8 January 2000

Fado away

Listening to Lisbon

Imagine Europe’s capital cities lined up on a graph according to how self-satisfied they are. Paris, almost jealous of its own chic genius, heads the field at the far right. Lurking off the other end of the scale is Lisbon. For while it may mix lovely cafes and shabby old-world charm with breathtaking architecture, the refreshing aspect of what in Portuguese is called the “white town” is that it can’t really be bothered to shout about it.

If you want to search out Lisbon’s treasures, fine; if all you want to do is sip coffee while watching the world go by, that’s fine too. Lisbon is a city built for the ultra-relaxed, aimless flâneur, with its shuttered houses clad in beautiful blue and green tiling, and shimmering suddenly at the end of narrow streets a hilly vista of dusty red, blue and mustard rooftops, with the golden castle of São Jorge glowing atop one of the city’s seven hills. Many buildings are in an advanced state of dilapidation: cats enjoy leisurely tongue-baths in the windows of overgrown empty stone houses. As Portugal’s most celebrated poet, Fernando Pessoa, who lived nearly all his life in Lisbon, wrote: “All is scattered, nothing entire. / O Portugal, fog you are…”

The cutest example of Lisbon’s rather lackadaisical attitude is the clanking old wrought-iron Elevador de Santa Justa, a 45-metre lift built in 1901 by a pupil of Gustav Eiffel to connect the west end of Baixa, the shopping district, with the Carmo church in Chiado. Unfortunately the viaduct these days is closed, as the buildings on the hill are in danger of collapsing. So you buy a ticket and go up – and once you’ve done that, er, you go down again. It doesn’t matter, though, because there is, surreally, a little cafe perched at the top, dispensing beverages against the ferocious wind and affording an impressive view of the city.

The more practical downside of laid-back Lisbon is that you may well turn up to a museum only to find the main hall closed, or search out a cathedral cloister to find a messy web of scaffolding disfiguring the space. And be sure to avoid Lisbon if you’re a lobster, as you will be piled into a restaurant window’s tiny aquarium six deep among your suffering comrades, antennae futilely awaggle, with only the boiling pot to look forward to.

Lisbon is a waterside city, but the shoreline is a dirty strip of pebbles, cut off from the conurbation by a choking motorway. The Atlantic is first and foremost the city’s larder – bacalhau, the national dish of salt cod, or any number of grilled seabass, grouper and so on are the main fare in restaurants. Seen from a high vantage point, in fact, the precarious jumble of white and rosy buildings plonked up the hillside that constitutes Lisbon seems to be all a-huddle, a city at Europe’s westernmost tip seeking consolation before the seas whose mastery was once its country’s glory. “Europe is lying propped upon her elbows,” wrote Fernando Pessoa in “The Castles”. “She stares, her gaze doom-heavy, sphingical, / Out at the West, the future of the past. / The face with which she stares is Portugal.”

Travellers to Lisbon should start the day like the Lisboetas do – shaking off cosmic-historical woes at a cafe. The city’s accommodation ranges from the pleasantly luxurious but slightly far-from-the-action five-star Dom Pedro, to the grottiest bed-and-breakfasts; a cheap and eccentrically cheerful middle ground is the Hotel Borges bang in the centre of town, which also has the advantage of being next door to the celebrated Cafe A Brasileira. This Rua Garrett institution has been serving short, strong coffees and pastries since 1905, and its green-and-gold facade invites the caffeine-questing visitor into a wonderful narrow interior of carved dark wood, brass and mirrors. It was also a favourite hangout of that man Pessoa, who is immortalised in a bronze statue outside, sitting forever at his regular table, dreaming up new poetries of metaphysics.

Lisbon is also home to hundreds of cheaper, more rough-and-ready coffee shacks called pastelarias, after the mouthwatering collection of custard tarts and bite-sized sponge cakes that the natives seem to snack on obsessively at all hours of the day. Choose one with the legend “Fabrico Proprio” outside and you’re assured that they bake the stuff on the premises: after that, it’s a simple matter of pointing and munching to your heart’s content.

Once you’re sufficiently jacked up on six espressos and a kilogram of cake, it’s time to take a leisurely stroll to a sight or two. The great twin 12th-century castellated bell towers of Sé Cathedral, hewn out of great blocks of sandstone punctuated by arrow slits, usher the visitor into a riot of dusty pink and gold High Catholic decor. From here you can wander up steep lanes into the pretty Alfama residential district of tiny cobbled streets, stairways and gardens, ducking under washing lines and stopping off to climb the dome of the Panteão Nacional de Santa Engrácia, a church dedicated to dead Portuguese heroes.

