Dance to a different tune in Lisbon

Now accessible through Emirates Airline's new route, the city's narrow streets, ceramic-tiled buildings and trendy boutiques are imbued with the music of its plaintive folk songs.

Lisbon's Alfama neighbourhood is a ramble of stepped cobbled alleys and terracotta roofs that shows what the city would have been like before a earthquakes levelled it in 1755. Getty Images
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Now accessible through Emirates Airline's new route, the city's narrow streets, ceramic-tiled buildings and trendy boutiques are imbued with the music of its plaintive folk songs.

Under red lights, a young woman in her 20s closes her eyes and begins to sway to the music of a double bass, a 12-string Portuguese guitar with its curvaceous tear-shaped body, and a classical guitar. She rises on tiptoe and begins to sing with a rich voice, rolling her shoulders as if suppressing the urge to hold out her hands to the audience.

This is fado, a plaintive form of Portuguese folk song that's enjoying a resurgence in popularity, particularly in the city of Lisbon where it was born.

The venue high up in the Alfama district is hardly authentic: it's a club packed full of tourists eating indifferent food. But the sentiment and sincerity with which the woman engages with her song seem real. I don't speak Portuguese, but the singer frequently invokes "Lisboa" and I somehow warm to a city that can inspire its citizens to such public shows of affection. Another listener tells me that she is singing about the capital's annual festival that is celebrated across its steep slopes, small squares and broad avenues in mid-June, when the streets are hung with tinsel and people stay out all night listening to music, dancing and eating grilled sardines, another local favourite.

A wander through Alfama - a ramble of stepped cobbled alleys inhabited by agile pensioners, dotted with tourist shops and wrapped around the castle rock - shows the city as it would once have been before a succession of earthquakes levelled it in 1755. A third of Lisbon's inhabitants died along with the bricks and mortar evidence of the riches that flowed from Portugal's maritime empire, built during an "age of discoveries" after Vasco da Gama found a sea route to India. Looking down from a miradouro, one of the many small public spaces where tourists gawp over terracotta roofs stepping down to the River Tejo, the street grid to the east of Castelo bears the more modern stamp of a city rebuilt with gold from Portugal's Brazilian colonies.

Just west of the city centre in Belém, the vaulted ceilings and over-embellished architecture of the huge limestone Mosteiro dos Jerónimos are testament to the trappings of empire. Built by King Manuel as a mausoleum at the turn of the 16th century, the cathedral, cloister and tiled refectory are well worth a visit, but my wonder is tempered by the knowledge that much of the complex was rebuilt and altered in the 19th century.

Nearby stands the Torre de Belém, a similarly whimsical and elaborate tower that was built to defend the port of Lisbon from marauding pirates. A small rhinoceros's head decorates its lower part: the same animal that the German painter Albrecht Dürer famously produced in a woodcut, an animal that he had never seen but drew from a written description of the rhino's "fight" with an elephant in the city's streets. Both animals had been imported as colonial trophies.

While the local architecture may be an acquired taste, the same cannot be said for the pale custard tarts that are sold warm from a nearby bakery, the Pastéis de Belém, which was founded in 1837. Judging by the size of the queue that curls out of its door and onto the limestone pavement, they enjoy universal appeal. The small blackened tarts are wonderfully creamy and come with a sachet of fragrant cinnamon. Inside there is an enormous cafe that stretches back, Tardis-like, into many rooms behind the display counter. The rooms are adorned with blue and white ceramic glazed tiles depicting flowers and animals, typical of the azulejos to be found decorating Lisbon's many old town houses, public buildings and churches, both inside and out. The Portuguese began importing them in the 15th and 16th centuries from Spain, which had in turn inherited the fashion from North African Arabs. Fans of the art form can visit the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in a 16th-century convent (mnazulejo.imc-ip.pt). Somewhat depressingly, you can also buy single antique tiles and tiled panels for tens, hundreds and thousands of euros from specialist dealers in the city centre, in Chiado, Bairro Alto and elsewhere. Staring at the quantity of ceramic salvage in one shop, I think that the buildings of Lisbon might soon become rather bald.

Tile-spotting soon becomes second nature as I walk up and down the streets of Chiado, a neighbourhood made famous by its literary connections. A square devoted to Luis de Camões here, Cafe A Brasileira filled with tourists eagerly sipping cheap coffee alongside a life-size bronze statue of Fernando de Pessoa there - and in between, fashion-house boutiques including Hermès; shoppers and tourists step out across swirling black and white mosaic pavements.

Tired of all this civilising culture, I head uphill yet again to find lunch. Cervejaria da Trindade (www.cervejariatrindade.pt) on Rua Nova da Trindade had been recommended for its bitoque, a straightforward cut of steak swimming in butter and cream, seasoned with pepper, topped with a fried egg and served up in a copper-bottomed dish with chips. I eat surrounded by middle-aged businessmen and a handful of tourists admiring the tiled panels depicting classical goddesses in the guise of the four elements. The meal isn't terribly sophisticated but is completely delicious, all for the grand sum of €12.50 (Dh56), and acts as a tonic for tired legs. Lisbon is full of such surprises, the next being what can only be described as a Portuguese trifle, natas de céu, or cream of heaven, composed of layers of ground almond, biscuit, cream and egg custard, topped off with a modest bill. Unlike many European cities, Lisbon is as cheap as it is beautiful, and with Portugal's economic crisis, including an ailing tourism sector, this is unlikely to change.

The streets running up to the 16th-century Jesuit Church of Sao Roque are hatched with tram lines and the pavements are only shoulder-wide in some places. My progress is slowed by necessary stops to browse second-hand bookstores and trendy boutiques selling a fashionable mix of vintage pieces and designer clothing, as well as organic baby clothing, toiletries and imaginative, colourful toys. I almost trip while browsing the shelves of Pop Up Store (www.arteassinada.pt) because "tree roots" are spreading almost invisibly across the floor. If there is a recession here - and there undoubtedly is - the middle class seems remarkably sanguine about it.

Later, as I watch the lights of the city from the lovely roof terrace of the hotel Tivoli Lisboa on Avenida da Liberdade, where diners can smoke shisha late into the night, my thoughts turn back to fado. When I asked the club owner what made this local music so special, he told me that fado is intimate. "Flamenco," he said, "is like this ..." and paused as he clicked his fingers to mime the clatter of castanets before putting his hands together over his heart. "Fado," he continued dramatically, "is like a prayer."

After a few unhurried days here, warmed by a gentle sun, his words seem the perfect serenade to Lisbon itself.