Porto: What’s in a Name?

After dropping the car at the Lisbon airport, we easily found the subway to the train station. We booked our next stage of the journey online which was also super simple. Once onboard, we stretched out legs and relaxed for the next three hours while the quiet electric and speedy train rolled north. We knew we were close because as we slowed to the station the giant T-A-Y-L-O-R (very old established Port house) sign was right outside the window. Our train stopped. We were looking across the river at Porto.

This is one of those many destination cities that travelers to the EU like to check off their lists. Us included. We dove right into the crowds of pedestrians shoulder to shoulder and our taxi ride from the train station when we arrived was a tense nail-biting ride through all the hustle and bustle. Buses, trams, trains and horse drawn carriages competing for narrow, steep, cobbled road, real estate with gawking tourist narrowly missed by the nervous, and somewhat lost, driver.

But don’t avoid seeing it. We were glad that we choose the fall (shoulder season). After circling the block our taxi driver let us out at a nearby corner and we found our host waiting at the door to our Airbnb. He was very pleasant and the apartment was very comfortable inside and out. A quick addition to his intro to the place was that there are lots of restaurants and clubs nearby and it can get a bit noisy so, if need be, there are earplugs in the bedside table if you require. This turned out to be an important factor of our stay. Just to quickly illustrate the degree of importance a little, I remember Deb stating the first morning after a fitful first night sleep that she listened to Lionel Ritchie blasting “All Night Long” over and over as it was sampled into some long droning and thumping DJ mix. We were near the top floor (with elevator fortunately) and the noise goes up. Plus there was rooftop nightclub next door. The trade off was the “Location! Location! Location!” and the well appointed digs – well within our budget (luxury does come with a cost). We also learned that our Airbnb was on THE most popular nightclub street in the city….But the chairs, sofa and beds were very comfy.

Porto Portugal is a place that has many different connotations for all who have ever considered (or not) travelling there. For me (Albert), the essence is wine related (and by default the food). Since our visit I can say I understand it just a little bit better. Fortified Wines differ from more common Table Wine in a number of ways and in Porto, Port is a big deal both locally and internationally. In the area at the mouth of the Douro River (where Porto is located) human artifacts date back to the Phoenicians (8th century BC). Wine has probably been evolving there since, at least, then. Over the millennia the numerous layers of history have left their mark and that alone should be given a spotlight. We felt that such a fascinating place deserved a closer look. We eagerly went exploring what it had to offer but naïve to the impression the various layers would leave us with. It is so much more than just a wine place.

Our October walking tour was not disappointing as far as the tourist mayhem goes. We booked a “Tours by Locals” type, free walking tour well before leaving Canada and immediately forgot. Thank goodness for telephone notifications as our tour was on our first full day there. It was great! Our guide knew all the sites to keep us enthralled with history, religion, architecture, food and tips on what to see and what not to see based on cost.

For example going to the Livraria Lello or Majestic Cafe (where J.K. Rowling sipped cappuccinos while dreaming up Harry Potter) will waste hours in line ups and set you back $$$$. She

Whereas if you are just interested in the proprietor’s famous Pastel de Nata with a good espresso they have a second location a few blocks away without the Harry Potter madness. Good solid advice from a local! Chestnut vendors also sold the 2022 fresh crop around the city.

It rained and he asked if we still wanted to see more. Yes! His best advice hands down was to simply say hello, “Bom Dia” to all Portuguese that you see and you will unlock their true friendliness. It was like a door to a secret room. We would see someone who seemed to avoid us, or have that mistrust look, and we would say Bom Dia and the warm flew into their eyes and the smiling helpfulness poured out. WOW. On a three hour tour we saw so many visible evidence of an earlier time.

Nothing is really free no matter where you go and we gave our “free” guide a healthy tip for his insights and guidance to many places we would go back to during the 10 days or so that we were there.

We like to walk the streets of a place to get a close look and feel of it. That said, it isn’t long before our destinations take us farther from our accommodation and the local busses and trains are carefully researched for access to these places. In the old town of Porto, there is such a concentration of sights that we rarely used public transit. A good example is the tasting room recommendation from our friend Peter, who had visited on another trip before us, to sample the local wines. We found it about a block away from our accommodation. These small tasting rooms focus on small producers of port wine as well. A much different experience from the large port houses we visited.

