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Lisbon: Art, Fado & Food

Editor's Note: Business traveler Jake Biddington takes over as correspondent for this issue.

Guimaraes sculpture King SebastianWith the Euro in place on the consumer level (and pleasantly priced as dollar-lite), traveling in the European Union grows ever simpler. Like a business school template for a successful company, EU countries are broadly similar. Focusing on the details makes the company profitable--or the country fascinating. Lisbon is a mid-sized city in a smallish EU country but with a character all its own.


Gulbenkian Foundation: Modern and Contemporary Portugese Art Collection

The late Armenian magnate Calouste Gulbenkian is known to Americans for his fine collection of 19th century and modern masters. But, in 1956 he also founded the first cultural center in Lisbon devoted to promoting contemporary art in his adopted country. In 1983, the Modern Art Center opened on the grounds of the Gulbenkian Foundation. The support and systematic acquisition of works by artists from Portugal--many trained in Oporto or in Lisbon--makes this a valuable art resource. It functions as a regional museum chronicling how Portuguese artists assimilate predominate trends while still retaining their own special identities.

José de Guimarães (b.1939) "Don Sebastião--Rei", 1985 (Fundacão Gulbenkian)
A parody of the equestrian monument that commands Lisbon's imposing Praça do Comercio.

An excellent model for a regional or small-country museum, the Modern Art Center presents contemporary solo exhibitions as well as exhibiting selections from the existing collection and works of internationally recognized artists. The Modern Art Center places Portuguese artists in an international art world context without making their work take a back seat to that of the prevailing "Art Stars". The contemporary viewing audience enjoys the opportunity to examine home-grown talent in a serious setting. The artists get what artists most desire: the opportunity for time to be the judge of their work.

Almeida photographs

Helena Almeida (b.1934) "Inhabited Canvas", 1976
(Fundacão Gulbenkian)

Because the Portugese are remarkably visitor-friendly and take real pleasure in human contact, I expected Portugese contemporary art to include people as subject matter. The Modern Art Center has made a point of collecting works across the stylistic and media spectrum. Given my pre-disposition, the examples of figuration provided particular delight. Using different vernaculars, artists such as José de Guimarães (Pop art cut-outs) and Helena Almeida (Conceptual photographs) use human figures to address contemporary art issues with wit and charm.


The Heart of Alfama

In describing Portugese music, writers always note that fado derives its name from the word "fate"--suggesting a musical form somewhere between the blues and a Greek chorus. But fado is not only about human misery. With a 2-guitar accompaniment, each singer communicates his/her perspective on the world: a middle-aged woman might sing about the loss of a child or a lover, an old geezer about the pleasures of taking each day as it comes, a cool dude about career & self-doubt and a couple might squabble in a "he said, she said" duet. Everyone--audience included-- sings joyously about their love for Lisbon. Overall, fado is more melodic and less rhythmically complex than flamenco, but with flamenco's passion and immediacy.

Almada Negreiros painting
Jose Sobral de Almada Negreiros (1893-1970)
"Self-Portrait in a Group", 1925
(Fundacão Gulbenkian)
In the interest of full disclosure, my visits were not to the official fado club performance sites many of which are in the Bairro Alto. Instead, I roamed, (more accurately climbed), the passageways of the Alfama neighborhood guided by chalkboards reading "FADO". Entering a room for which the word "intimate" is grossly inadequate, the visitor is shown to a seat and handed wine & food--olives or grilled sardines--or offered heartier fare at dinnertime. In due course, the resident child puts away his homework, the kitchen lights turn off and the cook sits heavily on a wooden stool. A guitarist plays a few haunting bars then someone begins to sing. And so it continues into the night. Fado is imbedded in the lives of the people who perform it and the people who listen to it. As an art form, it reflects local character while expressing elemental human emotions.

Proenca ink drawing

Notes: Food, Wine & Side Trips

Restaurants & Coffee Bars:
Lamprey, lampreia, is a seasonal delicacy available when the fish swim up the Tejo River from January into March. A rich-tasting, eel-like fish with an ancient pedigree, its preparation includes bottles of red wine with rice. Finishing a portion is like puffing a Havana down to the last half inch--intense but delicious.

Along Rua de São Jose into Rua Porta Sto. Antão, Lisbon's restaurant row, there are several fine restaurants and many ordinary ones. The best are easily spotted because no one is out front importuning you to enter. With seafood so fresh, it's hard to go wrong.

Pedro Proença (b.1962)
"Perder a Cabeça (To Lose His Head)", 1991
(Fundacão Gulbenkian)
As you peruse the menu, you might find that dishes miraculously appear on your table: olives, a small cheese, cod cakes or sardines and perhaps dried ham. You will be charged for these items--but not nearly enough. Just enjoy them and adjust your main course order accordingly.

