Daily Dose of Europe: Fado — The Lisbon Blues  

“O waves of the salty sea, where do you get your salt? From the tears shed by the women in black on the sad shores of Portugal.”

Because of the coronavirus, Europe is effectively off-limits to American travelers for the next few weeks (and likely longer). But travel dreams are immune to any virus. During these challenging times, I believe a daily dose of travel dreaming can actually be good medicine. Here’s another one of my very favorite travel dreams-come-true…a reminder of what’s waiting for you in Europe on the other end of this crisis.

It’s after dark in Lisbon’s ramshackle Alfama neighborhood. Old-timers gather in restaurants, which serve little more than grilled sardines, to hear and sing Portugal’s mournful fado: traditional ballads of lament.

I grab the last chair in a tiny place, next to two bearded men hunched over their mandolins, lost in their music. A bald singer croons, looking like an old turtle without a shell. There’s not a complete set of teeth in the house. A spry grandma does a little jive, balancing a wine bottle on her head. The kitchen staff peers from a steaming hole in the wall, backlit by their flaming grill. The waiter sets a plate of fish and a pitcher of cheap cask wine on my table and — like a Portuguese Ed Sullivan — proudly introduces the next singer, a woman who’s been singing here for more than 50 years.

She’s the star: blood-red lipstick, big hair, a mourning shawl over her black dress. Towering above me, flanked by those mandolins, she’s a fusion of moods — old and young, both sad and sexy. Her revealing neckline promises there’s life after death. I can smell her breath as she drowns out the sizzle of sardines with her plush voice.

The man next to me whispers in my ear a rough English translation of the words she sings. It’s a quintessential fado theme of lost sailors and sad widows: “O waves of the salty sea, where do you get your salt? From the tears shed by the women in black on the sad shores of Portugal.” Suddenly it’s surround-sound as the diners burst into song, joining the chorus.

Fado is the folk music of Lisbon’s rustic neighborhoods: so accessible to anyone willing to be out late and stroll the back streets. Since the mid-1800s, it’s been the Lisbon blues — mournfully beautiful and haunting ballads about long-gone sailors, broken hearts, and bittersweet romance. Fado means “fate” — how fate deals with Portugal’s adventurers… and the families they leave behind. The lyrics reflect the pining for a loved one across the water, hopes for a future reunion, remembrances of a rosy past, or dreams of a better future. It’s the yearning for what might have been if fate had not intervened. While generally sad, fado can be jaunty…in a nostalgic way.

The songs are often in a minor key. The singer (fadista) is accompanied by stringed instruments, including a 12-string guitarra portuguesa with a round body like a mandolin (or, as the man whispering in my ear said, “like a woman”). Fado singers typically crescendo into the first word of the verse, like a moan emerging from deep inside. Though the songs are often sorrowful, the singers rarely overact — they plant themselves firmly and sing stoically in the face of fate.

While fado has become one of Lisbon’s favorite late-night tourist traps, I can still find funky bars — without the high prices and big-bus tour groups — that feel very local. Two districts, the Alfama and the Bairro Alto, have small, informal fado restaurants for late dinners or even later evenings of drinks and music. Handwritten “fado tonight” (fado esta noite) signs in Portuguese are good news, but even a restaurant filled with tourists can serve up fine fado with its sardines.

After thanking the man who’d translated the songs for me, I leave the bar late that night feeling oddly uplifted. An evening seasoned with the tears of black-clad widows reminds me that life, even salty with sadness, is worth embracing.

(This story is excerpted from my upcoming book, For the Love of Europe — collecting 100 of my favorite memories from a lifetime of European travel, coming out in July. It’s available for pre-order.)

Portugal: Foibles, Frustrations, and Favorite Finds

Rick Steves Portugal guidebook


Every year, I go on a Rick Steves tour — and I get a lot of work done. (If ever you find yourself updating a guidebook, as I do for three months every year, consider taking a tour to make your job easier.)

