The Sounds of Portugal

With less than a week left in Portugal it would be remiss of me not to mention the music here. Fado is a genre of music that is synonymous with Portuguese culture. Fado to the Portuguese is like Flamenco to the Spanish, Pasta to the Italians, Baguettes to the French. Fado literally translates to mean ‘fate or destiny’. It is linked to the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ which kind of means loss, yearning or to miss something or someone, so a lot of fado sounds mournful and sad but very beautiful.

Fado is said to have originated around the 1830’s in the heart of Lisbon in the districts of Alfama and Bairro Alto. The singers or fadistas were mainly working class or sailors and were accompanied by the 12 string pear-shaped Portuguese guitar and a classical guitar. Around the 1950’s fado began incorporating the words of great Portuguese poets into the music. Amateurs, male or female, sing impromptu-style throughout fado houses and restaurants throughout the old neighbourhoods of Lisbon and it’s flourishing still today and getting more and more popular.

Some fadistas have achieved nationwide and worldwide recognition. One of the most famous fado singers was Amália Rodrigues whose career spanned over 50 years and she was known as the Rainha do Fado or ‘Queen of Fado’. Click below to see video of her singing Estranha forma de Vida (A Strange Kind of Life) from the 1960’s.

Amália Rodrigues – Estranha forma de Vida (Video)

She is probably Portugal’s most famous fado singer. She took fado to the rest of the world and by the time she died in 1999 she had received awards and honours from all over the world for her singing. Poets had started writing specifically for her to sing. She became an icon to the Portuguese people. Much of the street art around Lisbon is still devoted to her. When she died she was aged 79 and the government declared three days of national mourning. She is buried in the National Pantheon in Lisbon along side other famous Portuguese such as explorers, Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator.


Late last year, fado was added to the UNESCO list of the world’s intangible cultural heritage, forever recognised in international history.

The first time I heard fado was when Filipa gave me a CD by Mariza, who is a popular modern fadista today in Lisbon. This was the first song I heard and it’s one of my favourites – click on the link below if you want a more modern take on fado. The song is called Gente Da Minha Terra (‘People of My Land’) and you can feel the emotion and literally see her emotion towards the end of the song when she has to stop singing due to tears. It’s hard not to be moved by this music, even if you don’t understand Portuguese.

Mariza – Gente Da Minha Terra (live)

As I mentioned before, the 12-string pear-shaped lute or guitar (guitarra portuguesa) always accompanies the fadista with an acoustic guitar as well. Carlos Paredes is one of Portugal’s most notable Portuguese guitar players. This is a short video of him playing the Portuguese guitar, a beautiful song called Verdes Anos (Green Years).

Carlos Paredes – Verdes Anos (Video)

The music here has really grown on me, particularly as my Portuguese improves because the lyrics are so beautiful. One thing about the Portuguese is they really know how to put a sentence together and turn an ordinary statement in to something truly beautiful and poetic. They really value their poets and many of them have icon status here in Portugal. It got me thinking about my own country and our poets of old like Henry Lawson, Banjo Patterson and Dorothea Mackellar. It has inspired me to re-read some of our old poets when I return home. I don’t think I’ve read an Australian poem since high school since we were made to memorise Dorothea Mackellar’s “My Country”….. I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains, of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains. I love her far horizons, I love her jewel sea, her beauty and her terror – the wide brown land for me. Shame on me!


Deck the Halls

Christmas in Portugal is not too different than ours in Australia, but obviously it’s a lot colder, being winter in the northern hemisphere. There are some slight differences but above all Christmas here is about family, friends, food, religion, giving and receiving.

In every household, in the streets, schools and shopping malls are very elaborate presépio’s (nativity scenes). Some of them are even life-size. My favourite little presépio that I saw in the lead up to Christmas was in a town in the Algarve inside an Italian restaurant. This presépio also had its own pizzeria, which the three wise men were just leaving from!

You also see a lot of climbing Santa’s throughout Portugal. These little red and white guys can be spotted hanging out windows, chimney’s, off rooftops, restaurant signs – I swear they are everywhere! But in contrast, Santa is not the star of the show here and children are brought up to believe that the baby Jesus brought the presents (not literally but figuratively in the story of Christmas). Santa is treated more in good humour. Children in Portugal generally do not think that a fat guy in a red and white suit bought them a stack of presents…which makes sense in this country where Catholics make up 85% of the population.

