Today’s Travel Spot is something of a surprise feature, certainly to me. I went to Porto last weekend with my friends Dave, Ian and Lev (I like friends with short, concise names: makes life so much easier). It was basically a weekend away with a chance to catch up and buy some port. They were flying back on Monday, but I’d decided to tack on a couple of days in Lisbon at the end, partly because I’d not been there for over 10 years, and partly to check out a couple of speciality coffee shops I’d heard about.
However, when it came to Porto, I really wasn’t expecting to find much in the way of good coffee. I had fond memories from previous trips of stylish European cafés with lots of excellent cakes, but when I asked around before the trip, my Porto friends said there wasn’t anything that I would recognise as speciality coffee. Not to worry, I thought, as I packed my beans, cafetiere, grinder, Aeropress and scales. After all, coffee wasn’t the primary purpose of the trip.
As it turned out, I was in for a surprise. Porto does, after all, have speciality coffee…
You can see what I found after the gallery.
Before we get to the coffee, a few words about the trip itself. We flew with TAP, from Gatwick, which now has a rather nice café in the South Terminal run by Grain Store. Serving Allpress’ Redchurch Blend, it was a cut above the average airport coffee and is a welcome addition! Suitably fortified, we were soon on our way, and before long we were in Porto. Since there were four of us travelling together, we’d decided to book an Airbnb, landing a four-bedroomed place in the centre of Porto.
It was our first Airbnb experience and we weren’t sure what to expect, but if this was anything to go by, I think we’ll be doing it again. We’d arranged a pick up from the airport and all squeezed into a rather small cab (we were expecting a minibus). On the other hand, when we got to our road, Rua da Vitória, perhaps it was just as well since I’m not sure a minibus would have managed to squeeze down there! It was a tiny, narrow lane running along half way up the hillside, tall buildings lining each side, and occasionally breaking out into spectacular views over the River Douro.
About one third of the way along, we reached our apartment, a lovely, newly renovated place that turned out to be the perfect base. We were a short (if steep) walk from everywhere we needed to go and, compared to a hotel, it was great to have a base we could return to. Since we had a kitchen, we could also start the day in style. Breakfast consisted of freshly-baked bread from a local bakers, eggs and cheese from the nearby Mercado do Bolhão (a ramshackle but wonderful old market) and, of course, coffee, made by my own fair hand. We even managed to find some Lamingtons and Smashing Pumpkin Seed Bread, although admittedly we found those in my suitcase, the former a gift from Beany Green and the latter a gift from Cakesmiths which I’d picked up at Caffè Culture.
Suitable fortified, it was time to explore.
I’d been to Porto on three previous occasions, once in 2003, a brief visit as part of the same trip that first took me to Lisbon, then again the following year with Dave and friends. That trip was all about port and we did it again a couple of years later. Afterwards, we all said we should make this a regular thing, but the years passed by and nothing happened until Dave and I (while sitting in Beany Green) decided that we were going again.
For those that don’t know Porto, it’s in northern Portugal, technically on the north bank of the River Douro. On the south bank is the town of Vila Nova de Gaia, although in my head, I tend to think of both together as Porto. Vila Nova de Gaia is where all the port lodges are, port being Porto’s famous fortified wine. Now, most readers may know that, the odd Espresso Martini aside, I’m not really into alcohol. However, I make an exception when it comes to port, something I can blame Dave for, and the first trip back in 2004.
So, part of the purpose of the trip was to get our hands on some top-quality port, the sort of thing that it’s hard to get back in the UK. The trip’s other purpose was to hang-out and explore, something we did rather a lot of over our first two days together. Porto is a very hilly place, basically a tumble of streets and buildings, all at different levels, spilling down to the river. Over in Vila Nova de Gaia, it’s not so bad, but it’s still pretty hilly. This makes for some fantastic views and a lot of climbing. Dave and Lev both had fitbits or equivalent and while the tracking apps differed slightly, I think we can safely say that over the weekend, we walked more than 30 miles and climbed a height equivalent to that of Snowdon!
We mostly confined our ramblings to the centre of Porto and to Vila Nova de Gaia, using the magnificent two-level Ponte Luis I bridge to cross between the two. However, there’s a lot more to Porto than that: on previous trips, we’d taken the tram out to the Atlantic coast and the mouth of the Douro, while we’d taken also been on day-long river cruises up the Douro to see the port wine vineyards. This is particularly worth it if you have the time. You can also take tours of the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia, something we did on our first visit. They provide a fascinating insight into the port trade, how it came to be and how port itself is made. Once you understand that, you begin to appreciate why (good) port is so expensive. Again, definitely worth it!
Anyway, I’ll let the pictures in the gallery do the talking about Porto. Now, however, it’s time for coffee…
So, I asked my Porto friends if there was any speciality coffee in Porto. No, they said. My problem was, I’d been asking friends over here who’d left Porto a little while ago. Since they had left, Porto had clearly moved on!
We started at Moustache, following a tip-off from Jennifer Ferreira. It was a nice enough café, tending rather towards the US/UK model (no table service, for example, which is very rare in Portugal), but the coffee was heavily laced with Robusta and, although well-made, not much to our tastes. However, an insider (Porto.Alities) told us we needed to go back and ask for our coffee to be made with 100% Arabica beans, which we did on the following day.
It was a bit like going into a speakeasy and surreptitiously asking for the good stuff from under the counter. What a change it made! The same, well-made coffee, but now tasting so much better. However, that, I thought would be that. While Porto has, like many European cities, a strong coffee culture, the people are very wedded to their ways and their Robusta (not to mention espressos costing €0.80 or less). I was therefore not expecting to find anything else.
Dave, however, had other ideas, and went online to find a local speciality roaster, Vernazza, and from there discovered a local coffee shop, Mesa 325, which served its coffee. So off we went to Mesa on our final day and, I have to admit, I was mightily impressed. It’s been open less than two years and looks just like a third-wave coffee shop. What’s more, I had my first pour-over (a Chemex), plus there was locally-brewed craft beer to keep Ian happy (he doesn’t like coffee, poor fellow). Even better, Mesa told us about Bop, another speciality coffee shop, which had only opened in December.
Ironically, this was just around the corner from the Mercado do Bolhão, where we’d started out on Saturday morning! If only we’d known. So back we went, with just enough time to squeeze in a visit before my friends went to the airport to fly home and I went off to catch my train to Lisbon. Bop, by the way, is excellent: we had a V60 to share, Ian had more craft beer and there was a fully-stocked bar as well. Even more intriguingly, there were turntables scattered around and you were encouraged to borrow records from Bop’s vast vinyl collection and play them. Sadly we didn’t have time to indulge…
And that was that. We went off, heading our separate ways, but I suspect we will back. Keep an eye out for the coffee shops to appear in their own right on the Coffee Spot over the next month or two.
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