Rather than driving between destinations, on a tour I can just park myself in the back of the bus and write or relax. (Our tour groups only take up about half of the seats on our big buses — so there’s always plenty of room.) I’ve got an expert tour guide at my side whenever needed. And, thanks to the free time we build into every itinerary, I’m with 25 travelers who are using my guidebooks — and are happy to share with me all of the foibles, frustrations, and favorite finds that they experience along the way. Each morning, I make the rounds and enjoy “free time” reports from our gang: where they ate, what they did, and what the pitfalls were. And as I experience the must-see attractions with them, I can gauge how best to cover those sights for the independent travelers who use my guidebooks.

This year, I took our Heart of Portugal in 12 Days tour — and I had a blast. As always, our “no grumps” policy made for a fun and happy group, and our knowledgeable guide, Fatima, made sure that we experienced maximum travel thrills. And all along the way, I had the chance to talk to travelers about some of the ups and downs of exploring on their own — all of which will find its way into the upcoming tenth edition of my Rick Steves Portugal guidebook.

Here are a few of the nuggets that I picked up:


Lisbon’s Mouraria District

Lisbon’s Mouraria District

In Lisbon, the big news for me was the realization that my beloved Alfama quarter is no longer so rewarding to visit. Lisbon’s Visigothic birthplace and once-salty sailors’ quarter, tumbling from the castle down to the harbor, is salty no more — except with the sweat of cruise groups hiking now-lifeless lanes. The new colorful district to explore is the Mouraria, on the back side of the castle. This is where the Moors lived after the Reconquista — “Mouraria” means “Moorish quarter” — and to this day, it’s a gritty and colorful district of immigrants. Until recently, a tourist may not have been comfortable exploring here. But today, with the rising tide of affluence, this vibrant district — the birthplace of fado, Lisbon’s bluesy folk music — is starting the path to gentrification.


Not-So-Free Tours in Lisbon


Free Tour in Lisbon


The tour scene in Lisbon is changing — as in other touristy European cities — with the dominance of “free” tours. These dishonestly named tours are actually tip-based: At the end, you’re still expected to pay (in the form of tips, rather than a fee). And, while the guides can be solid, in many cases they have simply memorized a script — so they’re more entertainers than historians. These tours are not bad in themselves. Just remember you have the option to pay up front to join a tour led by a licensed and well-trained guide who’s a true expert in their city. “Free” tours are a fine example of the axiom, “You get what you pay for.”

(In a way, these “free” tours feel in keeping with the general dumbing down of our world lately — a reflection of people’s shorter attention spans, and the success of options that are cheap in every sense.)


Disorganized Crowds at the Jerónimos Monastery

Crowds at the Jerónimos Monastery


Lately, I’ve been tuning into where my travelers’ pinch points are when it comes to crowds and lines. More and more people are traveling, and popular destinations can accommodate them by simply building more hotels. But throughout Europe, many of the marquee attractions that draw tourists have fixed capacities: The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, Michelangelo’s David in Florence, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Alhambra in Granada. Many of these “must-see sights” are physically at capacity. They simply cannot fit the massive crowds of people that hope to see them every day.

While Portugal has almost no such sights, you will have to deal with crowds at the Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon’s Belém neighborhood. This photo shows the commotion as cruise and tour groups converge on the tiny entrance, creating a chaos you’ll find there all day long, nearly every day in peak season. While other such sights in Europe offer ways to secure tickets in advance, this sight is not that organized. Put on your shoulder pads and prepare to spend some time in line.


Pickpockets and Scammers


Lisbon and Porto — Portugal’s two big cities — are easygoing and friendly. But, like other touristic boom towns, they do have their pickpockets and scammers. Be on guard. And be wary when someone approaches you with a request to sign a petition to “help the children.” If you participate, the only children you’re likely to help are the ones picking your pocket as you’re distracted, reaching for the pen.

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Experiences are the Measure of a Great Tour

I spend about a third of each year in Europe. And every year, a highlight is actually taking a Rick Steves tour. This year, my pick was the Heart of Portugal in 12 Days — and I had a blast.