Traditionally, the most important get-together is Christmas eve. We spent most of the afternoon helping Filipa’s aunty prepare for the feast that night; preparing the table, chopping vegetables, peeling chestnuts and doing last minute things. The gathering was slightly smaller this year due to some of the family spending Christmas with their husbands/wives families but nonetheless we still had around 24 people for dinner that night. Traditionally, codfish (bacalhau) is always eaten with cabbage on Christmas eve. There was also a dish of beef with chestnuts as well, plus cheeses, chouriços and don’t forget the home made wines and a whole table-load of desserts.

After the meal, we headed to the centre of the village where every year there is a huge bonfire. It was very welcome as temperatures were down to about -1 degree that night. We stood around the bonfire for a while and then we headed back to the house for the giving of gifts at midnight.

The Christmas tree was overflowing with a sea of presents underneath. Filipa’s cousin Pedro played ‘Santa’ with the help of two other little cousins, Clarisse (10) and Joana (8) as helpful elves, delivering the presents as they were called out. But Joana really wanted to be Santa (see below).


This was an unwrapping, hugging and kissing frenzy which went on for about an hour, leaving everyone with smiles and mountains of wrapping paper. After this, it’s tradition for Zé, one of Filipa’s unclesto cook his prawns. Trays and trays of prawns came out and Christmas wrapped up around 2.00am. Well, we kind of rolled home.

Half of the family went to Mass on Christmas morning (we were still sleeping…guilty!) and then we all met for Christmas lunch – a big roast turkey, with stuffing inside and also a roasted goat with potatoes, garlic, herbs and chilli. More wine, more desserts! I must confess I am a huge fan of goat after living here for almost 6 months. And the turkey was divine too, always served with orange.

We spent the days after Christmas just hanging out in the village and doing some small trips to places nearby. Not far from Barriosa is the cutest traditional village I have ever seen called Piódão. Just over 200 people live there. Forty years ago, this little village was only reachable on horseback or foot! It is unique in that all the houses are still made traditionally from a beautiful grey stone and slate.

First view of Piódão village

Filipa lived here when she was about 6 years old as her mother taught at the school for a year. She had to walk almost to where I took this photo from, sometimes twice a day (home for lunch) in rain, snow, mud or sunshine.

I loved it. We walked through the tiny streets and admired the stonework and gorgeous doorways. The village clings to the beautiful remote ridge and there is a rushing river that passes alongside the town with the perfect swimming hole for summer. Crosses above some of the doors are said to protect the occupants from curses and thunderstorms.


Another one!!

Filipa’s village is also about 45 minutes drive away from Portugal’s highest mountain (on the mainland) called Torre. It’s 1,993 metres high but the highest mountain in Portugal is actually on the island of Azores called Pico, at 2,351 metres. There is a small ski field on the top of Torre with three lifts and some modest beginners slopes. We went right to the top and only lasted about 10 minutes outside the car due to the windchill. Usually at this time of year though the mountain is covered in snow but this year there was just a spattering, only enough for some very enthusiastic beginners and tobogganists.

The top!

The two towers on top of Torre round up the mountain to 2,000 metres.

Apart from missing my own family, it was a brilliant festive season with Filipa’s family. It was everything that Christmas should be about – LOVE!

Parking Portuguese style

Portuguese parking has to be seen to be believed. From the first week I arrived, I’ve been marvelling at the cheek and the bravado of the drivers here. Parking can be difficult here, especially in central Lisbon. There are many car parks around but they are expensive and people seem to prefer to improvise.

It seems that the general rule in Portugal is “park your car wherever it fits and where you think you can get away with it”. During big events like concerts or football matches you will see cars up on the footpaths.

Here are a few photos I’ve taken over the past few months.

In a rush perhaps?
Middle of Nowhere
Double parking all the rage here

The SmartCar is very popular around Europe and in Portugal. Many SmartCar drivers are very inventive with their parking style.

Parking with guts and flair. Such anarchy! I love it!

