siren song of Alfama
Alfama is a colorful maze of crooked streets that extends down the slope from the old castle all the way to the Tejo River below. There is no better way to catch a glimpse of Lisbon’s soul than by spending an evening in this, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood, listening to fado.
Though few would use it this way nowadays, the word fado translates literally from Portuguese as fate, doom, or destiny. Small wonder then that these simple, melancholic songs, which originated in old Lisbon’s port taverns, tug at the heart strings. There are a plethora of fado bars and a handful of more upscale establishments where one can listen to fado artists. We went to A Baiuca because it came highly recommended for its authenticity, and in this it did not disappoint.
Located deep in the warren of Alfama’s narrow side streets, A Baiuca is small, cramped, and unpretentious. In fact, it is so unassuming that despite consistently being ranked among Lisbon’s top fado restaurants, A Baiuca does not even have a website. We loved it the moment we set foot inside. The ample-bellied proprietor seated us and brought appetizers. We were just getting comfortable when the proprietress did a quick head count and realized we were one short. The guide books advised to make a reservation because the place fills up, so S had booked a table for six. Alas, we were five.
“No, this won’t do,” the proprietress told us in rapid-fire Portuguese, “there are only five of you and I won’t be able to seat anyone in this empty seat.” She made us get up and change tables, plates and all, rearranging the low wooden benches so that we had exactly five seats at a long table we wound up sharing with four French tourists. She was right to do it too. By the end of the night, every seat was occupied — some by tourists and others by locals who had come both to sing and listen to this wonderful music.
Two musicians were crammed into a corner near the bathroom, one strumming a Portuguese guitar and the other a classical one. After serving appetizers and drinks and taking dinner orders, the proprietor dimmed the lights, gave some brief introductory remarks in Portuguese, and launched into a mournful song about unrequited love. He finished to rousing applause, sang one more melody, and then ceded the floor to another artist.
What stood out most from the three and a half hours of music was how heartfelt the performances were. A Baiuca specializes in fado vadio, meaning all the artists are amateurs and the floor is open to anyone who wants to sing. We quickly lost track of the number of singers, who each sang a couple of songs before retiring to a cramped table by the door. Frequently, when one artist sang a fado classic, the others would spontaneously echo the harmony or softly sing a backup melody.
And the emotions, especially the ones displayed by the female vocalists, made the music simply unforgettable. In addition to the proprietress and her husband, who took breaks from serving guests to showcase their musical abilities, this hole-in-the-wall restaurant employs two cooks. We were surprised to learn that they both sing. In fact, one of them practically brought the house down the first time she came out of the kitchen, wearing an apron and hairnet, and launched into what was easily the most soul-touching number of the night.
Our night at A Baiuca was our last in Lisbon, but the music stayed with us long after we returned to Chisinau. Several weeks have gone by since our trip, and yet we still routinely listen to Amália Rodrigues, fado’s greatest star, in the evenings.