A lot has been written about Portobello on LD before. Especially on the food and drink front, where countless cool new spots have recently opened up.
But there’s a whole lot more going on, and it’s taken me a while as a resident to discover these fun little quirks.
Here are just a few I've noticed thus far...
1. The sound of music
Take band practice night, for example. Synge Street has been forever immortalised by John Carney’s recent feel-good film, but lively music reverberated through this street well before the camera rolled. On certain nights, if taking a gentle stroll, you’ll be treated to a foot-stomping, heart-lifting Brazilian chorus – a real Bossa Nova for the soul.
Near to the children’s school, there’s a community centre hosting all kinds of classes and music practice sessions. They offer rooms to rent for those who need a place to teach, or celebrate. On any given night expect to hear upbeat, cheerful music or to see colourful vibrant garb. If it’s your thing, you can go for chilled ethereal yoga. It's all here, tucked behind the quietly unassuming facade.
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2. Middle-Eastern magic
A Christmas present of Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook had me scouring the supermarkets and fancy artisan food halls looking for the elusive barberries and rose water – but all the while, these were available just minutes from my house.
The signs may not always be obvious, or in English. The storefronts are subtle, so it can be easy to miss them if you’re not in the know, but dotted throughout the streets of Portobello, particularly Richmond Street and Leonard’s Corner, are plenty of halal and ethnic food stores.
Long before the big trend towards all things Middle-Eastern, these guys were serving a loyal customer base. You’ll find large inexpensive bags of spices like cinnamon, turmeric and cumin, tufts of fresh parsley, mint and coriander, as well as oodles of hard-to-get ingredients like orange blossom water, saffron and sumac.
Look no further; they’ve got it all covered here.
3. Secret loaves
One of the oldest bakeries around, Bretzel’s now has a café area – even more of an excuse to break bread with friends. It’s a friendly, buzzy spot with punters from all generations stopping by for something tasty.
What I’ve only figured out (after years of coming here), it that there are baked treasures hidden in full view. For us, it was discovered by mistake, when a loaf of sourdough revealed itself to be a thing of dessert-worthy proportions. Fans of their Pain de Campagne, a rustic French sourdough that’s perfectly chewy and tangy, we had unwittingly pointed to (and bought) their more indulgent version. Slicing into it, we discovered apricots and hazelnuts. Toasted and spread liberally with butter or Nutella, this is a thing of pure joy (but don’t tell anyone, cos they only make a few).
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4. Retro gems
It’s well known that Frances St. is a great hub for antiques and retro furniture, but with a careful bit of poking and regular visits, you can find some real gems in the charity shops on Camden St.
In my experience, Age Action gets the best retro furniture. Again it’s only something you can learn if you come back often, and it can be hit-and-miss. Going in looking for some holiday books, I’ve come out with a 1950s style full-length bedroom mirror (turns out it’s actually fun walking through the streets with a life-sized mirror). Also, it feels way better to give your money to a charity shop like this then to spend it in a car park-sized interiors store on the M50.
Occasionally they host special vintage nights where they curate all the best fashion, accessories and furniture together creating a flea-market party atmosphere. On Saturdays their window display – usually with the best stuff –goes on sale. I’ve learned that the trick is to get there early and grab a ticket from the guys inside to ensure your spot.
It just goes to show that you have live somewhere for a while before you really get to know everything it has to offer. Scratch the surface and you’ll always find a little more.
Main picture: Giulia Cameranesi/Flickr.