Between the red-hot food scene, vibrant city squares, stunning oceanfront vistas, the effortless cool Bohemian Chiado district by day, and the thriving cocktail scene of the Bairro Alto district by night, Lisbon is understandably on the top of everyone’s travel list these days.
The city of Lisbon offers unique experiences through its renowned port wine, grand monuments that testify to its near millenia of oceangoing history, and its proximity to quick daytrips to the fairytale castles of Sintra and the wine of the scenic Douro Valley, all of which make Portugal a must-see destination. But nothing tells the story of Lisbon so richly as its artistry of tilework (azulejos) and its fado music. You can see and hear the history of the city sublimely through these unique cultural traditions that encapsulate the very essence of the Portuguese people.
Lisbon paints its history on tiles everywhere — from train stations and palaces to monasteries, shops, restaurants, street signs, and frequently inside and out of private houses. The tile artistry was introduced to Portugal by King Manuel I after seeing Moorish tilework at the Alhambra palace in Seville, Spain, in the early 16th century. King Manuel decorated his venerable palace in Sintra with magnificent geometric patterned tiles of the Arabic style, as according to Islamic law, the depiction of men and gods is prohibited.
As the artform progressed, the Portuguese made azulejos their own and began to add human and animal figures to depict quaint landscapes, scenes from the Bible, battles, and their own history. Another period of Portuguese history is reflected in their tilework, as ornate pieces in blue and white were painted in the style of porcelain coming from the Ming dynasty of China.
In many of the landmarks of Lisbon, azulejos tell their story vividly, such as on the cloisters of the Church of São Vicente de Fora, where even those who cannot read can see the tiles depicting the history of the church. The Fronteira Palace is adorned with epic battle scenes. Travellers welcome delays at Porto’s São Bento train station so they can linger and enjoy the 20,000 tiles that illustrate significant events such as the battle of Valdez, the arrival of King John I to Porto, and the conquest of Ceuta.
The tilework that adorns the houses, restaurants, and shops of Lisbon adds a depth of texture, colour and history to the city. Even the pattern of the tiles beneath your feet will tell you exactly where in town you are, and gift shops sell them as authentic souvenirs.
The Portuguese term, saudade, refers to the vague yet intense longing for something or somewhere missing. This sorrow is almost palpable in every fado song which has formed the aural soul of Lisbon since the 1830s.
Most of the ballads describe the harsh realities of daily life, with fadistas bemoaning their tormented existence while hoping for the future. Historically, you could find fado music wherever you could find sailors, and other downtrodden, marginalised populations.
Fado ensembles today play in restaurants and cafes with a variety of instruments, including a Portuguese guitar with 12 steel strings. The famed Clube de Fado in the Alfama neighbourhood is the quintessential spot for enjoying fado over a traditional Portuguese meal.
There are two forms of fado, the classical style performed in Coimbra and the popular style performed in Lisbon and the rest of Portugal, such as at places like the Clube de Fado. The Lisbon style was revived in the 19th century and brought to the rest of the world by the Rainha do Fado (Queen of Fado) Amália Rodrigues, who during her 50-year career sold over 30 million records worldwide.
The historical Coimbra performances, closely linked to the university, consist of an all-male ensemble dressed in academic capes and tights and are sung in the darkness of city squares or as a serenade to court a lady. It is customary to show your appreciation for this style not by clapping but by clearing your throat.
But after visiting Lisbon and being surrounded by the intricate tiles and hearing the sombre lilt of the fado, you’ll be left with this sensation of saudade, for all of its charms, until you visit again.
English Text by Laine McDonnell