Of course, Alfama was not nearly as busy and crowded as any Indian locality, but the clothes hanging to dry outside people’s front doors, the small square windows looking into quaint home kitchens, and the camaraderie between its residents caught my attention, reminding me of neighbourhoods in India.Travelogue by Cheragh Tankaria
I recently returned from a week in Lisbon. The holiday was a thoughtful birthday gift from a friend, as I have always had an unusual passion and interest for all things Luso. As young children, my parents took my sister and I on our first holiday to the Algarve. Then, in my late teens, I developed a taste for Brazilian electronic music, a deep enthusiasm for such artists as Suba, Cibelle, Fernanda Porto, and Céu, then branching out to baile funk music and Angolan kuduro, the latter genres being introduced to the international mainstream by Diplo and M.I.A. I loved Maria Rita, Bebel Gilberto, and Mylene Pires, and owned all the latest bossa nova compilations of both João and Astrud Gilberto, and Stan Getz. I discovered the intense beauty of Portuguese fado. It was from a desperate desire to understand Cibelle’s poetry and identify with Amália Rodrigues’ longing that I sought out a Portuguese language teacher in Neasden
My friend and I debated for a while over which part of Lisbon we should stay in, and upon learning of its status as the birthplace of fado, we opted for history and culture over nightlife, and booked a bijou apartment in Alfama. The eccentric owner of the flat, Maria, met us outside Santa Apolónia railway station on the Tuesday evening that we landed. She proceeded to guide us down Rua Jardim do Tobaco, and relayed amusing anecdotes about previous guests, the neighbourhood, and her colourful personal life, with gusto and an air of effervescence. As we followed her across the road opposite the Museu do Fado, we passed through a small public square to enter Alfama’s archetypal labyrinth of steep and narrow, winding streets. By the time we had ascended the first couple of cobblestone inclines, Maria was already out of breath, her gravelly voice wheezing and panting between sentences. A few more turns and steps later, we stopped outside a tall terraced house. Maria reached her hand through an open panel in the door to release the lock, assuring us that that was the only way to enter the building. A rather steep and narrow wooden staircase led to our room on the top floor, and it took another good fifteen to twenty minutes of Maria nattering away before we were finally left alone.
It was, by then, past 10 o’clock in the evening, and we needed to find something to eat. So we set off into the streets of our new neighbourhood and settled for an al fresco dinner at the first open restaurant that we came across, situated on a cobblestone side street. A fado performance went on in a small square behind us as we picked on pastéis de bacalhau and olives, awaiting our meals. We had ordered a jug of wine and, when our food finally arrived, my friend began to wax lyrical about his grilled sardines and boiled potatoes. I had initially found my own dish of bacalhau à bras to be quite bland, almost like a fish khichri of sorts. It was made up of shredded salted codfish cooked with sliced onions and strips of fried potato. But I soon began to appreciate the subtle flavours and textures, almost as much as conversing with the Nepalese waiters, speaking in both Hindi and broken Nepali.
The next morning was unbearably hot. During our stay the temperature refused to dip below 28°C. I had forgotten to pack my Kolhapuri slippers, and did not bring any summer clothing. Desperate to get some airflow going, I was suddenly captivated by the East-facing window. The view was postcard-like. The terracotta tiles of Alfama’s rooftops blazed red before me, only to be offset by the brilliant white of the buildings they enveloped. To the left stood the serene Igreja de Santo Estêvão, and ahead a vast stretch of blue sea, as though facing the edge of the earth, was the celebrated Tagus River.
I stood there for a moment, the sun’s rays hitting my chest, breathing in Lisbon’s sweet air, taking in the beauty. After we showered and got dressed, we set off for a nearby pastry shop that Maria had recommended in order to sample the famous Portuguese pastéis de nata for breakfast. Something about the narrow streets and the heat of the day reminded me of India, of Old Delhi, and my walks around Jamnagar (Gujarat) during the afternoon siesta. Of course, Alfama was not nearly as busy and crowded as any Indian locality, but the clothes hanging to dry outside people’s front doors, the small square windows looking into quaint home kitchens, and the camaraderie between its residents caught my attention, reminding me of neighbourhoods in India.
Many of the houses and buildings throughout the city were tiled with striking ceramic tile work known as Azulejos, an influence bestowed by the earlier Muslim inhabitants of Iberia. This too corresponded to what I had seen in Northern India, similar geometric shapes and floral motives adorning the grand buildings of the Mughal elite and the old towns. The many churches too were, quite naturally, of a similar design to the churches I saw in Diu, a former Portuguese colony until 1961, just south of the Saurashtra region of Gujarat. In fact, the Igreja de Santo António de Lisboa, which stood close to the bottom of our street in Alfama, made me think back to my visit to the Church of St. Paul in Diu.
Then, a tall and graceful woman in a coral strapless silk dress and a black lace stole joined the guitarists. She was incredibly beautiful and refined in appearance, with her dark hair tied into a neat bun, with a precise flick of eyeliner framing her sparkling green eyes, and alluring scarlet lips that seemed to be set in a placid smile.
For many nights, we longed to observe a live fado performance. Earlier in the week, my friend and I decided to have dinner at the Museo do Fado restaurant, opting for an exterior table after being encouraged by the balmy weather and the throng of patrons enjoying drinks and conversation outside the restaurant. It was only after the chatty and beautiful waitress brought us a basket of bread accompanied by garlic butter, olive tapenade, creamy farmer’s goat cheese with home-made fig conserve and an octopus relish that we noticed others taking their seats inside the building in anticipation of the performances. We made up for our dismay with some bar-hopping across Bairro Alto later that night, and ended up at a live jazz bar where I had my first taste of luscious ginjinha, a portuguese liqueur made by infusing ninja berries.
