Flamenco, Fado and Fighting Bulls

Iberian Fancies

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Castles in Spain, Portuguese lace, we all have ideas about what makes a place. While not the same for everyone, the drama that is Iberia is not to be denied.


Portugal. Alfama. 11 a.m. Fado.

I can’t resist pulling an orange from the tree in our whitewashed courtyard. Then, though I’m in a hurry, I stop to gaze out over the rooftops of Lisbon. 

Red roofs, turquoise, ochre and sienna-colored houses crazy-quilt down the steep lanes of Alfama. My neighborhood — the only part of Lisbon not destroyed in a 1755 cataclysmic quake — is situated on the highest hill of Portugal’s capital. Cast in a chiaroscuro of shoulder-wide lanes and blinding sunlight, Alfama is like an insistent suitor, arresting me in mid-sentence with its beauty and singing a beautiful and melancholy fado throughout the day. 

But I’m hungry now, and restaurant-bound, am eager to trudge up, then down, one of Alfama’s nearly vertical becos, those Lilliputian alleys paved in tiny squares of polished stone that have, I’ve noticed, left a good percentage of locals wearing splints and walking with canes. 

Yet, the passageways are bustling in Alfama. Tourists stop to snap photos of four-story buildings clad in glistening porcelain tiles. They wave lacy fans back and forth as if the breeze from the massive Tagus River below can’t do the job. And they marvel at the medieval Sao Jorge Castle that tops Alfama like a stony, gray cherry. 

For my part, I make my way down the hill to the outdoor café beside the sheltering Se Cathedral where I can luxuriate in my now daily fix of cod. Yes, the fish. COD. “Bacalao a bras,” the humble Portuguese dish that sends Lisbon natives into ecstasy when done well. Shredded potatoes, crumbled cod and an egg. And maybe an appetizer of chilled octopus ahead of time since seafood is a staple in Portugal. A shady lunch and a glass of wine will give me time to contemplate this place called Iberia, the huge peninsula of Spain, Portugal and a bite of France, that extends into the Atlantic like a handshake toward the West.

Spain greedily makes up the bulk of Iberia’s mass while Portugal seems to slink down much of its western coast. Convenient for ancient invaders, the peninsula’s formidable coastline became an entry point for waves of takeovers. From prehistoric cave-dwellers through Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals and Visigoths, it was the Arab Kingdoms that ended up ruling Iberia for nearly 700 years of breathtaking advances. Visual arts, literature, mathematics, science, architecture, the Moorish dynasties were, some think, the apogee of Iberian culture. But in 1492 all that came to a halt. Not only was Columbus making headlines, but in the reconquest, the same generous queen who had bankrolled the explorer was casting out Jews and Arabs in a kind of holocaust of forced Christianity. What Isabella couldn’t pry loose from the people of the peninsula were the centuries of Moorish influence. Though mosques became churches and Arabic was no longer spoken, music, dance and a North African aesthetic wouldn’t go away.

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