The city’s most obvious tourist destination is the Castelo de São Jorge itself, but apart from another view over the harbour it’s actually quite dull – and whatever you do, don’t have lunch in the snooty and overpriced castle restaurant, whose mediocre food and attitude problem aren’t even funny. For a real castle, head out for the day to the lush sub-tropical greenery of Sintra. Fifty minutes by train from Rossio station, this is where Byron began writing Childe Harolde’s Pilgrimage, famously calling the place “glorious Eden”.

Dominating Sintra’s lower skyline is the 14th-century Palácio Nacional in the town centre, with its two enormous white chimneys. The dazzle of its lavishly themed rooms, with tiles, gilt and ceiling paintings, may well have your stomach clamouring to keep up with your overfed eyes, and there’s no shortage of little cafés across the way offering the local speciality cakes. Thus fortified, catch a bus up to the Moorish castle, whose ancient dragontooth battlements snake up and down around the top of the hill. When not making bonfires from the autumn leaves, the groundsman tends to amuse himself by playing cheesy 80s pop tunes on his wooden pipe – even so, a thorough circumnavigation of the castle walls, with endless vistas in all directions, is a magical experience.

Even if you’re only spending a weekend in Lisbon, you should devote at least a morning to Sintra, and the next day trot out to the suburb of Belém, 20 minutes by bus or lurching, wheezing tram to the west of the city centre. Mooch round the Torre de Belém, a water fortress studded with great iron cannon and whimsical turrets that guards the harbour entrance – Pessoa described it as “a magnificent specimen of 16th-century military architecture, in the romantic-gothic-moorish style” – and then visit the gigantic Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, a veritable palace for the Hieronymite monastic order that was begun in 1502. Its shimmering, misty interior light plays over monolithic columns carved in spectacular relief and the tombs of Vasco da Gama and Luis de Camões, while a tour of the dual-level cloisters reveals the final resting place of Fernando Pessoa, marked austerely with a marble-and-steel obelisk.

In the summer months, Lisbon is something of a dance mecca for tourists, with a slew of anonymous superclub villages spreading out around the docks. Once winter draws in, however, the evenings are best spent in the quirkier, cosier Bairro Alto, or “high town”, the original nightlife centre of Lisbon. Start around 8pm, pick a restaurant stuffed with well-fed locals and order fish: you can’t go wrong. By about 10pm the bars have opened: everything from tiny one-room shacks to clubby joints with dancefloors. Topography reflects musical orientation: Rua Diário Notícias is full of smoky jazz bars, for instance the lovely, dark Tertúlia at number 60, a favourite with the black rollneck and leather jacket brigade; while Rua Atalaia caters for the drum’n’bass crowd: a red velvet curtain at number 45 draws back to reveal the minimalist dark-wood-and-chrome interior of Capela, alive with chatter and skittery beats.

But to soak up Lisbon’s true spirit of aesthetic melancholy, you should also reserve an evening to sample the Portuguese folk music, fado. This song style, named after the word for “fate”, supposedly derives from the homesick shanties of 16th-century Portuguese sailors: in its modern, more bohemian urban incarnation it is a deliciously evocative mixture of lugubrious minor-key guitar rhythms and melodies with a distinctive Arabic weave. Make a night of it at the warm Clube do Fado, tucked away behind Sé Cathedral on Rua São João da Praça, boasting excellent food and wine and a stone-arched dining room. A leisurely meal is regularly interrupted as, under gloomy red candelight, local singers delight the aficionados with songs of passion and doom, accompanied by the club’s genial, droopy-moustachioed host, Mário Pacheco, improvising graceful countermelodies on his 12-string Portuguese guitarra.

While fado may be mournful, the end of each song characteristically sees the singer roused into an attitude of vigorous defiance. In Lisbon, life and the sea may be sorrowful, but the small things spread joy: a glass of cherry liqueur with the besuited old men in Rossio square; an old-fashioned shoeshine among the scattered pigeons of Chiado; a sundowner at altitude, in the shadow of the gargoyles of Igreja da Graça. The best rebellion against fate, it seems, is to accumulate tiny pleasures.