Although walking to our sights of interests was a great choice it should be mentioned that there are plenty of steep hills everywhere so good shoes and knowing your limits is good advice. If you feel a rain drop, find a cover, wait, watch the river it creates, and five minutes later continue on as it stops. Keeping this in mind we walked from our Airbnb, on the Porto side of the Douro River over the Ponte (bridge) Luis I to Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side of the Douro to visit some of the famous Port houses that all claim to have the best and, in some cases, take credit for creating the first port in the land.

Why are all the Port houses not in Porto? Put simply, taxes through the centuries. We chose two that had excellent tours. The House of Sandeman and Taylor’s Port took up two of our precious days.

Illuminated and inspired we paired many different ports, reds, whites, tawny and ruby, with all kinds of food and weren’t disappointed with any of it. Such an overlooked wine category requires more attention in our opinions. We had just scratched the surface. Oh to have an unlimited budget…

It is impossible to ignore the fact that religion has played an important part in the evolution of Porto. There are over 30 churches in the historic center. Our tour guide had pointed out the way to use the towers and church lined hilltops to avoid being lost.

It’s good to bring an interest in seeing churches when you go to western Europe. Art, politics, government, conquering, architecture, economies, legends and the human condition are intertwined in these structures that are so well preserved. So inevitably we explore these shrines and enrich our understanding of the people and places we are in. The history of religion in Porto is a grand story of how international trade ($) in wine (a behavior altering substance enjoyed by a wide demographic) and belief in an omnipotent (lets not forget benevolent) power can shape exploration, wars, fund the arts and inspire unbelievable aesthetics in architecture. It’s amazing what you can glean from info signs posted at these sites of interest.

We also stumbled upon interesting and beautiful parks and art galleries. Two of our favourites were the Parque de Serralves and the Parque das Virtudes. Virtudes is right in the city center and was not a destination of its own but as we walked further into it we were almost drawn in by its beauty. Comprised of many terraced levels, it looks over the Douro and across to the Port houses on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river. It was a cloudy day and we had the park to ourselves. It was great exploring from the upper edge and following the paths down through the manicured and meandering paths.

Serralves had a fee as it was also a museum, sculpture garden, art deco mansion, fountains and works of Cindy Sherman, Anish Kapoor, Joan Miró and a 1000 year old olive tree.

Another wander through winding streets and parks brought us to Juan Muñoz installation of the “Thirteen Laughing at each other” and a glimpse of a local artist working on a portrait.

Our tour guide had suggested trying some typical foods. He suggested the places where he found the best hotdogs, tripe and the Francesinha sandwich. Honestly, we are not tripe people. Hotdogs no matter how amazing were not calling us. We did have the Francesinha sandwich. This is a gut bomb for sure. Like a grilled cheese sandwich with sausage, ham, beef, special sauce like a cheesy tomato soup and a fried egg on top. Served with French fries.

Honestly, glad we tasted it, but not overwhelmed with the need for more. A Portuguese cheese that we first tried in Lisbon is Queijo de Azeitão. Ranked top 50 in the world in 2014, it did not disappoint. It is produced with a cheesecloth netting to support it’s crust.

Inside it ages to a buttery creaminess. The top is sliced horizontally to create a lid and the yummy creamy middle is spread on bread, toast in the morning or just eaten off the knife.

The renovated market was not very colourful but had some good products.Then we walked past a whole shop dedicated to salt cod – bacalhao.

We did see and taste some good foods. Along our path there were some funny deals on food and wine products. If we were too hungry we forgot to take the photo.

We talked about taking a tour boat up the Douro to a destination for viewing the famous vineyards associated with the iconic wine but… We also talked about taking a train to some of the charming villages that surround Porto but had to add those to a return trip to-do list. Italy was calling for a housesit in the mountains and that makes this segue of our adventure easier to transition to, having left so much in Porto. So with the equally enchanting cities of Firenze, San Miniato and Lucca calling we hopped a plane. Marn and Jim headed to Sintra, near Lisbon, which became a must-see on our list before we return to Canada. Stay tuned…