Smart parking

A Perfect Combination

Autumn is here and it’s time for hot roasted chestnuts, or castanhas. On a recent trip to the village, Filipa’s brother bought 10 kilograms of chestnuts. We have been eating a lot of chestnuts, late at night after dinner. It’s easy to do at home. You place the chestnuts on a baking tray and throw over a generous handful of sea salt. Make sure you make a small slit in each chestnut shell before roasting or they will explode in the oven. You then roast them for about 20 minutes at 200 degrees and then a further 10 minutes under the grill. Take them out of the oven and peel and eat them while still warm. Delicious!

As we were leaving the village with chestnuts in hand, Filipa’s great-uncle Pedro saw us and took off back home to grab us a bottle of his home-made wine called Jeropiga. This is the traditional drink to have when eating castanhas. Jeropiga  is a sweet alcoholic drink made from fresh grape juice. Decant some juice from your already fermenting wine around day 2. At this stage it’s still sweet and has taken on some red colour. So add to this some aguardente (see previous post). Three parts juice, 1 part aguardente. Then you cork it and leave it in a cool dark place to settle for a few days or up to a few years. The aguardente inhibits the fermentation process and stops it spoiling.

Autumn is the season when Portuguese wine makers open up their barrels to taste the seasons vintage. Some of the wine is decanted and turned in to jeropiga to drink with the castanhas. It’s rarely found commercially and usually only produced locally by the likes of great-uncle Pedro. It’s the perfect combination on a chilly autumn night.

Up in Filipa’s village I saw many chestnut trees which had been ‘de-nuded’ of their nuts. Two or three nuts grow inside these prickly burrs.

While we were up in the village Filipa’s mum made a fantastic dinner of roast pork in her traditional wood fire oven (left). Along side the pork in the roasting dish she had added chestnuts which were so delicious. The nutty flavour had permeated throughout the meat and was so good.

A few days ago (11 November) it was St Martin’s Day here in Portugal and across most of Europe. St Martin started out as a Roman soldier and he apparently cut his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a blizzard to save the beggars life. That night he dreamt that Jesus was wearing the half-cloak that he had given to the beggar and Jesus said to some angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptised. He has clothed me.” He was later baptised as an adult and became a monk. Around Europe it is known as the Feast of St Martin.  In Portugal the focus is more on the maturation of the years wine.

On the streets of Portugal you see many vendors selling their hot roasted chestnuts at this time of year, especially on St Martin’s Day. The smoke from all the carts can be seen in the night air across the city.

A typical saying in Portugal is;

É dia de São Martinho; comem-se castanhas, prova-se o vinho.

It’s Saint Martin’s Day; we’ll eat chestnuts, we’ll taste the wine.


A Walk in My Shoes

For the past 3 weeks I have been going to language school every morning. I get up at 7.00am and catch the bus to Campo Grande, then the Metro to Rossio station, central Lisbon. It takes me about an hour to get there. The school specialises in teaching foreigners how to speak Portuguese, from beginners through to advanced levels. There are four of us in the class – me, Po Yi from Canada, Alexandra from Germany and Ruslan from Chechnya.

These are just a few images I took one morning on my way to the school.

This is the view from the bus stop over the road from our apartment. We live on the top floor with Filipa’s brother, Toze.

The bus trip takes about 30 minutes, through the outer suburbs of Lisbon. It’s the end of summer here, just heading in to autumn and the morning sun and the colours are just lovely. The bus stops at Campo Grande. This is where you will see the funky stadium of Sporting Football Club (a major soccer team in Portugal) which is green, white and yellow and covered in tiny Portuguese tiles. Rivalry is strong and fans of opposing Portuguese teams refer to the ‘Jose Alvalade XXI stadium’ as just a ‘large bathroom’.

All the Lisbon Metro stations are beautifully designed with tiles, drawings or poetry.

Inside the Campo Grande Metro station….


I can stay on the same line, Linha Verde, and don’t have to change lines. I exit at Rossio station in the centre of Lisbon and climb the stairs to feel the sunshine on my face in Praça da Figueria and the beautiful equestrian statue of King João I.

Like any major city, Lisbon has its fair share of homeless. The vents from the underground Metro blow warm air and is the perfect place for the homeless to stay sleep under pieces of cardboard. I also pass the same two guys every morning, bright and perky, sitting on the steps of a nearby church.

