We had spotted the São Mamede piano bar on Rua Dr. José Sampaio in Guimaraes earlier in the day by virtue of the rather incongruous Christmas window display of a shop dummy sporting a fur bikini. A quick look inside had revealed a dark and trendy, cinema-themed bar and we’d made a mental note to go back to check out the night scene.
Around 10.30pm, having dined at the city’s well known culture and cuisine courtyard of Histórico by Papaboa, we strolled to São Mamede, grabbed a table amongst the other couples dotted around the bar and ordered a couple of glasses of red. The barman looked a tad confused before informing us that the nearest thing he had to wine was port. A bit ‘caught on the hop’ we agreed – when in Portugal and all that.
Looking around at our dozen or so fellow socialisers, we realised that all but one of them was drinking coffee and the odd man out had a glass of coke. What’s more, every one of them was either hunched over a laptop screen or keying into an iPhone or a Blackberry courtesy of the free WiFi. Conversation was almost entirely absent and the soft Seal track playing in the background was clearly audible. Feeling like a couple of un-hip alcoholics, we supped our port and left.
Earlier in the day we had taken a short respite from the nippy air and the drizzle by ducking into a busy corner café on the main Largo da Oliveira where half the tables were occupied by shoppers having coffee and cakes and the other half by local men drinking beer and rum chasers. We bridged the gap by ordering Douro wine which came in measures the size of quarter bottles and slipped down disconcertingly easily as we warmed in the cosy atmosphere.
The line between bars and cafés in Guimaraes, and indeed in Porto, is distinctly blurred. Having been brought up in a pub culture where bars serve alcohol by default and coffee by exception, it was a novelty to see alcohol drinkers in cafés and coffee sippers in bars. What was equally strange was to discover that, in Guimaraes, the number of cafés far outweighs the number of bars. I have to admit, with their cosy interiors and mouth-watering pastry, snack and cake selections, they were very difficult to walk past on a winter’s day.
But what I loved most was their interchangeability. In Porto, cafés like Galería de Paris which spent their days dispensing coffees, cakes and toasted sandwiches to newspaper-reading clientele, morphed into standing-room-only bars where DJs blasted 80s and 90s UK and US chart hits to vodka and Red Bull-drinking trendies after dark.
Arriving in Guimaraes, European City of Culture 2012, on New Year’s Day we weren’t really surprised to find that the city was closed in terms of cafés, shops and offices. But a quizzical eyebrow was raised at the fact that the only bar that appeared to be open was one with the dubious name of Elvis Bar in which one or two students huddled over bottles of Super Bock in temperatures that required going outside to warm up.
Presumably things will liven up on Tuesday, we mused, and sure enough as Bank Holiday weekend slipped into working week a few more doors opened onto establishments with illuminated Super Bock signs. But their clientele amounted to no more than a handful of 20-somethings while the city’s cafés began to buzz, albeit with predominantly coffee drinking customers.
The question that’s left hanging in my mind is this…was it just a collective hangover the size of the city, or do the good folks of Guimaraes prefer their coffee to their alcohol? Admittedly, they do make a damn fine cup of coffee.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+