For our tour company, Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, 2018 has been the best year yet — with 28,000 travelers (and counting) joining us on over 1,000 departures. As the head of the company, I believe it’s essential to actually experience our tours as a participant. It helps me get to know our tours and our customers: Who’s joining us? What are their expectations, energy levels, attention spans, and highlights? And all of this helps me answer the key question: How can we be better?

My goal as a tour operator is to provide maximum efficiency, maximum experience, and maximum value. Travel can be filled with anxiety, and something I’m really committed to for our travelers is minimum anxiety.

On my Portugal tour this year, all but a couple of my fellow tour members were repeat travelers. In fact, I’d estimate that the people in our group had taken an average of four Rick Steves tours each. (Being a less “mainstream” destination, Portugal tends to draw more experienced travelers.)


Rick Steves with Portugal tour group



During our peak tour times in spring and fall, we have over 100 guides (like Fatima, shown below) all working at the same time. Our travelers come on our tours with very high expectations — and our guides enjoy the professional challenge of exceeding those expectations.


Rick Steves and tour guide Fatima Bugarin
Fatima Bugarin

Guides tell me that one of the reasons they like leading Rick Steves’ Europe Tours is the high caliber of the people who join us. And they also like that we pay our guides entirely up front. That’s a huge difference between us and other tour companies, many of whom employ guides only if they generate a lot of secondary income. Many non-Rick Steves tour operators pay their guides only a nominal wage; the guide is expected to earn the rest of their income through tips, shopping kickbacks, and commissions on optional sightseeing tours that they “upsell” to their tour members. But we operate differently — we’ve made all our money up front, and our guides are fully paid from the start. This frees them up to be a friend and teacher to our groups, and to see our customers as travel partners rather than a source of income. It works better both for guides and for tour members — and, I believe, is simply better from a quality point of view.

On our Portugal tour, I loved the way our guide, Fatima, packed each day with experiences. We give each guide a discretionary budget to use on creative extras that will enhance the tour. And Fatima used it to both educate and treat our group. For example, on our Lisbon walk, she bought us all lottery tickets, showed us how they worked, and explained how the lottery helps fund programs for the blind. (And a few of us even won a handful of euros — so the lesson continued as we cashed in our winning tickets.) Another particularly tasty delight: Fatima surprised us with boxes of the best cream tarts in Portugal, still warm from the oven.


Fatima Bugarin handing out lottery tickets to group

Fatima Bugarin smiling and holding a box of pasteis de belem, traditional Portuguese custard tarts


And at Belém’s Monument to the Discoveries, Fatima turned our group shot into a teaching moment, as we lined up like the sailors, conquistadors, explorer-priests, and scientists that powered Portugal into world leadership 500 years ago. I got to be Prince Henry the Navigator.


A line of men excitedly pointing forward, with Rick Steves at the front smiling and facing the camera, in front of a large stone monument that looks similar
The Monument to the Discoveries

I always come home from a Rick Steves tour inspired by our guides and our tour members. Any suggestions for next year’s tour?


Video: A Peek Inside a Designer Hostel in Lisbon

Lisbon is famous among hotel connoisseurs for its boutique hostels. Here’s a quick peek at the Lisbon Destination Hostel. One of the best (charging €20 to €40 per bed), it’s actually located in Lisbon’s Rossio train station. (Also included is a peek at the security now in place at the station. All over Europe these days you find turnstiles that keep anyone without a ticket off the platforms.)

This is Day 43 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences in Italy, Portugal, France, Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.

Video: Looking Around in Lively Lisbon

While filming in Lisbon this week it kept occurring to me that this city is so interesting, you can turn on your camera almost anywhere and create a fun, stream-of-consciousness video clip. Check this out.

(By the way, when we first got to town, we hired a little three-wheeled tuk-tuk like the one in the video to scout all the scenes we planned to film — €50 per hour and lots of fun.)


This is Day 42 of my “100 Days in Europe” series. As I travel with Rick Steves’ Europe Tours, research my guidebooks, and make new TV shows, I’m reporting on my experiences in Italy, Portugal, France, Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and more. Thanks for joining me here on my blog and via Facebook.