From the square I walk down Rua dos Douradores to the school, about a five minute walk. On the way, I stop for a quick coffee, made by a cute little senhor in his coffee shop and soak up the Lisbon architecture and vibe.

Our Pilgrimage

Lucky for me, I was baptised Catholic and it has served me well since arriving in Portugal where 85% of the population are Catholic. Within two weeks of arriving in Portugal I had been to Mass twice. It had been about 7 years since I had last been to Mass. My father was adamant that if I went again, possibly the roof would collapse or I’d get struck by lightning.

In memory of Filipa’s dear father, who passed away 20 years ago on that day, we all made a trip to Fátima, a small but very famous town in Portugal and the most important place for all Catholics in Europe and worldwide, outside the Vatican. A trip here will really give you an insight in to Portugals’ religious culture. Every year, around 6 million people make a pilgrimage to this little town which inhabits only 10,000 people.

In particular, they come to the Basilica and the main square, very reminiscent of St Peter’s in Rome, to stand where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three very surprised little peasant children on 13 May, 1917, out tending their parents sheep. The story goes that a bolt of lightning struck the ground and a woman ‘brighter than the sun’ appeared before them. The woman appeared again to them on the 13th day of June and also July. They were told to do penance and pray the rosary every day and they were entrusted with three secrets. News spread quickly around the town and the government accused the church of lying to revive it’s apparently flagging popularity. The children were even arrested and interrogated but they refused to change their story. Then on 13 October 1917, around 70,000 people gathered and witnessed the so-called Miracle of the Sun where the sun changed as if the people had taken LSD or magic mushrooms or something. Out of the three children, only one of them (Lúcia) made it to adulthood. The other two, Jacinta and Francisco died of the flu epidemic in 1918. Lúcia became a Carmelite nun, dying in 2007 at the age of 97. She revealed the first two secrets in 1941 but the final secret was not revealed to the public by the Vatican until 2000, even though she had written down the secret and given it to them in 1960. The final secret depicted a bishop dressed in white being killed by soldiers with guns. People claim that this was a prediction of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 (which coincidentally occurred on May 13!) Their knowledge of the secret apparently saved his life but like all good stories there are also some great conspiracy theories out there.

Believe it or not!?

I found this all very fascinating and really enjoyed the peacefulness of the Mass, which was held outdoors in the square. On the left hand side of the square there is a small chapel which marks the spot where the Virgin Mary appeared and it is the place where pilgrims devote themselves and do penance in return for help. Many pilgrims shuffle the entire square on their knees, along a vast marble aisle, which I found incredible. Some would wear volleyball knee-pads and others would endure the pain, as if this would be “better” for their prayers. Nothing like a bit of self-flagellation!

To the side of the chapel is a huge blazing fire and candle-lighting area which you can feel significant heat from and hear the crackling from quite a distance.  Here people light candles, leave gifts or throw offerings on the fire. There are many shops in the town of Fátima that sell interesting religious items like glow-in-the-dark Virgins, rosaries and busts of the Pope. You name it, they got it. I was perplexed by the shops which had wax arms, legs and even babies. When I asked Filipa about this she said it was for people to throw on the pyre, if they had a sick child or a illness in their arm or leg.

After Mass, we all enjoyed a long lunch together in a nearby restaurant. Filipa’s little 10 year old cousin Clarisse was incessantly talking about the ‘Museum of the Life of Christ’ throughout the entire lunch, begging us all to go. So, after lunch, we all took a visit to the wax museum which depicted 33 scenes from the life of Christ….kind of like a Madame Tussauds for Catholics, but more gruesome and with a bit of a bad ending! The only one of its kind in the world.

We almost were the first people to be evicted from the ‘Museum of the Life of Christ’, when Filipa decided she wanted a photo of herself in the nativity scene next to the donkeys and baby Jesus. Before she could get there, and more importantly, before I could get a photo, alarms sounded. We neglected to check for security systems prior to her jumping the barricade.

God sees all!

