Lifestyle & Belief

Portugal: Creativity vs. crisis

LISBON, Portugal — The melancholy rhythms of fado music have always been close to the Portuguese heart, so perhaps it's no surprise that the genre's bluesy tales of lost loves and distant longing are enjoying a revival in these times of economic crisis. 

For the owner of one of the capital's newest and coolest fado houses, that means running against the tide of recession.

"It's a counter-cyclical thing. After we opened last year, everybody wanted to come here despite the crisis," says Goncalo Riscado, whose bar Povo (The People) sits at the heart of a regenerated former red-light district that's thriving through the hard times.

A decade ago, the dark and narrow backstreets of the Cais do Sodre district close to Tagus River quayside were a sad and dangerous place where tired streetwalkers and small-time drug dealers vied for the attention of boozy sailors hopping from bar to neon-lit strip joint.

Today the area is a busy, bustling nightlife hub with fancy boutique hotels, renowned rock venues and hot new nightclubs. It's emerged as a symbol of the resilience and creativity of the capital of a country where the national economy has shrunk for five of the last six years and unemployment has doubled to a record 17 percent.

"The crisis has had a terrible impact on the country," says Riscado over an afternoon coffee in his bar.

"You see places shutting down, small businesses disappearing, families really suffering, but at the same time a crisis can touch off creative thinking. We've got a well-educated, well-traveled younger generation that’s bursting with talent and able to put that to practical effect in this type of place, bringing a new dynamism to parts of the city. You can really feel that."

Riscado was a pioneer in the Cais do Sodre's recovery, having launched the live music venue Music Box seven years ago. But the area really took off in the winter of 2011 with the opening of Povo along with the neighboring bars Pensao Amor (Guesthouse Love) and A Velha Senhora (The Old Lady).

A hipster haven and venue for literary launches, jazz gigs and burlesque shows at night, Pensao Amor has a remarkable decor, bawdy history and unique atmosphere that’s placed it firmly on the Lisbon tourist trail.

"We've had groups of tourists coming through during the day following guides with umbrellas," laughs manager Patricia Rego. "They come in one door and out the other, taking photos all the time without stopping to sit down or take a drink. That's OK, we don't have any problem with that."

The 18th-century building Pensao Amor occupies once held no fewer than four brothels.

The bar now plays on that heritage, but instead of seedy rooms for fleeting encounters between sailors and ladies of the night, the decor resembles a luxurious Belle Epoque bordello complete with crystal chandeliers, red velvet sofas and paintings of frolicking nymphs.

Discreetly tucked away at the back are a high-class sex shop and an erotic book emporium.

Tenants renting out upstairs rooms include a pole dancing school, a massage parlor and a corset-maker whose creations have wrapped the waists of Dita Von Teese and Kylie Minogue. A museum of erotica is planned for the near future.

"We're one of the trendiest places in Lisbon and we're full every weekend, despite the crisis," Rego says. "We don't charge an entry fee, so anyone can just walk in, have a look around and enjoy themselves discovering something different, they don't have to pay a lot of money."

Downstairs in O Povo, Riscado also takes a low-cost approach, taking fado music back to its roots as rough-and-ready music of the people rather than the refined and deadly serious soundtrack to expensive dinners in the city's more refined fado houses.

Diners tucking into stewed chicken gizzards or cuttlefish with cilantro for less than $10 a plate can hear young singers like Nadia Leiriao pour out their hearts free of charge. "Everything about me is love and pain, sadness and inner strength," the 24-year-old management-student-turned fadista reveals on the bar's website.

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Riscado says it's the originality and variety on offer in Cais do Sodre that has made the area a recession-era success.

On a typical balmy evening visitors, can wander into a comedy show at the Pensao Amor, snack on tinned sardines and red wine at Sol e Pesca, catch avant garde jazz and live flamenco at the Velha Senhora, then dance till dawn at the Music Box's funk night.

"People are looking for places that are genuine and original.” Riscado says. “They don't want a cultural McDonald's that’s the same around the world."