Monday, 7 January 2013

Fado, the Portuguese Blues

Some people might say you have never really been to Portugal if you have not spend at least one evening listening to the local version of blues music. The Portuguese simply call it Fado.

It is pretty easy to find it in a random Lisbon café. Most of them are in the traditional fado quarter of Alfama and also Bairro Alto. Good places in both of those neighborhoods are usually pretty pricey - to find a more economical alternative, your best bet is to get a taxi out to the suburbs.
Surprisingly fado is not very common in other parts of the country (with the exception of the city of Coimbra).

It is pretty easy to find a place to get a taste of it, but getting a taste of the top notch performance is another thing. Cafés with present and potential future fado stars are usually reserved for fado connoisseurs, willing to pay 100 euros and more for the real thing. Usually food is also included in such deals, but do not expect too much - music is what you pay for.

If you ask me, as a first time visitor you will not be able to appreciate the difference between a really good, five star fado performance and a good touristy one. However, genuine local atmosphere could mean all the difference to some... in the end - the choice is yours.

If you are lucky you can also get a taste of the real thing for just a fraction of the price. The hostel we were staying in (Lisbon Destination Hostel), happened to have such a deal on their "menu" one night. You could get into one of the best fado cafés for a modest 10 euros.
Of course there was a catch - the hostel made a deal for a small group of their guests to arrive late and get a place near the bar (other guests were seated at proper tables). Also only tapas were included instead of a full dinner. If you do not mind being treated as a second-class guest and catch a strange glance or two from other guests every now and then, the whole idea might turn out just fine.

I think I could have actually enjoyed the performance in spite of everything if there were two or three of us. Unfortunately our group that night consisted of a dozen people and the place was already pretty crowded when we arrived. There was literally no way for all of us to squeeze next to the bar.

After a while the whole situation simply felt too awkward and some of us simply decided to leave the place. The hostel did not complicate a bit and gave us a full refund.

I actually could not say I do not recommend this whole thing but I definitely suggest you inquire about details. We were simply not told about the whole deal in advance and found it too far from our expectations.

However strange (or for some even unpleasant) this fado experience turned out to be, I liked the music. So afterwards I decided to at least buy a CD with some best of fado music.

I found a perfect place in the middle of a street on my way to the famous Elevador Santa Justa one morning (look for tips about that in one of the following posts).
There was an old car parked in the middle of a street, serving as a vending spot for fado CDs. The guy inside this little "music shop" was really knowledgeable and played music performed by a few different fadistas (i.e. fado singers) so I could choose my favorite. I chose Ana Moura and I really like her after I listened to the CD for a couple of times. Great stuff!


Friday, 4 January 2013

Attractions of Belém, Lisbon

Belém is the part of Lisbon I liked the most. Many of the most popular city's tourist attractions are situated there.
Jerónimos Monastery, Torre de Belém and the Discoveries Monument are just a few of the things that can all be found there.

Even if you do not intend to actually visit any of them, it is well worth taking a walk around this neighborhood and at least take a look at those magnificent buildings from the outside.

Especially Jerónimos Monastery blew me away - the building literary stretches for half a kilometer into distance. The front and inside details are all equally stunning. It is really hard to imagine enormous fortune spent on it (and that was just a portion of what trade with the Orient brought to Vasco da Gama and his men).
The church within the monastery is among others also the resting place of Vasco da Gama.
Besides great ornamental details on literary every step and an extensive presentation of building's history alongside other major events in the country and the world, there is not all that much to see inside.

The story goes Vasco da Gama and his men spent the night in prayer before departing on their expedition to the Orient in 1497 there. Then there was only a hermitage in disrepair, but they promised to build a monastery if they make it back. The building project was funded with money obtained from a 5% tax on commerce from Africa and the Orient, equivalent to 70 kilograms (150 lb) of gold per year.

The task of residing monks for centuries was to provide spiritual assistance to navigators and sailors who departed from the nearby beach to discover the world.

If you actually decide to see some of those attractions from the inside you can even do it for free if you follow this tip. Like some other attractions in Lisbon also these offer free entrance on Sundays until 14:00. If do not get there on a Sunday you can expect the following entrance fees:

  • Jerónimos Monastery - 6 euros
  • Belem Tower - 5 euros
  • Discoveries Monument - 2,5 euros
I found both - Jerónimos Monastery and Torre de Belém very interesting and well worth spending a Sunday morning there. The 52 meter high point of view is what you get if you go inside the Discoveries Monument. We decided to skip it.

When in the neighborhood you should also make a short stop at the Pastéis de Belém confectionery (on Rua de Belem 84, near the monastery) and try their delicious custard tarts. Since this place is always busy and they supposedly sell over 10.000 of these tarts every day, you can be pretty sure to get a fresh - still warm one for yourself.

I would hardly describe those custard tarts as "to die for" but I liked them, especially considering the price (just over 1 euro per tart). I also tried them on a few different locations and these were my favorite - there might actually be something about the hundred years old secret recipe. You should definitely try them.


Wednesday, 2 January 2013

The Discoveries Monument, Lisbon

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