It must be obvious that London fails to make a list compiled to these criteria. It is too large and its story too long and diverse to have a heart. Its coherence was beaten out of it centuries ago as it sprawled from one village to anothe like some all-devouring amoeba .Its justification, you may say, is in its dynamism; there has been no period when it fell asleep and so consolidated itself. The sound most associated with it is the pneumatic drill, ripping like some crazed dentist into good and bad alike.
But I think you can add Lisbon to my list. At the north-west of the Barrio Alta lies the home of the city's greatest Fadista, Amalia Rodrigues. Two hours, if your feet permit, would take you comfortably down to the river, and so to her birthplace in the Alfama district, and back again through Baixa. A bit up hill and down dale, true, because Lisbon takes its character from its hills just as much as from its long waterfront, but you would rarely be smacked in the eye and so forced to ask yourself - how the hell did THAT get there? Like the best cities on my list, it gets its charm and civility from having taken time to absorb the representatives of its history, from the Moorish towers of Castello St.Jorge to the Romanesque austerity of its small cathedral, and from the nineteenth century boulevards of the northern hills to the grandiloquent Placa da Commercia by the river. Well, yes, the traffic can be as thunderous as anywhere else, but pedestrianisation has been substantial, and there's a good and functioning metro and tram system too. The narrow alleyways fill up when the huge cruise-ships arrive (there were three at once during my visit) and there is some prostitution of culture too, when it feels like Fado is sold in every other restaurant. (You will know what this feels like if you come from Dublin.) It's an argument for another day whether the culture can be faithful to itself and survive such pimping.
Of course, like all the cities in my list, the historic centre is only the heart in the much larger and organic body which it powers. Suburbs in Lisbon spawl out by fits and starts in all directions, endless high-rises of apartments for the most part, and some are no doubt rougher than others. It's a good test of civic virtue how much its inhabitants can share or take part in the cultural heritage a city offers. Portugal has its own backstory of colonialism, and a flying visit isn't enough to tell how successfully it has been absorbed or its relicts are able to contribute. There are quite a few black faces in the streets and trams, but very few at the Fado evenings I attended, though the clientele was largely Portuguese, and many, I guess, afficianados, for here and there they joined readily in the refrains, and at the second, many joined the musicians on the little stage for a final song.
The best of this music could only be Hispanic, for it shares with its near contemporary, Tango, and with Flamenco, a certain intensity of feeling in both the music and (as far as I can gather) the lyrics; something elegaic, where love and death are never far apart, something bitter-sweet. And the best performers carry this off with what Flamenco calls duende, but in Portuguese is saudade, a yearning. The favoured Fado combination is the voice accompanied by the Portuguese guitar and the Spanish guitar. The former is hardly a guitar at all, deriving in the eighteenth century from the English cittern. It has six double courses, paired in octaves, and surprisingly played not with a plectrum but fingerstyle. The fan-shaped headstock is its immediate marker. The strings, at least in Lisbon, are tuned BAEBAD.
In its Lisbon incarnation (and there are rivals) Fado was a true folk-music, in the sense of being the music of the poor and disposessed, produced in the streets and bars, and brothels too. The Fadista, heroic and romantic, struggles with fate - that after all is the meaning of the word Fado. It is a struggle that is doomed for all of us in the end. Meanwhile, with the Fadista, we can at least, in the words of Dylan Thomas, sing in our chains like the sea. Let's walk a little further...