Village hospitality

Filipa’s village of Barriosa is in central Portugal, near the national park, Serra da Estrela and mainland Portugals’ highest mountain, Torre. Every year the village celebrates the summer holidays with a festival. This village, of about 500 people, knows how to party and for 4 nights they did. Every night there were different bands and a different styles and blends of music, either traditional Portuguese music, reggae or rock ‘n’ roll. Filipa and her cousin Sara manned the cocktail bar every night, making caipirinhas, mojitos and sangria for the masses. For 4 nights we got to sleep around 4 or 5 am and woke in the afternoon for a dip in the local river, in time to do it all over again. I’m sure the Portuguese are missing the ‘I’m sleepy’ gene as they never seem to want to call it quits. People of all ages know how to party. Within days of arriving in Portugal I had developed my addiction to the Portuguese bica – a strong short black coffee! Over the 4 days there are also activities and competitions between Barriosa and neighbouring villages in soccer, a card game played in pairs called sueca and a game similar to petanque or bocce called malha.

Barriosa village

We spent a very relaxing week in the village, swimming, sleeping, eating and drinking and it was also the perfect opportunity for me to meet Filipa’s entire family, as everyone was there for the summer break and the 4-day festival.

The first day I arrived it was one of Filipa’s cousins birthday, so we were off to a family dinner where I got to meet everyone in one go….roughly around 30 people – her mother, brother, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, cousins, and more cousins. This is just the immediate family. The number grows to around 100 for the extended family. My first Portuguese birthday party was quite a head spinning experience.

Names – how am I ever going to remember them all?

The language – will I ever be able to understand or even speak Portuguese? Everyone sounds like they are arguing passionately with each other (although they are not) and everyone is talking at once. At times, the tones and sounds of Portuguese can almost sound slightly Russian. I was also amazed that not as many people as I thought could speak English and those that could speak English, are quite shy about it, so they don’t.

The food and wines – will my body go in to shock after living in Indonesia for 18 months, with the copious amounts of amazing meats, cheeses, breads and wines?

Okay, I won’t go in to too much detail now about the food because I could write a whole post just about each dish….and I will….. but one word about the food….delicioso!

Towards the end of the evening, the accordion was out and there was traditional singing and there was dancing and much hand clapping. No Portuguese dinner party seems to be complete without a group of family members surrounding the TV and shouting at a soccer game.

During that first week in the village I tried so many traditional homemade dishes and wines. Unfortunately not a lot of photos to show you due to only just having met all these people and I was feeling a little shy to pull out the camera, but I promise to post some photos and go in to more detail in later posts.

Just to name a few and whet your appetite…..leitão (suckling pig), frango grelhado (grilled baby chicken), bacalhau a murro (salted cod fish with smashed potatoes), arroz de marisco (seafood rice), sopa de caldo verde (green cabbage soup), canja (chicken noodle soup), vinho verde (green wine) and cabrito assado (roasted goat)…..and I haven’t even touched on desserts yet or the amazing local cheeses that are so creamy and tasty or the chouriço, the spicy Portuguese smoked sausage.

Filipa’s uncle makes local organic products and has won awards around Portugal for his foods and wines. I tried one of the spirits he makes called Aguardente de frutos vermelhos. It’s about 45% in alcohol and contains small red fruits. Aguardente is like the Portuguese version of the Italian grappa and it sets your throat on fire and your legs weak.

All of the dishes were made by Filipa’s mum, aunties or grandmother and lots of home grown vegetables and organic meats. So organic, I saw the cute little goats being led in to the backyard which were to be roasted later that day. Filipa’s grandparents have a shop where they sell a lot of produce to the village with an adjoining traditional Portuguese café (the only one in the village).

I also witnessed the annual Procession of the Saints through the village, which coincides with the 4-day festa. The patron Saint of Barriosa is Santo António, Saint Anthony. After Sunday Mass, four statues of Saints were carried through the entire village on the shoulders of the villagers. Each Saint had been decorated with flowers and the village streets had been decorated by the children with paper flags. It was beautiful just following the procession through the streets amongst the grape vines and feeling the community spirit and local pride.

I was welcomed with open arms and warmth in to Portuguese village life and Filipa’s family. It was a wonderful introduction in to Portuguese culture and one I will always remember with fond memories.

We stopped for one final look back over the national park as we were leaving to head back to Lisbon.  Farewell for now, Barriosa. What a great week.