of bright, shimmering, harmonic complexity to the accompaniment. There was clearly an established repertoire of songs which each musician knew by heart, and could play in any key to suit a singer.

Fado performance, Alfama

The singers changed regularly. The M.C. (who was also the proprietor) kicked off the programme, and throughout the evening we heard from a range of other local talent, both men and women, of various ages, whose singing styles varied widely. The singing was sometimes a bit “rough” in the sense that the singers were not formally trained and the notes were sometimes imperfectly pitched. But it would make no more sense to be troubled by this than to be troubled by the roughness that characterises the blues or any other folk tradition for that matter.

The songs themselves were beautifully crafted, and many people in the audience—which included locals as well as tourists—evidently knew them and loved them. What characterised all of the singing was the enormous conviction in the delivery, and the intimacy between singer and audience. This form of music had evidently grown up in a neighbourhood where people had to make their own entertainment. The Alfama is, above all, a working class district, and the contrast between what we were hearing this evening and what we were saw in the morning—that is, displays of obscene wealth of the aristocracy and the Catholic church—could not have been more striking. The Fado was not confected for tourists: this was the real deal.

One of the most striking moments of the evening occurred when, all of sudden, a chorus of voices arose behind us as the waitress, the maître d’ and one of the cooks added their voices to a song. Then, as if they were bringing out a special guest star, the M.C. summoned the other cook from the kitchen and, dressed in her hair net and her white apron, she belted out a song in a stunning voice with a young child standing on a stool next to her, who pitched in on the choruses. We were witnessing the how Fado is passed on—not through formal training, but through an apprenticeship of listening and participation.

The cook evidently commanded considerable respect as a performer, and she responded to requests to sing anther song, and then another. As the evening drew to a close, the entire staff had enchanted the audience with a medley of up-beat songs that made it impossible not to clap, stamp your feet, laugh and soak up the fantastic atmosphere and camaraderie.

This evening was definitely one of the highlights of our trip, and it lifted part of our spirit that had been somewhat trampled by illness and fatigue. Fado is often associated with laments and torch-songs. The Alfama also offers up-beat ballads that will make you fall in love with life all over again, no matter how dismal you feel.

Can you possibly ask for more?

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