It’s vacation time, but despite everything, the coffee mania still grips FARO’s baristas as they roam the world seeking new discoveries. Our usual subject here is coffee-producing countries, but we’ve decided to do a series of blogs about coffeehouses in the countries where our baristas are vacationing or training abroad. As they journey, you’ll get glimpses of local coffee culture through the writings of the baristas themselves. For instance, what is unique and special about the café scene in Korea, Singapore, Australia, Central America or Europe? Stay tuned!
Being an inveterate tourist myself, it’s my pleasure to kick off this series of blogs by presenting the coffeehouses I’ve had time to visit. I paid too much for my coffee but, that being said, I greatly enjoyed my experience (all except the tab!).
When I’m traveling for work, I always seek out independent cafés. I want to see what they’re doing, and drink coffee that’s more carefully crafted than what you get in the big fast-food chains. Even on vacation, I keep my eyes open. The offer tends to be pretty standard, though. With young people increasingly savvy, and fashions in specialty coffees ever more accessible, there’s a leveling effect on the offer around the globe. That’s why I prefer to tell you about coffeehouses where the tradition has roots going back generations. I figure a café that’s been open for 100 years deserves a visit. So in this first blog, I’ll tell you about two famous coffeehouses in Portugal, places I absolutely had to visit while in the land of pasteís de nata and azulejos.
Lisbon (A Brasileira)
The lavish A Brasileira coffeehouse is one of those cafés whose clientele has changed the course of history. Opensince 1905, it is located in the heart of Lisbon, on the edge of Largo do Chiado square. The eternal patron immortalized in bronze on the terrace is the elusive and multifarious personality Fernando Pessoa, also known as “the flâneur”, a noted Lisbon political and cultural writer renowned for his drunken articles (and his talent).
The coffeehouse itself is a trip back in time. The architecture is sublime. The coffee they serve is a medium-dark roast, very well balanced, quite representative of what you find in Lisbon’s other typical cafés. A short espresso that’s not at all fruity, but still well balanced and devoid of bitterness. Let’s just say that with THE ultimate local pastry, the pastel de nata, it gets the day off to a very good start!
If you’re going to Lisbon and want to learn more about the history of coffeehouses and their influence on the thinkers and critics who forged today’s world, this is a must.
Porto (Majestic Café)
The Majestic Café is a chic Porto coffeehouse somewhat reminiscent of the Parisian Belle Époque. Its Art Nouveau architecture has made the café a popular meeting place for Porto’s residents since 1921. Its charm and luxurious ambience have inspired the city’s political and economic élite. With time, thinkers and artists have taken it over (including J.K. Rowling, who worked on Harry Potter there). Today, the typical patrons tend to be tourists, so it’s a good idea to go early, or late, outside the hours when the place is swarming with camera-wielding tourists like myself (which dilutes the magic somewhat). Go at other times and soak up the atmosphere of a local café.
The coffee they serve is adequate but no more. The espresso is devoid of acidity with a short finish, in the Portuguese tradition. The menu is nothing special either. The prices are high for what’s offered. Don’t worry, though: the coffeehouse itself is well worth the trip. Its romantic atmosphere, costumed servers and stunning architecture will make you forget what you’re paying. This café recalls the cultural importance of drink and coffeehouses and the influential role they have played.
A tip: Visit in the evening. With the lights, it’s magnificent. And skip the food! Porto has many good restaurants where you’ll get much better fare for the price. Ask to be seated on the back terrace, behind the piano, if you want more leisure to write your book or poem.
In an upcoming blog, my coworker Antoine should be telling you about Portugal’s independent cafés. To end this first blog inspired by traditional Portuguese coffeehouses, here are some lines from a poem Fernando Pessoa wrote in a café. (I’ll leave you to guess whether drink or coffee was his muse.) It’s entitled “Follow Your Destiny”.
“Follow your destiny,
Water your plants,
Love your roses.
The rest is shadow
Of unknown trees.
Reality is always
More or less
Than what we want.
Only we are always
Equal to ourselves.”
— “The flâneur”