Last time I wrote, I told you somewhat heartlessly to give up your hopes of uncovering a secret Paris. I believed that in the internet age, where secrets are so easily shared, there are few left to discover. But after a recent experience in Lisbon, which has its own fair share of tourist traps and must-do ‘secret’ lists, I think I might have changed my mind.
We recently spent a week in Portugal with some good friends. We were dropped off in the Bairro Alto neighborhood of Lisbon just in time for sundown and my first impression was of a town overrun by tourists. Waiters stood on the streets touting their menus in English, French and German. Japanese tourists sat down to tapas that was brought out covered in cling film. Bars offered happy hour ‘blow jobs’. A blow job is a shot, if you weren’t sure. We ventured away from the main streets and found a restaurant with a warmly lit terrace that did tempura-fried green beans and grilled octopus as its specialties. The food was top-notch but there was no one there speaking Portuguese. We had a German couple, who weren’t talking to each other, next to us and an American couple behind us bewildered because they had accidentally ordered too much food (start with 2-3 tapas for 2 people, not 4-5 like you would at home, even if the prices seem too cheap).
The next day we left for the coast, then moved on to Porto for three nights before heading back to Lisbon for another two. Because Portugal is quite small, you can easily travel around and cram a lot in: we spent time in the two main towns – Porto and Lisbon – stopped for one night in Ericeira, a typical surfer seaside town, and explored part of the Douro Valley and its vineyards. The food is excellent across the board and good value for money. The people are fun and friendly. A local woman who guided one of our wine tastings told us that she feels that the Portuguese are like the Scots – friendly but with a cheeky sense of humour that those with too sensitive an ear can sometimes take the wrong way.
When we got back to Lisbon, I was keen to find the less touristy areas of the city but wondered if, as I’ve found in Rome, it might be difficult. Well, not only did we manage to get off the tourist trail, we struck ‘Secret Lisbon’ gold.
Our Airbnb host cancelled the day before we were due to arrive and there was a mad scramble to find something nice at a day’s notice. The majority of central apartments were booked up. We ended up with a place in an area called Graca. This turned out to be our first lucky strike. High up on a hill, it’s the kind of area where locals sit out talking on doorsteps and the famous tiled buildings line the cobbled streets. We watched the sunset from one of the magnificent ‘miradouro’ view points and decided that Lisbon wasn’t so bad after all.
The mix up with our Airbnb turned out to have more than one silver lining. We were eager to listen to some Fado music but wanted to avoid the tourist traps. Our Airbnb host, a Fado fan himself, tipped us off about a traditional place where he likes to go – a restaurant, only open on Friday nights, where we could have dinner and watch a real Fado performance. Our taxi driver got lost in the myriad of streets that took us to the address we had been given and when we got out there wasn’t another soul in sight. We entered the restaurant through what seemed to be a back entrance (it wasn’t), into a dining room with about ten tables that lead out onto a terrace of the same size. It was already busy. Everyone turned to stare but the waitress, probably the owner, greeted us warmly and ushered us to our table.
We had two hours for dinner before the music was set to start at 11.30. The menu is a short list of traditional Portugese dishes including grilled beef and octopus and a handful of specials. I went for the goat stew with potatoes. The meat fell from the bone in its own gravy. Another standout dish at our table was the Mozambican seafood stew of delicately spiced prawns, squid and cod. The portions were generous, hearty and homely. The couple running the restaurant spoke excellent English, even though we were the only table of tourists they had to cater for that evening.
The restaurant and the terrace got busier and busier before we were hushed into silence at 11.30 on the dot. Three men, none of whom were younger than 70 (80 maybe) years old, took up their instruments. Fado music typically tells stories of love and longing, the sea or the life of the poor. Although we understood nothing of the lyrics, the mournful songs that accompanied the guitars and what I thought was a mandolin but Wikipedia tells me was probably a viola or Portuguese guitar, somehow brought the stories to us anyway.
After a set of three songs, a new singer stood up from the crowd and filled the restaurant with his deep baritone. The diners hummed and sang along. A man sitting by the door was clearly eager to take to the stage. It was his turn next and he put on a performance that made us wonder if maybe he was considered someone in the world of Fado. He had a wide, white-toothed smile and showmanship that the others didn’t. Stools were pulled up and more musicians joined the group, strumming along to the songs they knew. The waiters weaved their way through the crowd to bring bottles of wine and brandies to the tables. The majority of the diners must have been regulars. Everyone seemed to know one another and they applauded and cheered every performance. We had the feeling of being at a party in someone’s home, rather than in a restaurant. I don’t think the musicians were paid, they were there to enjoy the music and other people who enjoy music. There didn’t seem to be a plan, anyone could stand up and play or sing some music. A couple of the guitars were out of tune and there were a few dud notes, but there was no snobbery or pretension. Everyone was there for fun. It felt authentic, traditional and honest.
The official music went on until around 2 in the morning and then the musicians joined the tables to relax with a drink. It wasn’t long before someone else picked up an instrument and the music continued, low-key at one of the tables. We had a flight to catch in the morning and we left the friends to their after party with the feeling that we had just experienced something very special.
That night in Lisbon made me think again about the secrets of Paris. Were there similar places behind the facades where likeminded people come together for food and wine and music? Could there be places that remain just out of reach of the hipsters and the fashonistas; of tourists and Lonely Planet? You have to be lucky to find them, like we were in Lisbon, but I’ve decided that I at least want to go looking.