I arrived at Lisbon on a cold January morning. I had spent two days in Setubal, a small town outside the city, where I lost my engaged travel companion to some Portuguese guy and ended up homeless in the middle of a night. With no prospective place to stay I finally found a friend of a friend’s friend, who kindly agreed to let me crush at his place. After a sleepless night spent lying in a cold room covered with my coat (still drenched from the evening rain) the fever I brought with me to Portugal got even worse. As I woke up in the morning (or more accurately, when I WAS woken up by inhospitable housemates of my saviour, who were keen on expressing their dissatisfaction with a stranger staying in their house), I was shivering with cold and felt like crying. I left the house as soon as possible and with my broken Portuguese tried to ask for directions to the bus stop. I thanked God for a middle-aged woman who kindly walked me to the bus departing for Lisbon. Things have to get better from here I thought with relief as I watched the changing landscape.
I arrived at Lisbon an hour later and quickly found the hotel I had booked on my way there. I walked into my I room and took the longest shower in my life. Being ill, sleep deprived, cold and disappointed with my friend abandoning me and betraying her fiancé’s trust, I really needed to warm up and feel like a person again. I decided I won’t let one disastrous night spoil my weekend and I ventured out to make the most of my remaining holiday.
I walked down the busy streets, passing grey houses that reminded me of communist Poland rather than magic of one of the oldest cities in Europe. I was ready to accept defeat and admit that perhaps this weekend was a mistake when suddenly I came across a sight that really stirred something inside me.
At an otherwise ordinary street of Avenida Fontes Pereira I found myself staring at beautiful graffiti on a corner building. Os Gemeos and Blu, popular street artists, transformed its old walls into a protest against economic inequality and global reign of the rich consortiums. The art piece presented a masked boy using a man as a slingshot against a corporate king sucking the juices out of the world. Maybe Lisbon was going to pleasantly surprise me after all I thought heading towards the old town.
As my feet were slipping on the steep streets leading to the castle of São Jorge towering above the city, I noticed my solitude. The Lisbonites hid from the cold of this January afternoon inside their tile-covered homes and except for me and a few shady looking men the streets were empty. I suddenly remembered that Alfama, the hub of Portuguese artists, was also a district famous for robberies. In broad daylight tourists would be attacked and left one camera and a wallet lighter.
The rain was getting worse and with the approaching twilight the cold became unbearable. When the water started to sip through my coat into the clothes underneath I knew I needed to find somewhere to hide from the downpour. My desperation was quickly replaced with gratitude the second I saw a cosy café just few meters away. I run towards its warmth and safety.
Stepping into Marcelino Pao & Vinho was like the fall through a rabbit hole. With Alice’s curiosity I was staring into faces looking at me from the photographs covering the walls of this charming cafe. Enchanted by the hand-made decorations proudly residing in the old wooden commodes, I walked around this tiny place. A few hesitant notes reached my ear. I looked around and noticed that in the corner of this empty cafe was an older man holding a guitar. He looked at me, smiled and started playing. I sat there hypnotised, listening to a soft melody that added to the comfort of this place.
After this little performance, I decided my body deserved a hot drink. The moment I approached the seemingly empty counter, a man suddenly materialized behind it. In exchange for my order he told me the story of this place. Bored with the career of a commercial photographer he used to lead in London, Marcelino moved to Lisbon with the intention of opening a place where his artist friends could meet over coffee. Together with his girlfriend they succeeded in creating a second home for their bohemian neighbours and curious travellers. The place’s name was inspired by a movie from the 50s and perfectly captures the simplicity of the concept behind it – Marcelino (and his world), bread and wine. That’s enough to create a unique space where you feel at home within seconds.
As Marcelino was finishing his story, one of his friends walked through the door. This middle-aged man with long wavy hair tided into a shabby pony-tail proceeded straight towards the guitarist. After a quick affable welcome, the new guy looked at me and with a big smile on his face asked me if I’ve heard fado. Seeing the confused look on my face, he gave a meaningful nod to his friend, put his heavy arm around him and let his strong, husky voice accompany the melody proposed by the instrument. That’s how my first fado concert began.
When their mournful song finished, both musicians turned towards me, and started filling gaps in my musical education. They explained how fado, one of Portugal’s most unique folk music genres, originated in the 19th century in the poorest bairros (districts) of Lisbon. Alfama, considered to be the capital’s oldest quarter, is also believed to be the birthplace of the first fado songs.
Having sang a few more classics, Jose, the long-haired retired rockman, gently grabbed my elbow and said come, I will take you to a REAL fado concert. A second later I was following my new energetic friend through the narrow, tortuous streets, noticing how the night brings Alfama to life. After few minutes of climbing the hilly paths, we stopped outside an inconspicuously looking restaurant, squeezed in between a row of houses with walls decorated in the traditional geometric designs.
As I stepped into a dimly lit interior of Tasca Do Jaime, I was enchanted with a captivating, melancholic voice of a petit woman in her sixties. I didn’t need to know Portuguese to understand that the fadista standing on a tiny stage arranged between wobbly, wooden tables filled with listeners of all ages, was mourning her long-lost love. That was precisely the essence of fado – a harmonious catharsis. This music was a way of expressing the longing after lovers whose lives were taken by the sea, homes and families abandoned because of economic or political circumstances. In Portuguese, fado translates into fate, and saudade, i.e. longing, suffering, is an indispensable part of destiny.
After a short break for some bacalhau, a delicious deep fried cod croquets, and a glass of sweet and strong porto (all courtesy of Jose and Jaime), a young girl entered the stage. The innocence of her teenage face and rosy cheeks did not prepare me for the deep, mature voice full of sorrow that escaped from her childish lips. As she stood there with her eyes closed and hands pressed against her heart, singing about pain, something inside me started to break. Her song was reaching that part of the soul that tends to stay cast in shadow, and its melody was releasing all the pain and disappointment hiding in its darkness.
Few hours later, as I was walking back to the hotel, my eyes were still hiding tears brought by the performance, its raw beauty and unpretentious truth. The empty streets of Lisbon on a Sunday night no longer scared me. After all the kindness I experienced that evening from strangers I knew Alfama embraced me as one of her own. My steps were guarded by her aged houses and accompanied by the salty scent of the sea calmly swaying at the feet of Lisbon’s hills. As I was passing the numerous pastelarias still displaying their sweet bakes, I was remembering all the stories that Jose told me about the troublesome past of his and the country’s youth. Thinking about the artists of Alfama, I could hear the rhythmic beat of the district’s bohemian heart from under my feet.
As the queen of fado, Amalia Rodrigues, beautifully explained, fado came from the sea, the vast sea in front of us. Fado came from the lament for our sailors who departed and never returned. As my plane was leaving the runway, my heart filled with an incurable longing after this poetic city filled with nostalgia and kindness. Fado was no longer just a music genre, nor merely a symbol of Portuguese nationality. It became a testimony of human love and history, a language understood by anyone whose life was ever tinted by the colours of sorrow. Fado, just like that weekend, taught me that you can always turn pain and disappointment into something beautiful.