By Maragato1976 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16714621
Splendor of the "Belle Époque"
On the 17th December 1921, an establishment called Elite café opened for business in Porto. It was located in Santa Catarina street, a pedestrian walkway for shopping and for the finest members of society, then and now. The café enlightened the street with its Art Nouveau decoration, by architect João Queiroz.
Inside, the scent of leather upholstery and varnished wood is joined by the magnificent vision of the plaster-decorated ceiling and of the endless Flemish mirrors, is an ensemble that marvels all senses. Add in the combination of marble and metal and it becomes truly exquisite. At the back of the café, nature rules in the conservatory, which connects Santa Catarina street to Passos Manuel street.
The opening day, which has become a distant memory, has always been remembered by the city. Many have flocked to this part of the city to learn about the new building that has become to define Porto's architectural landscape. Appealing to intellectuals, bohemians and to the ladies of high society, when on a walkabout, would sit to drink tea or eat an ice cream.
The cafe had honors and awards and received a distinct visitor, the pilot aviator, and later Admiral Gago Coutinho (who always appeared accompanied by beautiful women), who had just arrived from another risky journey from the island of Madeira. He was pleasantly surprised with the splendor of the new facility and returned there several times in order to contemplate the beauty of all the details of the cafe in the company of famous actress Beatriz Costa.
Photo by Maragato1976 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16714622
Although this was a successful opening, the name Elite carried a hint of monarchy that did not go well with the republican, bourgeois and chic atmosphere of Porto at the time.
The glamorous cultural elite from Paris was a reference for portuguese culture in those days. Hence the new name – Majestic – filled with all the charm of "La Belle Époque".
Soon the most influential figures of Porto became regular customers of the café. José Régio, Teixeira de Pascoaes and Leonardo Coimbra, among others, gave this establishment the necessary literary standing to foster vivid debates between public figures and soon-to-be-famous characters, on the most important political, social and philosophical issues of the time.
In a place which personifies art, true artists felt at home. Students and professors from the School of Fine Arts of Porto joined with renowned artists such as Júlio Resende, to explore new artistic ways and motivations, to criticize established procedures, to conceptualize new forms, or simply to hear the general word of the day.
There was not much difference in the general atmosphere of several other cafés of Porto - socially and culturally distinct groups exchanging arguments around a cup of coffee or a notorious cup of absinthe.
During the sixties and keeping pace with a certain forced lethargy in cultural manifestations in Portugal, the Majestic Café began to go into a slumber of its own. It was a time of slow but steady decline.
Soon the public of Porto became aware of the degradation to which Majestic had fallen victim to and thus on the 24th January 1983, the building was declared a "Public Interest Building". Three years later the new administration tried to find a way to once again reconcile the café with the city.
However, time shows its inexorability, years of neglect have transformed the space into a gloomy place. The Café Majestic and all its history clamoring for recognition.
In 1992, seventy one years after its grand opening, the decision is made to give back to the Majestic the well-deserved pride of being one of the most beautiful cafés of Porto. On the 15th July 1994, the Majestic re-opened after two long years with all the glamour of the past. Today, when you enter the Majestic you can visit an exhibition, attend a cultural event or even appear on television as it is sometimes turned into a occasional television setting.
The Majestic Café, designed by architect João Queiróz and inspired in the works of his master Marques da Silva, is still one of the most beautiful and meaningful examples of Art Nouveau in Porto. The building, implanted in the corner between Santa Catarina street and Passos Manuel street in 1916, included already a reference to establishments oriented towards the pedestrian street, as it is also mentioned in the reconstruction description.
The striking marble facade, ornamented with beautiful floral elements and winding shapes, is a good reflection of the decorative style of that time. The main facade boasts two elegant columns and three rectangular windows. Over these, a pediment crowns the composition with the Majestic's initials. On each side, two amused little-boy figures seem to invite people in.
Inside, Art Nouveau is all around in the rectangular-shaped room. The curved symmetry of the wooden frames and the decorative details attract the eyes of any keen observer. The walls are covered with large mirrors showing some aging signs, and holding a few lamps with elaborate metalwork; this creates a clever illusion that this space is larger than it actually is.
Plaster sculptures of human faces, naked figures and flowers confirm the wavy sensual style - two rows of leather seats, which replaced the original ones made of red velvet, create a cozy and elegant perspective of depth.
The winding contour of mirror frames, the lamplight, the marble details, and the smiling busts covering the walls up to the ceiling, give the café a golden and comfortable atmosphere that fosters relaxation and easy chatting. The Majestic breathes luxury, refinement and comfort.
The inside patio, built in 1925, is a retreat of delicate contours, with a staircase and a small balustrade, designed as a conservatory. Under the supervision of master Pedro Mendes da Silva, this corner of the café was a symbol of a new era for Majestic. A bar was built and connected to the café through a staircase, thus allowing the opening of another entrance in Passos Manuel street, "...where Port wine would be sold. This is the reason why a regional style Portuguese architecture was chosen, not only for the bar but also for the outside wall".
The new facade was designed and built in a different style from the international interiors of the café - this new space, without totally clashing with the previously existing one, presented a more rural style representing what Raul Lino would later call the casa portuguesa (traditional portuguese house).
That same year, the Majestic served the tastes of a varied clientele. Once again architect João Queiróz was called in to design a new modest, yet gracious shop window in the restored wall, overlooking Passos Manuel street used to sell tobacco and rappee. A year later, in 1926, this area was enlarged and leased to Tinoco & Irmãos Company and was transformed into a "small cabinet (...) selling tobacco".
In 1927, with new times and new ways ahead, the bar was expanded to "provide and serve beer in the existing terrace". This terrace area contains several moods. From the pure and architectural style of the entrance, reflecting the architect's Beaux Arts roots, we pass on to the decorative style garden crowning the architectural structures and ending up in a Ionian doorway, that makes the connection with the outside facade, including large, transparent and sensual spiral shells, in the typically modern style, which anticipate the feminine sculptures on the outside. The leafy and luminous conservatory is currently used in the summer for music concerts, playing the role of Majestic's third cultural space. It may be hard to choose between this and the grand piano area inside the café or the art exhibitions that take place in the ground floor, previously occupied by the pool tables.
In 1992, under the auspices of the Barrias family, the café closed down for a refurbishing project to be carried out under the supervision of architect Teresa Mano Mendes Pacheco.
In 1994, after the interior floors were replaced and the original furniture was restored, the Majestic reopened for business. Some photographs found by Fernando Barrias conveyed the original spirit of this place and allowed its luminous past to be sensitively reproduced in the present.
The numerous awards and international recognition - "Special Award Coffee Cream" (1999), "Silver Medal for Tourist Merit" (2000), "Silver Medal of City Merit - Porto" (2006), "Certified Mercury Prize - Best Trade in Area. Businesses in the category; shops with history" (2011) and "Municipal Merit Medal - Grade - Gold" (2011), the site cityguides rated it as the sixth most beautiful café in the world and TripAdvisor gave it a Certificate of Excellence. These came naturally, returning the coffee house finally to its notoriety, which for so many years had been forgotten.
"The Majestic Café is a wonderful place, where muses, thinkers and artists can get together to live the best moments life has to offer: simply sharing communication through words and gestures,glances smiles and even a few tears sometimes."
Gloria Montenegro (President of the Paris Academy of Coffeeology)
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