Of Fado, Longing, and National Character
Posted on April 25, 2018
I’m speaking at EUNIS 2018 in Porto, Portugal this week. EUNIS is a meeting of the heads of European universities and John O’Brien, President and CEO of EDUCAUSE, and I will be the Americans in attendance and speaking. Having to be there on Wednesday, we decided to take the first two days of the week as vacation and come over early to explore Lisbon, a city we’ve never visited. It’s been a delight and it’s easy to see why Portugal has become a hot tourist destination.
Lisbon is a hilly city on the water, always a killer combination (think San Francisco or Istanbul), with colorfully painted and tiled buildings, warrens of charming streets in the old quarters, grand avenues, and enough grittiness to still feel authentic, in contrast to Prague, for example (which now feels Disneyesque).
People actually live here, as witnessed by the amount of clothes drying from balcony clotheslines, and little cafes and bars everywhere, with few large international chains, one Hard Rock Café notwithstanding. We last night went to a highly recommended little back street bar to listen to Fado, Portugal’s sad music of love, longing, and fate.
The place accommodated no more than 40 people, squeezed in tight with a line at the door, and two guitarists accompanied an array of singers. Our favorite singer was an older woman with a voice more pained than beautiful.
We had spent the day with a guide, touring the magical town of Sintra, a musician who said, “I like older women who sing Fado. They’ve been hurt and loved and lost and it comes through in their singing.” It was such a fadoesque thing to say really, but spot on.
Rui (rhymes with Louie) was our guide, an old soul with a gentle manner and generous with his knowledge and passion for his country. I know it is dangerous to generalize about the character of a people, but we had a fascinating conversation with him about the Portuguese and Fado, the music of their collective soul. Rui’s theory is that the city state of Portugal has always been dominated, with Spain looming over and occasionally invading (“In the past with armies and now with tour buses.”), hundreds of years of occupation by the Moors, profligate aristocracy, decades of military dictatorship, and then an impoverished economy. There were two short lived bursts of Portuguese well-being, when Vasco da Gama discovered the route to India and Lisbon became wealthy with “pepper money” as Portuguese ships brought spices back to Europe, and again when gold was discovered in Brazil, Portugal’s chunk of the New World. But, as sad-eyed Rui recounted, it has mostly been tough for the Portuguese, and millions live elsewhere, seeking a better life. Fado speaks to that experience of exile, loss, and longing.
Rui said, “We are trying to get better. We want to be more like Spaniards. They live through tough times, but they laugh, are confident and proud, and happier.” He was a lovely guy, if a bit sad.
Whatever one might say for the historical woes of Portugal (and in truth, they have their own pretty terrible legacy as colonizers and slavers), those periods of conflict, occupation, and aristocratic rule have created a fascinating mix of architecture, culture, and history. Here is the Sé, the 12th C. cathedral (and a mosque during the rule of the Moors – building over the religious temples of the defeated is a long standing tradition in Europe, maybe everywhere).
And when King Afonso Henriques defeated the Moors in 1147, he converted their citadel into the Castle of St. George, essentially destroyed in the epic earthquake of 1755 and rebuilt in 1938 by the dictator, Salazar.
We spent yesterday in Sintra, a nearby city and former royal residence. Sintra must be Portuguese for “crazy,” as we visited some of the oddest sites possible. This one below is the Palácio da Pena, a 19th C. project of King Ferdinand, someone who apparently never studied architecture. Or studied it too much, as the place is an eccentric mash up of various styles that does not hang together in any real way, though its audacity is somehow appealing.
What was amazing was the park he commissioned around it, a gorgeous botanical Eden with lovely walking paths and all manner of flora (including a towering transplanted Sequoia) and hidden away sitting areas and grottos carved into the rock.
From the Palácio, you can see the nearby 8th Century Moorish castle on the adjacent hill.
Sintra abounds in 19th C. Romantcism and no place goes further down the path to crazy town than Quinta da Regaleira. The owner, António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro, commissioned an Italian designer of theater sets to create this fantasy estate and gardens to reflect his eclectic (note a theme here) mix of intellectual interests, including science, mysticism, and more.
It includes things like Poco Iniciatico, the initiation well that is meant to mirror Dante’s 9 circles of hell and at the bottom once chooses the path of heaven or hell (emerging in another part of the estate). It’s replete with symbols from Freemasonry and the Knights Templar.
Unlike the Palácio, the place at least holds together in its Neo-Gothic eccentricity and the gardens were gorgeous.
A little more conventional, in the Belém area of Lisbon, is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a monument to Portugal’s leadership in the Age of Discovery and the enormous wealth that came to it from spices and then gold. Commissioned in 1501, it served as a monastery for the Order of St. Jerome.
One delicious and lasting legacy of the monastery that persist to this day is the sublime custard-cream dessert known as Pastéis de Nata. The shop adjacent to the monastery gets lines almost as long as people wait for their order of these small tarts. They are amazingly good, as was every Portuguese dessert we tried.
We earned serious nerd points for the time we spent in the Tile Museum. Tile making is a multi-century tradition in Portugal and we were skeptical when told we really should visit the museum. It was worth it.
It is housed in a magnificent 16th C. convent, spectacular in its own right.
The tile work was stunning, we learned a lot, and I appreciated the attention paid to modern tile as well.
I do have a soft spot in my heart for graffiti artists and Lisbon is a treasure to trove of amazing work, including this one that is actually 3-D:
And this one honoring the aforementioned tradition of tile making. More of a mural in this case. Anyway, there are graffiti tours of Lisbon and while we have to leave tomorrow for the conference, I’m putting that one on my list.
We’ve really have come to love Lisbon, especially because it remains a bit gritty. It’s a place you can wander in and get lost and turn a corner to discover the startling or the charming or the head scratching.
We had a long talk about the nature of travel and the way in which we see a place in time, so no matter how soon one goes back and how familiar is the place, it is different. It’s different. You are different. It makes the experience of a place temporal and more precious. We saw Syria right before the war and it will never be the same, even when rebuilt. We visited Luang Prabang in Laos and felt like it was just on the cusp of change that didn’t feel very good. Yet it might be change that brings tourism dollars and work and thus better medical care and education for kids. So it’s a trade-off, a double edged sword, for anyplace that welcomes us.
What we can do is reward it with curiosity, graciousness, and appreciation for what it is. If we buy a glass of beer for the Portuguese guy next to us and wipe a tear at the fado singer’s despair, and share our appreciation for who they are as fellow human beings, then maybe that is what we can do best as visitors to a place as special as Lisbon.