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Lisbon Deserves Its Title As European City Of The Year

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Climbing down a dark,narrow staircase, I entered a tiny room lit by countless candles. Flickering shadows danced languidly across the walls and, as my eyes adjusted to the murky atmosphere, I saw two men playing guitars and a heavy-set, 50-ish woman swaying to the rhythm. Her eyes were tightly closed as she swayed to the music. When she began her song, the sound was low, guttural almost, mournful and seductive. This was Fado, the traditional music of Portugal and high on my bucket list of things to experience.

I recently visited Lisbon, Portugal and this year a prestigious award has been conferred on the city. The Academy of Urbanism bestowed on Lisbon the award of The European City of the Year, 2012. The Academy is an autonomous, politically independent organization whose goals are the recognition, learning and promoting of the best practices in urbanism; its award is presented yearly following careful and detailed inspection of nominee cities.

The fabulous capital of Portugal has always enjoyed the superb combination of a vibrant downtown, historic quarters with parks and gardens and cool, contemporary development. It has successfully managed to sustain its classical and modern architecture and has carefully invested in worthy urban projects. This, in combination with Lisbon's recent project to develop the River Tagus waterfront in a sensitive and responsive manner, has garnered this singular award for Lisbon.

The city has still another reason to kvell. A few years ago, the Portuguese Parliament started an initiative to promote Fado as UNESCO's World's Heritage Cultural Patrimony and former Lisbon mayor Pedro Santana Lopes came up with the idea that Fado should be considered as a cultural heritage. The result: this year the UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity award has been conferred on Lisbon for its Portuguese Fado music. According to UNESCO, intangible heritage includes traditions and skills passed on within cultures. The UNESCO's committee of experts unanimously praised Fado as an example of good practices that should be followed by other countries.

This traditional art form, Fado, is music and poetry representing a multicultural synthesis of Afro-Brazilian song from rural areas of the country. It is performed professionally on the concert circuit and in small 'Fado houses in numerous grass-root associations located throughout older neighborhoods of Lisbon.

After my scintillating Fado experience in that tiny neighborhood boite, the next day I visited the
Museu e Casa do Fado located on Largo do Chafariz de Dentro 1, directly opposite the entrance to the Alfama. It's a small museum with a packed collection that includes many interactive exhibits. The permanent collection is a wondrous journey through the history of Fado -- the music, the singers, the musicians and instruments. I loved the room displaying hundreds of photos of famous singers as well as old posters and advertisements, each wall crammed with information on how Fado developed as a musical genre. My favorite room had an installation that recreated a Fado bar. I found myself alone in this room, dark and loaded with atmosphere. Lining the walls, original costumes worn by some of the great Fadistas like Lidia Riberiro, Maria da Fe and Amalia. As music played softly, I had the overpowering sensation of being an integral part of this scene. Leaving the museum and entering the bright, relentless sunlight of Lisbon was jarring, disconcerting. The cure: another visit to a Fado club that evening.

Mariza, a leading contemporary performer, multiple award winner and the ambassador for Fado's UNESCO candidacy said that, because Fado has been so honored, "perhaps we Portuguese will now take greater pride in who we are, especially in the so very grey times we currently live in."

2012 European City of the Year coupled with the luscious music of Fado - persuasive, inviting reasons to visit. But do one really need a reason? Lisbon, Portugal: reason enough!