In addition to the best coffee in Europe, Lisbon's coffee bars inexpensively & efficiently serve-up sopas (soups), tostas (grilled sandwiches), maças (baked apples) and melons all through the daylight hours.

Wines in Portugal are becoming ever more sophisticated with possibilities far beyond vinho verde and Mateus. In the price range of Euros 20 and higher, very good wines appear. In the reds, '96 vintages were generally available and drinking nicely. Click here for an explanation of Portugals wine regions and characteristics. All regions are represented on Lisbon wine lists, but restaurant staffs tended to lean to the Alentejos--from the region just south and east of Lisbon. After dinner, both the portos and madeiras (a semi-sweet malvasia or a dry--but leggy--terrantez) are excellent and represent incredible value--the Europeans having sense enough to tax fossil fuels rather than grapes.

An Off-the Run Wine Bar:
A wine-tasting destination serving small, tapas-like foods, Enoteca Chafariz do Vinho has many selections available as wines-by-the-glass. Listings include whites & reds from all major regions as well as madeiras and portos. However, there is no "bar" per se--it's all table service and set-up for groups of 4 to 6. A reservation is generally required and you must buzz at the front door to be admitted. The building is the slickly re-designed former public water reservoir. Address: Rua de Mae d'Água a Praça da Alegria. Tel. 213 422 079.

Day Trips:
Sintra--Trains run every twenty or thirty minutes to the storybook-beautiful hilltop fortification town of Sintra. In addition to the fanciful architecture and ceramics shops, Sintra boasts a 20th century art museum and a bit of a local art scene. (Openings for group shows appear to vary little the world over.)

Cascais--At the end of the train line along the Estoril coast (only 50 minutes from Lisbon), this simple fishing village long ago morphed into a British ex-pat mecca. Enticements include sun, appealing outdoor restaurants, attractive shops and a nicely-paved esplanade for strolling the two miles back to the casino town of Estoril. (The new casino bears no resemblance to the elegant one immortalized in I. Fleming's Casino Royale--no need to pack the dinner jacket.) Tchau!

More Art & Antiques Destinations with Jake Biddington:
Art Tourism New York City 2005: Christo's Gates
Art Museums, Neighborhoods & Dining in Buenos Aires
Art and Touring along Italy's Amalfi Coast
Art Museums & Restaurants in Amsterdam
Cultural Touring along Spain's Costa del Sol
Art Touring in Lisbon
Art Touring in Milan
Art Touring in Antwerp
Art Touring in Barcelona
I-80 Park City to New York City Art & Antiques
Art Tourism New York City 2003 (Archive)
Art Tourism New York City 2002 (Archive)
Art & Antiques in Hudson, New York (Columbia County)
Art & Restaurants in Rome 2002 Update
Hartford & Wilton, Connecticut
San Francisco Jackson Square
New Hampshire Route 1A
Morris County, New Jersey

Jake Biddington's 2005 Art Collecting Series:
Art Appraisals and Valuations
Investment Grade Contempory Art

Jake Biddington Art Investing (Archives):
PPP Test: Judging Quality in Contemporary Art
Art, Time and Technology
American vs. European Paintings
Jake Biddington's Art as Entertainment
Jake Biddington's Vetted Antiques & Art Shows
Jake Biddington's Patent Numbers as a Dating Tool
Jake Biddington's Hard Assets as Portfolio Diversification
Jake Biddington's Buying Fine Jewelry at Auction
Jake Biddington's Long Term Investing
Jake Biddington's Short-Term Investing
Jake Biddington's The Craft of Art


Here at BIDDINGTON'S, our work is also our play. When we're not exhibiting and discussing art & antiques online, we're learning about wonderful objects in shops, at great shows and in museums all over the world.

In this article, Jake Biddington offers suggestions and descriptions of interesting art tourism destinations. Some of these venues are always in open; others revolve around special or seasonal events. These are art travel excursions we at BIDDINGTON'S--upmarket, online art & antiques auctions and Contemporary Art Gallery--have enjoyed making. We hope you'll like them, too.

Contact Jake Biddington about His Travels

COPYRIGHT: Images and information within are Copyright Biddington's, Inc. 1997-2005--except where superceded by individual copyrights of the artists.
Downloading or printing for online or print reproduction of any materials without specific written permission from Biddington's, Inc. is prohibited.

PEDIGREE & PROVENANCE--art words & terms defined. CREATIVE PROCESS--artists' studio visits.
JAKE BIDDINGTON'S INVESTING--financial advice on art & antiques collecting. MY ART--art for kids.