Something to write home about
Barry Toberman found his inner bookworm in Porto and came home intoxicated with after-dinner stories
LITERARY EXPERIENCES will bookend a visit to Porto, home to one of the world’s most beautiful celebrations of the written word, a cafe of splendid style with connections to JK Rowling and even a top-notch restaurant in a setting to tempt the palate of any bibliophile. It is at the famous bookshop, Lello, in Rua das Carmelitas, that we start an all-too-brief visit to Portugal’s second city.
Located close to the old Jewish quarter, its ornate wooden carvings and grand, sweeping staircase test observance of the “no photography” instruction to the limit. The higher level affords a tantalising glimpse of cabinets housing rare volumes, although there are also mainstream titles and some weird and wonderful reference works, as well as artworks and decorative items for sale. I really did not want to leave, only to subsequently regret the time spent book and decor browsing when having to rush through the aisles of the A Vida Portuguesa (The Portuguese Life) department store a few doors down.
As it sounds, the shop is a showcase for Portuguese creative talent and the myriad fun and practical items range from chocolate “sardines” in appropri- ate packaging (a personal favourite) to an ornament putting an ironic gloss on the tough economic times.
This depicts the Portuguese John Bull equivalent being strangled by a snake — a metaphor for the grip of the bankers on the country’s fortunes. It was in the main shopping drag that we found the Majestic Cafe, where JK Rowling spent many days while writing Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. It is now restored to its original splendour, with art noveau decor and gorgeous gilt-framed mirrors. The waiters may be formally attired but the prices are pleasingly casual — a few euros for a coffee and 12 euros for an afternoon tea including smoked salmon sandwiches.
In the premises of a former bookstore, the Book restaurant is a new
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Visit online guide www.portocvb.com venture, owned by the nearby Hotel Infante Sagres, a luxurious establishment where guests have included royalty and stars of the music and movie worlds (Bob Dylan U2, Pet Shop Boys, John Malkovich, Martin Scorsese). Although the restaurant exudes a modern vibe, there is copious evidence of its literary past and, just to make sure, quotes from Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain and George Bernard Shaw on the menu.
In a nice touch, books are deployed as mats for the entree course. And you can feast on the lunch buffet for 11 euros. Incidentally, there seems to be a Portuguese predilection for creamy desserts and even on a short stay, I sampled diverse interpretations of creme brulee — all top notch. Again submitting to culinary temptation, I could not get enough of the wafer thin straw chips served with the main course at lunch at a fine dining establishment, D Tonho, by the medieval city wall. Walking off some of the calories is a veritable pleasure — even allowing for some steepish gradients — as the city has many fabulous historical and cultural monuments.
Not least is the imposing neo-classical 19th century Palacio da Bolsa, home to Porto’s chamber of commerce and some stunning banqueting venues, of which the unmissable Arabian Room
View of the Douro River
Bird’s-eye view over Porto as night draws in