A Sleepy Town in a Corner of the World: Porto, Portugal

A few weeks ago, Jeff came home with some recommendations from a colleague for port wine. I have never had port wine nor knew anything about it, but alas, we now had a bottle in our home: Taylors. Apparently, it is the Queen’s brand of choice. After our first sip, we were enamored. I would love to go into more detail about the nuances of the flavors and what made this wine a new staple in our house, but instead, I’ll tell you about our trip to port wine heaven: Porto, Portugal.

Much like Budapest or Prague, the city of Porto is divided by a river: The Duoro. The north is Porto and the south side of the river is Vila Nova de Gaia. Most of the historical sites can be found in Porto, but make no mistake, Vila Nova de Gaia is not to be missed. The south is where all of the port distilleries are: Taylor, Cockburns, Ramos Pinto, Calem, and many more.

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We booked a lovely flat through AirBnB that overlooked the river with floor to ceiling windows. The sunrise was gorgeous as we woke Friday morning after arriving at 2a the night before thanks to a delayed flight. We were a good mile from the Ponte Luis I bridge that connected the north and south, but each morning, the weather was so perfect, we strolled along the river and took in the fresh air.

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In our three days, we couldn’t figure out the hours of the city. Friday morning, some shops were open early, but once the weekends rolled around, storefronts were closed and sleepy. Most of the restaurants along the river on the south side were closed or slow, so we wondered if they held holiday hours. We were definitely not visiting during the high season, which I could not recommend more since the city held a quiet and romantic charm when not flooded with hundreds of tourists. We wished we had packed less sweaters and more pairs of shorts since the sun shone directly on the city with the heat index in the mid-70s.

But with holiday hours came challenges in finding food. For the life of us, we could not find a supermarket near our flat, so we were at the mercy of restaurants and cafes. Most of our meals were unhealthy and carb-laden. Fresh veggies and fruits were hard to come by, so we tried our best with what we could find. I only came across one bona fide gluten-free restaurant, but we had just eaten, so I couldn’t give it a try. But for my fellow gluten-free and vegan travelers, check out Hand Go and report back to me. We did find a wonderful sushi place in the Old Town that I will recommend: Sushihana & The Gin House. Great service and unique choices on the chef’s select platters.

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Right next to Sushihana is one of the most beautiful and famous bookshops in the world: Lello Bookshop. You have to go across the street to a little red bubble where someone sits and dispenses tickets for the bookshop. Yes, this is a real tourist attraction complete with ticket sales. It costs €6 per person to go inside, but the upside is you get €6 per ticket off a purchase of any book in the store.

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We walked in and learned the true talent of professional photographers. Online, the photos make the store look much more majestic than it actually was. Worn banisters and chipped paint were in the way of cluttered shelves and lingering tourists. Yes, I wanted pictures, but I also wanted to peruse the collection and walk out with a much-needed book. There are a couple of sections for English and French books, but they are mostly Portuguese. I wouldn’t have thought Portuguese people would visit a tourist trap to find literature, but they must.

To get back to Vila Nova de Gaia, we walked back over the historic bridge and headed down the massive hillside via the cable car. It cost €10 to ride down, and also set up as a tourist attraction, they take your picture on the “ride” and give you options for purchasing at the bottom. We passed on the souvenir but the views from the sky were gorgeous.

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There really isn’t much to do in the city of Porto except sight-see. A famous spot in the city is the Majestic Cafe. A fancy Parisian-style coffee shop sits far north of the river and is perfect fodder for tourist pictures. There is no option for takeaway coffee, but at €6 a cup and poor reviews, we weren’t bothered. The host gave us the chance to take a lap around the cafe to take in the interior, but we left after a few moments to find cheaper alternatives for coffee.

Right around the corner from Majestic Cafe, far up north of the city center is the Mercado de Balhao; a secret marketplace that caters to locals and tourists. Right at the entrance was a man playing an accordion with a parrot on his shoulder and his cute daughter complete with her own parakeet on her head.

The market itself was a bit of a letdown. Half of the stalls were empty and rundown, but I was thrilled to see some fresh produce! I bought a couple apples and had one right then and there. Jeff enjoyed the traditional Portuguese dessert: natas, a tart made with phyllo dough and thick custard creme broiled on top. It looked much like a creme brulee in a pie crust. Unfortunately, these delicacies are not gluten-free. Maybe in a future post, I will figure out how to make them at home.

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Something that the city of Porto is not short of is churches and cathedrals. Looking over the skyline, you can see the spires and domed tops of several ancient structures. We only saw a couple of them peppered around the city. The first was the Church of Sao Francisco. Located very close to the river, the huge church was finished in 1425 after the Franciscan Order had been antagonized by other religious orders, but it wasn’t until several years later did it become the main place of worship for Porto families. A lot of the facade was destroyed during the historic siege in 1832, but it was restored and rebuilt to be one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city.

There is a museum across the courtyard that you go through first complete with orange-lit catacombs. Tickets are €3.50 per person, but for the price, you get to see some amazing history. The tickets do get you into the cathedral as well, which had me completely floored. The gold leaf was off-the-chain as was the ornate wood carving. It looked cluttered and almost tacky, but the detail was so beautiful.

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Another gorgeous cathedral in the town is Porto Cathedral situated directly in the center. It towers on top of the skyline as you glance across the river and from the front grounds, you can see almost to the ocean. The gorgeous church began construction in 1110 with Romanesque influences. The inside has a lot of the same gold leaf and wooden carving as Sao Francisco, but upon walking in, you see mostly tall stone pillars. We only had half an hour before the rest of the church closed, so we quickly got a couple tickets to the museum for €6 and made our way through the corridors and crypts.

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Something that is famous and typical of Portuguese architecture is everything is covered in ornate ceramics. The inside of the church courtyard was covered in the pale blue and white tiles with intricate designs and artwork. It was stunning to see such complicated designs on buildings throughout the city. It gave some beautiful color to the building facades against some of the drab and rundown structures dotted around the town.

On the far west side of the city, far from public trains and comfortable footpaths, sits a famous art museum called Serralves. The majority of the artwork is modern and intricate with beautiful photographs and experimental films.

But we caught the Helena Almeida exhibition: My Work is My Body, My Body is My Work. These 1960s photographs have Helena in all kinds of different contortions as she plays with paint and shadows. She has some beautiful pieces that blend electric blue paint and black and white photos.

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The outside gardens are the other reason to visit the museum. But I will let my photos do the talking as it was an oasis in the middle of suburbia far from city center.

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As our trip wound down to a close, we walked back across the historic bridge for one last glimpse at the river. But we saw a large crowd forming around the south end. Four teenage kids were standing on the edge ready to jump into the river. They crossed themselves several times and asked us to applaud their lunacy. One by one, each of them jumped into the quick current and somehow emerged safely on the other end. It was quite a show and a nice way to end our fantastic weekend in Portugal.

Stay tuned next week for all the details on the famous port wine including the brands to try and places to go for some top notch tastings.

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