‘Meia de leite, como sempre?” Sonia asked me, her mouth creasing with her tell-tale smile. “The usual, milky coffee?” Never did I think these five words – so habitual, so everyday – could resonate so powerfully or sing so sweetly. With Portugal further easing lockdown restrictions on 18 May, restaurants and cafes are beginning to reopen across Porto. Café Porta do Olival is among them. A cheerful neighbourhood joint directly outside my office in the city’s historic centre, it serves mostly locals. This is fortunate as there isn’t a tourist to be seen.
The sparkle in Sonia’s eyes gives away her smile, which is hidden behind the mask that all cafe and restaurant staff are now obliged to wear. We chat briefly. She is elated to be back at work, she tells me; free of the confines of home and, more importantly, excited about the prospect of some money coming in again.
A boom destination in recent years, central Porto is dependent on tourism these days. For Sonia, and many like her, the last few months of confinamento have been tough. Nor is it over yet. Normally all hustle-and-bustle, business at Café Porta do Olival is noticeably slow. The usual trio of grannies gossiping in the corner are nowhere to be seen. No workmen popping in for a quick espresso; no hum of the television news; nor the scramble over the sole copy of the daily Jornal de Notícias. Social-distancing rules leave only two lonely tables inside, in fact. The rest are consigned to the flagstone pavement.
Today’s reopening is not as I’d imagined it. Confined to home since mid-March, I’d played over this moment many times. My first sip of machine-made espresso; a look over the newspaper; perhaps a cheeky pastel de nata. In my mind’s eye, it would be a joyous moment, full of noise and merriment, but this relative quiet is disconcerting. On reflection, it’s perhaps not so surprising. People are still wary. There’s a nervous guardedness about the city, like we’re enduring a collective first day back at school.
I’m surprised also by the emotions stirred up by the lack of tourist crowds. I thought their absence would be, well, liberating. A chance to seize back the city; a welcome break from hearing English spoken at every turn. But it’s not like that. Tourists may be here today and gone tomorrow but, in a way that I’d never appreciated before today, they’re an intrinsic part of the city. An annoying one, at times, certainly. On my cycle into work, someone will almost always step into my path while staring down at a map or city tracking App. But today, nothing. No queue snaking across the road outside the Lello bookshop. No selfie brigade snapping away beneath Torre dos Clérigos bell tower. Not even a single open-deck tour bus to push me over into the curb.
I’ve never experienced the city without its touts and tour groups, so I have no reference point for this emptiness. Perhaps that’s why I miss it? But my friend José, who lives downtown and joins me for a coffee, also confesses to a certain saudade – longing – for the daily hubbub. Yes, local residents love to moan about the influx of tourists: the high rents; the constant noise; the hike in prices. But, as he readily admits, the city is livelier and more liveable now than it’s ever been.
This reopening of cafes, restaurants and museums is a first step to seeing that vitality return. For now, in the absence of foreign tourists, many Portuenses are rejigging their businesses to attract local residents. My chef friend Pedro, for example, is relaunching his popular restaurant with a new concept (“little chats, little dishes and big glasses of wine”). Another friend, Juan, who owns a gorgeous boutique hotel, is hoping to lure exhausted Porto-based parents to take a “city break” on their own doorsteps. Others who are more dependent on overseas visitors, such as Sergio at Porto Running Tours or André at Taste Porto, are busy getting everything in place for the moment the borders reopen and planes return to the skies.
Portugal has been here before, of course. A decade or so ago, the financial crisis almost brought the country to its knees. “That was bad,” says José. “Really bad.” He hopes this time recovery will come more quickly. For now, as a flight attendant, he’s grounded. Much like me. Like all of us. Yet at least we now have the chance of meeting up together to eat, drink, and – banal as it may sound – be merry.
We talk tentatively of meeting up with our kids tomorrow; Serralves Contemporary Art Museum has an open day. “An excuse for another coffee,” José suggests. Halfway out of my seat, my mask strapped back on, my smile is lost on him. Nonetheless, I hope he spots the sparkle in my eye.