Porto, Portugal

Posted on January 24, 2010


I found a cheap ticket and decided to spend the weekend soaking up the sun in Porto, Portugal. The sunny weather, warm breezes, and blue sky was a welcome change from the grey, cold weather to be expected this time of the year in Rotterdam. Porto is an ancient city located along the coast. The terrain is rugged with many streets quite steep and houses built clinging to cliffs. Running along the base of the city is the Douro River- wide, slow moving and perfect for reflecting the city. Many of the buildings in the historic section of the city are many hundreds of years old (I saw some with dates back to the 1700s) and most had some decorative tile coving the outside. Porto has not suffered from the massive fires and wartime bombing that have erased the history of so many other European cities. The streets are narrow and twisting and lined with all sorts of interesting shops. The lack of chain stores meant that small, traditional family owned stores continue to flourish. The butcher has whole pigs hanging in the window, the baker has flour on his hands, and the fruit seller only stocks what is best this time of year.

I was lucky to be joined on my weekend expedition by Tom, a friend and colleague who has proved to be an agreeable traveling companion on previous trips over the years to Berlin and Brussels. Travel is always more fun when you have someone of like mind to share it with.
The day started with a coffee in Café Majestic on the pedestrian shopping mall Rue de Santa Catarina, a historic eatery with a stunning interior. Mirrors and chandeliers and statues are framed by marble and carved wood and velvet. The waiters all wear tuxedos. It is a throwback to Parisian Cafes of a hundred years ago.
We then walked a few blocks to the chaotic Bolhao Market. Fresh fruit, seafood, meats, and just about anything else you could want were on offer. The market has been operating in this location for many, many years and you could imagine that it has not changed much. Some interesting sights: An old woman using a hatchet to split a pigs foot for a customer to enable easier cooking; mounds of garlic, some braided; piles of oranges which proved delicious; and piles of fish caught that morning.
A short distance from the Bolhao Market is the Avia da dos Alindos, a plaza stretching five blocks which is surrounded by beautifully ornate buildings covered in sculptures. The city hall sits on the north end of the plaza and can not fail to impress. It is here that the decay of the city also comes into clear view. Some of the most beautiful buildings have broken windows and pigeons residing inside. The glory days of Portugal were over 400 years ago during the golden era of exploration.

After winding through the streets of cobblestone and heading down towards the river, we came to the Sao Francisco Church. Started in the year 1210 and not completed until the 1400’s, this building is incredible. The walls are covered with hundreds of wood sculptures plated in gold. The sculptures depict various biblical stories and are incredible in their detail and beauty. I was not as impressed by the lack of stained glass windows and by the very plain catacombs. This is certainly one of the oldest buildings I have seen up close. It is hard to imagine what combination of luck, strength, and care allowed this building to survive so many years in such good condition. No photos are allowed in the church, so unfortunately you now will have to go to Porto to see for yourself.
No trip to Porto is complete without a river cruise. The city is beautiful when viewed from the river with steep cliffs rising up and small houses clinging to the sides. The bright colors bring South America to mind, though really South America is most likely an imitation of this part of the world. The fifty minute cruise passed under six high-level bridges and took us all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

My stomach told me that it was time to eat and what more appropriate dish to eat than seafood. We walked around looking for the right place, but so many restaurants were loaded with tourists and did not grab me. Finally in desperation we walked down a little alley filled with the sounds of locals sitting in doorways and kids playing. Down Rue de Forte Taurina we found the Restaurante Adega do Conde, a family run establishment in a small, ancient building. We ordered the Rice with Monkfish and Prawns for two. It came in a deep pot brimming with a seafood broth. The prawns and monkfish were incredibly delicate and fresh. With a bottle of house wine it made an excellent meal and my favorite memory of Porto.

Along the river is a street called the Cais Da Ribeira that is lined with very old buildings on one wide and the river on the other. It is the hip place in the city with a variety of restaurants and bars and lots of outdoor seating. It looks like it used to be an old warehouse area which has been repurposed over the last couple hundred years.
Looming over the city is the Dom Luis I Bridge, called the Eifel Tower of Porto. It is an elegant, iron structure with two levels hundreds of feet apart. We walked over the bridge to the far side of the river where the Port Wine manufacturers are located.

Port Wine is named after is home of Porto, having been grown and produced here for hundreds of years. There are manufacturers and warehouses lined along the shore. A few miles up the Duoro River is where the vineyards are location. Small bars offer Port and chocolate tastings. We decided to take a tour and tasting with one of the larger manufacturers, Sandeman, which was established in 1790. The tour took us through the dark cellars full of barrels of varying sizes. Port is a fortified wine that is best aged. The better ports are aged between 10 and 40 years. The tour was ok, certainly not as good as some of the winery tour I experienced in Napa Valley, but it was still fun and it was nice to try two of their ports – a white and an aged tawny. I liked the tawny more than expected and it inspired me to try some more ports in the future.

After waiting out a rain storm in a little bar nibbling olives and cheese for what turned out to be dinner, we headed back to the hotel for an early bedtime. We had to be up at 4am for our flight at 6, the downside of the cheap flight!
Posted in: Portugal, Travel