One night, after visiting the Sé Cathedral, sauntering around the vicinity of the striking lemon and white Praça do Comércio and eating pizza—a change from seafood—we sat down at a fado restaurant for dessert and ginjinha just in time for their late night performances. We had stopped here earlier to hydrate ourselves with lime juice and chatted with one of the waitresses. She had enquired if we liked music and that we should come and watch her and her husband, both singers, perform that evening. The maître d’, a pushy mature lady with a honey-blonde beehive, brought over my chocolate mousse and a tiny glass of ginjinha just as the first performance commenced. A trio of men tuned their elegant and striking Portuguese guitars, like noblemen training oriental-crested pheasants, and introduced the performance with a couple of songs. Then, a tall and graceful woman in a coral strapless silk dress and a black lace stole joined the guitarists. She was incredibly beautiful and refined in appearance, with her dark hair tied into a neat bun, with a precise flick of eyeliner framing her sparkling green eyes, and alluring scarlet lips that seemed to be set in a placid smile.
I took a spoonful of the chocolate mousse and sipped on the ginjinha. The rich, dense mousse coated my mouth in a blanket of bittersweet bliss, followed by the intense sour cherry liqueur: deep and luxurious, syrupy, burning my throat and chest. The fadista began to sing. Her voice was crystal clear and slightly high pitched. She moved and sang perfectly, her actions and eyes matching the mood of the song; one slightly jovial, the next more melancholy. The restaurant was lit with candles, and a warm pink glow had settled on everything: the strapping guitarists, the doll-like singer, the glasses of alcohol, and the mesmerised faces of the seated diners. It may have been the ginjinha, but I was starting to feel very warm. The performance ended to wild applause, and I went to pay our bill.
Behind the bar, washing dishes in the kitchen, I spotted the waitress from earlier. She caught my eye and I managed to wave to her. I told her that we had been waiting to hear her sing and we had come especially for that reason at her earlier request. She appeared hesitant for a moment. Then she lifted her index finger and came to the bar. “Let me speak to my boss,” said. I ordered another round of ginjinha and returned to my table. The guitarists looked as though they were ready to head home, and I could see the waitress almost pleading with the maître d’. Finally, the men returned to their places and began to play as one of the them sang to warm up. The waitress entered the performance space and began whispering with the guitarists nervously. With a song decided upon, the soul-stirring strumming commenced.
Out of nowhere, a powerful and slightly husky voice boomed across the room. As she found her feet, the waitress’ voice oozed from the depths of her very core and outwards through her mouth. The honeyed words trickled like heavy but reluctant tears onto the audience, the words of sadness and longing, of love lost and better days. She looked as though she was breaking down, the microphone bearing her frustration, her feet stamping on the tiled floor. And then, once the performance was over, the agony on her face disappeared, and the awkwardness and nerves returned in contemplation of the next song.
That night, I was blown away. The two performers had such different styles and personalities. Where the first singer stood with poise and cool confidence, her vocals precise with a restrained playfulness, the waitress displayed humility and a sweet charm—desperation to some minute extent—whilst her singing alluded to personal loss and suffering. It was like watching a film—one of those old Indian films set in a brothel or a royal palace—where you view the lives of two artistes of different social classes and levels of expertise, and their journeys through love and privilege.
Being lucky enough to observe a few more fado performances throughout my stay, including one where a spirited and amiable group of elderly friends took turns on the stage, made me think of the old mehfils and mujras of Mughal India, so lavishly portrayed in art and media. The old friends reminded me of my grandfather who would invite his pals over and they would all sit on worn Persian rugs and fraying bolsters playing musical instruments and arguing over the melody and lyrics of film songs and ghazals. Each of my aunts would be roped into singing as the remaining guests and family members would sip on tea and graze on snacks, mothers cradling their sleeping children in their laps.
Of course, the history and social practices of mehfils and fado are not comparable, but the passion in the performers, the sense of desolation present in the florid lyrics, and most importantly the emotions these performances stir up—the bringing together of souls through music— this is the common ground I found between the musical performances of Northern India and Lisbon.
There is so much more to share about my trip to Portugal, including visiting the fairytale castles of pastel-coloured Sintra, reminiscent of my idea of South India merging with an aristocratic colonial hill station, and the historical municipality of Belém. Visiting Lisbon made me feel strangely at home. Perhaps understanding the language helps in familiarising yourself with a place, adding to that my keen interest in the country, making it feel as though I was simply revisiting a part of my past with new eyes.
Alfama itself was magical, and we left its sweet old ladies and captivating fadistas, its crumbling brickwork and glazed azulejo tiles, and its magnificent churches and hole-in-the-wall ginjinha bars in the early hours of the morning. That night there was a total lunar eclipse and I stood at the window, admiring the reflection of a brilliant Super Blood Moon upon the Tagus River. As the hours passed, the moon began to disappear and surge higher into the sky, making me stretch my body further through the window. Around 2.30am we pulled our suitcases as silently as we could across the cobblestones of Alfama. A couple of astronomy types were out with their telescopes and cameras, a truly surreal sight in the old world surroundings of the town. I looked up as we approached the Santa Apolónia railway station and saw the luminous garnet moon watching over me.
Cheragh Tankaria is a Complementary Medicine (Ayurvedic Therapies) graduate and a freelance writer. With a keen interest in the history, art, and fashion scene of the Subcontinent, he recently returned from four months of clinical training and travelling across India. His free time is devoted to painting in the Mughal miniature style, learning classical languages such as Persian, Sanskrit, and Urdu, and promoting British Asian solidarity and Ayurvedic lifestyle principles through his writing. Find him on Twitter @rejdapersa