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Special Europe Issue

Celebrating Lisbon's Sweet, Sad Soul

Passion flowers in the form of fado singing in a city of port wine and grand views.

April 28, 2002|JERRY V. HAINES

LISBON — These notes are being written between sets in a fado club in Bairro Alto. Fado, part aria, part torch song, is impassioned music. I don't speak Portuguese, so I cannot tell you exactly the subject of the songs tonight at Adega do Ribatejo, but it must be something significant because no one could sing so passionately about inconsequential matters.

The host this evening, dressed in a conservative business suit and looking like your Uncle Steve the plumbing supplies salesman, greets the audience, then tilts back his head and becomes a Portuguese Pavarotti. When he is finished, the cook takes off her apron, wipes her hands, takes center stage and begins singing.

Fado is performed in a big, open-throated way that frees the singer's soul. Like Lisbon, it surprises in richness and intensity.

Lisbon's history tugs at the heart like the song of a lover, alternately thrilling and full of despair. Portugal, a country about the size of Michigan, shares the Iberian Peninsula with Spain, although at times it has been like sharing a bus seat with a sumo wrestler. That may be why, 500 years ago, the country turned its attention toward the Atlantic, which laps at its western coast.

Despite its diminutive size, Portugal defied the maelstroms and monsters of the nautical charts and laid claim to far-flung lands and riches in Africa (Angola and Mozambique), Asia (the East Indies and Macau) and America (Brazil).

Many of the country's voyages of exploration originated in Lisbon (if you picture the map of Portugal as an aristocratic head in left-facing profile, Lisbon is on the nose, about a third of the way up the face) and began with a sail down the Tagus River.

Portugal grew wealthy but was confronted with the demands of administering a colonial empire, the changing whims of royalty and the variable political winds of Europe--and some plain bad luck.

On Nov. 1, 1755, the city was shaken by an earthquake that wrecked most of its public buildings and churches and killed 60,000 people. Brazil gained independence in 1822. Portugal lost its remaining colonies in the late 20th century and suffered a military coup in 1974.

Recently, however, the country's prospects have brightened. It was admitted to the European Union in 1986, and it helped launch the euro. Its economy is improving. Its 4% unemployment rate is one of the lowest in Europe, and tourism is growing.

My wife, Janice, and I briefly visited Lisbon a year ago and agreed that this capital city of a half-million deserved more time, so we returned for a week with our son Paul this year.

Enjoying the city involved climbing a lot of hills. In such situations elsewhere, I've asked, tongue in cheek, where the elevator is. But in Lisbon there really is one. In fact, there are four.

Our hotel was Residencial Insulana, a cozy place that occupies three of the upper floors of a commercial building in the Baixa retail district. When we wanted to move from the Baixa to the alleys and night life of the Bairro Alto neighborhood 100 feet above, we took one of those four elevadors.

The Baixa district is at river level, but it is bracketed by hills on the east and west. Eastward across the Baixa, looking back at Santa Justa from the top of Sao Jorge Hill, is the Castelo, a 9th century Moorish fortress. It shares its hill with Lisbon's Se cathedral and the alleyways of the ancient Alfama neighborhood. Behind us to the west and south were Bairro Alto and Chiado, also hilltop neighborhoods, not as old as the Alfama but rich in small bookstores, inexpensive restaurants and galleries.

We began at the 12th century Se, just slightly uphill from the Baixa on Rua da Conceicao. Lisbon's cathedral (technically, the Cathedral of Santa Maria) is impressively cavernous, but its most interesting attractions are its treasury and cloisters. The treasury holds a gold and ruby monstrance from 1748, decorated with more than 4,000 stones. During our visit, the cloisters of the Se appeared to be undergoing major repair and archeological research, with displaced statuary and architectural ornaments stashed wherever they might fit around the edges of a huge excavation.

Next stop on the onward and upward tour was the Miradouro de Santa Luzia. Lisbon has several miradouros, or plazas positioned to afford striking views. From Santa Luzia's, we got a CinemaScope vista of the Tagus and incoming maritime traffic and of the tiled rooftops of the Alfama. And we could rest.

Then up to the Museum of Decorative Arts, a 17th century mansion that displays the 17th and 18th century furniture and tableware typical of aristocratic households. Although the location is not designated a miradouro, the views from the museum grounds also are grand. And we could rest.

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