Adrift in a Pastel Land: The Cafés Call to Me

Visitors to Lisbon will probably comment on the hills (steep), the tiles (quaint), the graffiti right next to the tiles (adds character?), and of course, the Lisboetas (wonderful people). Another characteristic of the city is its vibrant café culture. As a writer, I’d envisioned myself on a sunny terraço penning a masterpiece on the back of table napkins. But despite the abundance of potential haunts, the quest to find the right one is proving difficult.

Over the six months I’ve spent in this charming city, I’ve become very familiar with the kind of establishment that on weekdays accommodates flocks of freelancers and on weekends large brunch parties and touring couples. Permutations of the same, or very similar, elements — leafiness, non-wholesale soap, lightbulbs with visible filaments and intricate wiring, white or cream walls accented by pastel or earthen touches, and quirky artwork. Interesting receptacles for cigarette butts garnish the outdoor tables.

These places are the pleasant but often anemic brainchildren of young creatives striving for a clean, airy aesthetic, and ending up with something a little sterile and bland — as comforting as a fast-food chain. I frequent them even as I disdain their formulaic design. I avail of their plentiful charging ports, their delightful menus, and in the same breath criticize the cramped seating and stingy portions.

Of course, it’s Grinch-like to complain about the abundance of millennial-friendly work-spaces when you’re not even a member of the digitally nomadic tribe. Nor do I intend to add to the bitching about gentrification these places incur, with their fresh-baked, hand-squeezed, over-priced offerings.

I am but a starving artist who works in the evening and wanders the streets during the day trying to find the right conditions for some literary fumbling. Coffee, of course, and maybe a cheese and ham croissant, a couple of chicken pies or a spinach quiche, and double chocolate brownie to finish.

I want to find a real place for a change and not an idea of a place trying to pass itself off as a real place. The cool interiors of the pastelarias where a television burbles news reports I don’t understand are attractively basic, cheap, and best of all, indifferent to the needs of someone like me, armed with my laptop and notebook and grand notions. But here the battery runs down, I can’t connect to wifi. I become aware that my frantic typing and scribbling is disturbing the wonderful absence of industry in this haven where retired locals watch the world go by, and conversation advances across the tables a remark a minute. I’m a trespasser, marking my territory with colorful stationery and the ostentatious English-language translation of Pessoa I bring everywhere but have yet to open.

I do the unimaginative: search phrases like “nice spots to work,” “best quiet rooftop terraces.” I find helpful lists and spend hours making my way to distant corners of the city in search of a nice table and chair. The more alternative, the farther I’ll go. Disused churches, lesser-known miradouros, and lonely kiosks — outposts in the suburban wilderness. When they happen to be open, or still exist, I’m good for nothing but a Sagres by the time I get there, or else the music is too loud.

There has to be a special somewhere, deep in the magical labyrinth of Lisbon’s streets. Somewhere with more natural light, somewhere with more shade… In the meantime, I return, tail between my legs, to the very places I wanted to escape. I open that word doc for the first time in weeks, order coffee and a tasty treat from the friendly waitress I’ve built a rapport with over my terrible attempts to speak Portuguese. She smiles — “where have you been?!”

On Key

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