One Night in Lisbon, In Which we Eat and Listen to Fado

The Fado was better when the young woman was singing. However, I was so entranced I forgot to take her picture.

Probably the first thing you'll notice about Lisbon, if you've just come from Madrid as we had, is that the heat is just as impressive. Except, that unlike the dry 40 degree heat of Madrid, Lisbon is a humid 40 degrees. So, instead of feeling like you're being roasted, it's more like being drowned in your own juice. And, Lisbon is much hillier than Madrid, so you have plenty of opportunity to work up a good sweat–not that that would be my aim.

But there are plenty of other differences as well. In two days, we didn't really see much of Lisbon. We'll be coming back for one day on our way out of Portugal and will spend that getting lost in the Alfama barrio, as the guidebook recommends. But, for the two days we were here, we also did the guidebook recommendations and with some small exceptions, were not that impressed.

To put it briefly, Lisbon needs a good cleaning and a coat of paint, and I don't mean more graffiti, of which there is plenty. Our first night here, we spent wandering the Bairro Alto, the “high barrio” which is the home to the “funky” neighborhood restaurants. Unfortunately, it's also the home to the funky smell of old cooking grease, uncollected garbage, and streets that restaurant owners don't bother to sweep in front of their establishments. Nothing like cigarette butts and discarded plastic water bottles to whet the appetite, I always say.

Nevertheless, we were guided by an old man handing out cards into a restaurant called Ja Disse on the Rua Diario de Noticias. What attracted us was the promise of traditional Portuguese cooking (btw, that pretty much means potatoes with everything) and Fado, the classical sad music of Lisbon.

I had grilled sardines, which is probably the most typical–even to the point of being a cliché–dish of Portugal. Big sardines, about six inches long, not like what Americans think of little fish crammed into a can, are grilled simply and without garnish. They taste like grilled sardines–a bit dry and nothing special. (I like my sardines out of a can I guess, with lots of olive oil and salt, on a simple stoned wheat cracker.) It came with salad and, you guessed it, boiled potatoes. No effort whatsoever to enhance the tastes of anything with any sort of seasoning other than the very sparse bits of parsley barely sprinkled over the fish and potatoes.

Oh well.

Kris fared somewhat better with her choice of another typical dish called cataplana. That was a simple fish stew, with, you guessed it, potatoes. But at least she had a tasty broth flavored with tomato, onion, and a modicum of spice that gave it a nice aroma and a bit more interest than just boiled potatoes. Not a Spanish paella, but at least they tried. The fish was chunks of two different varieties of some firm white fish, and a few shrimp. But, again, very simple.

We also had a bottle of tart Vinho Verde, and that was pretty much the far reach of any taste for the meal.

Except for the Fado, which was very tasty.

We'd been told the singing would start at 8, and so, as our Spanish experience would lead us to believe, it would probably start at 8:30 or 9. But, as we have subsequently learned, the Portuguese are punctual, and hell, even early at times. (A Spanish woman we spent some time with yesterday wondered what the hell the Portuguese were doing having lunch at 1 p.m. when we were still wandering around looking for coffee.) At about a quarter to 8, a guy sat down and began to tune his “Portuguese guitar”–which sort of resembles a lute–and by 10 to, we had a lovely full throated young woman singing her heart out from about 2 meters away. She sang three songs and then left, which broke my heart because I thought we'd get her all night. But she was replaced by an older man, and he was quite good as well, although his sentiment rang slightly less true than hers. Of course, it could be that I had just fallen in love with her after the first song and he was a very poor substitute indeed.

Tomorrow, we cover the Belém barrio, and the Monasterio dos Jerónimos, which, if you like that sort of thing, is good for a few reasons I'll talk about when I get there.

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4 thoughts on “One Night in Lisbon, In Which we Eat and Listen to Fado”

  1. In June there was a garbage strike that lasted over a week. That may be when you were in town and noticed the “uncollected garbage” in Bairro Alto. The timing for the strike couldn’t have been worse (or better for the strikers) because June is when the month-long city feasts in honor of St. Anthony take place (the main events are on the 12th and 13th). However, yes, Bairro Alto could use a good scrubbing (as could the entire old center), although as the nightlife neighborhood where drinking is allowed on the streets, it’s almost impossible to keep it clean for more than a few hours of the day…

    • I guess I was commenting (obliquely perhaps) that instead of standing around in front of your restaurant smoking a cigarette, it would be more appetizing to your customers to be picking up the butts and trash that were in the street right in front of you. Maybe an idea that has caught on in many countries, i.e. public trash receptacles, would be helpful as well. Madrid’s La Latina district never looks like this.

  2. We had quite the opposite experience in Lisbon– we were there 5 days and stayed up in the hilly section in a small apartment. We found it quite clean and not humid (we were there the last week of May and the food wonderful, people friendly and the fado, fabulous- it felt like a very intriguing city to us and one we would be glad to return to for an extended stay. Here is what I posted on my blog


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