Historic Cafes II
Among the Portuguese, there is an almost generalized consensus, albeit held in a veiled way, that the quality of the co ee consumed within the national territory is a hallmark of our collective identity. When one speaks of homesickness, co ee is, of course, one of the things that is often evoked. But this is rarely verbalized clearly, given the plethora of icons we can invoke in a ection of the homeland, beginning with the singular beauty of our language and a list of so many other things that are dear to us: from the sun to the custard tart, from the art of Fado to the beauty of our beaches, cities and towns, our wine and cuisine, the natural exuberance of the Azores and Madeira, the light in Lisbon and the number 28 tram ride, without even mentioning the excellent footballing qualities of Cristiano Ronaldo. However, we are less aware of our admiration for particular places which, while perhaps lacking anything truly exceptional, are where the daily life that de nes us is drawn and matures. And without occupying the central place of other times, the café establishment continues to play a hugely symbolic role in the national imagination, even if unrecognised. The lack of recognition of such places is therefore paradoxical. “Having a co ee” continues to be one of the most distinctive habits of the Portuguese character. An expression that has long been internalised in our imaginary and, as we well know, entails much more than just an occasion to enjoy a hot beverage. The phrase has come to signify a commitment to a conversation, to occur in the more or less immediate future, in a place where the sense of communal space puts us in a relationship of equality with our interlocutor. Not in my house, or in yours, but in the café. There, in the establishment with the same name as the beverage, a meeting is understood to
hold implicit worth, without need of justi cation. It may be a point of initiation or conclusion for a variety of relationships, yet most often it expresses continuity. A café acts as a living room for the community amid the ceaseless ow of daily life. One enters the café to feel the pulse of what is going on, to get up-to-date with the gossip, to share one’s thoughts, to avoid solitude, or to provide background noise for moments of introspection; for reading, studying or merely giving ourselves over to daydreaming.
The golden era of cafés in Portugal was the period between the mid-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “The café is one of the most characteristic features of a country. The experienced, sharp-witted traveller can arrive anywhere, go into the café, look at it, examine it, study it, and he knows all about the country in which he nds himself, its government, its laws, its customs, its religion”, wrote Almeida Garrett in 1846 in Travels in my Homeland. At that time, the café was embraced by the urban bourgeoisie as a place of social conviviality, something that was to be con rmed in the following decades with the opening of increasingly large and sophisticated establishments in terms of their decoration and service. A good example can be found in the elegant A Brasileira de Braga, opened in 1907 and included in this series, in which social, political, cultural and business life found a privileged stage, as in other national cities. For men, it must be emphasised. Women at the time were still given a subordinate role, which only begun to be questioned from the 1960s onwards in more lofty social circles. The spaces of the patisseries and cakeshops were reserved for the wealthier ladies of the cities, like Versailles, which opened in 1922 and which is also part of this series.