Travelling Through Portugal – Porto

After a difficult journey to get to Porto thanks to a rail strike in Portugal, the city didn’t fail to impress me. I fell in love with Porto at first sight and very few cities have done that.

We stayed at the Eurostars das Artes in the arts and design district; a large room and a comfortable bed made for a great sleep. We were refreshed as we set out on our first day of exploring. First, we stopped at a great little bakery on Rua de Cedofeita, a pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants. The street leads to the twin Carmo and Carmelitas churches which appear to be one huge church but are actually two churches separated by one of the world’s narrowest houses, built to keep the nuns and monks separate. The side wall (on Rua de Cedofeita) is covered in traditional blue and white tiles.

Just around the corner on Rua das Carmelitas (named for the church and the nuns) is one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal, that has become one of the biggest tourist attractions in Porto and is on various travel sites as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world. Livraria Lello isn’t just a bookstore though, its’ architecture and interior design are magnificent and it is reported to have inspired J.K. Rowling’s description of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series. She was a frequent visitor when she taught English in Porto in the early 1990s. Outside, the façade is a light gray two storey building with a tiled roof. It is a mix of neo-Gothic and Art Nouveau. Before entering you have to purchase a ticket on a side street near the bookstore but if you end up making a purchase, the full 5euro price is reimbursed. And expect a lineup outside. When we were there at the beginning of November (low tourist season) there was a two-block long lineup to get in (I’ve heard that staff will hand out umbrellas to the crowd lined up in the summer to protect against the scorching sun). But once you get to the front of the line and enter the store prepare to be overwhelmed. First there are the crowds inside, some searching the massive floor to ceiling shelves of books (and there is an extensive selection of English language books as well as other languages and of course the collection by Portuguese writers) while others are taking photos and selfies to prove that they were there. In front of you is the forked staircase that takes you to the second floor. The walls and stairs appear to be a rich medium brown wood but look closer and you will see that they are in fact made of plaster. But look up to see the spectacular ornate ceiling and the stained-glass skylight. There are also plaster busts of famous Portuguese writers and literary figures and representations of Antonio and Jose Lello, founders of the bookstore. Make your way to the back of the bookstore to a small room that has been dedicated to Harry Potter and the Fantastic Beasts series. Despite the flock of tourists, it is a must-see when visiting Porto.

About a block away from Livraria Lello is the Torre dos Clerigos, a church and tower that will give you a birds-eye view of Porto. But again, expect lineups, even in the off-season. After waiting in line for over half an hour we finally made it to the front only to find out we had to book a time to come back for our tour. The church is free to visit and doesn’t require an “appointment” but because of the narrow staircase up the tower, the number of visitors is strictly limited. Still the views are breath-taking and you are able to get a good lay of the land of this beautiful city. But beware it is 76 meters tall and you have to climb 240 stairs up and 240 stairs down so it’s not for the faint of heart.

Continue your walk through the narrow streets in
the Ribeira (river) neighbourhood until you get to the Porto Cathedral or Se. When we were there, the cathedral was blocked to prevent the public from going inside the main part of the church. The cloisters is available to tour but closes to the public between noon and 2pm and when we got there it was just past 11:30. Still we decided to go inside and tour the Gothic, Romanesque building that has also had some Baroque additions. Construction of the cathedral began in the 12th century and its Romanesque façade gives it the impression of a fortress. While tourists are welcomed at most churches around the world you have to remember to be respectful since they are still in use and many followers of the faith continue to use them for prayer.

The city is very hilly, moving downhill toward the river but remember you will have to walk back uphill when your tour is over. The Douro river is massive, with Porto on one side and Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side joined by a series of bridges, the most famous and the most beautiful is the Dom Luis l Bridge, a double deck metal bridge supported by a massive arch. The top deck is used for the LRT trains and pedestrians and the lower deck is for vehicle traffic and pedestrians. Only walk the top deck though if you don’t have a fear of heights. When you get to the Gaia side, head over to Miradouro da Serra do Pilar for a spectacular view of Porto. When the bridge was built in the late 1800s it was considered the longest arch bridge in the world. The river bank on the Porto side is lined with numerous restaurants and patios for people to have a drink or a meal and enjoy the beautiful scenery and the parade of tourists and locals passing by. One thing I noticed. that was surprising to me, is that there is no railing along the riverbank and quite a long drop to the water below. I was too nervous to get too close but I could see children running and playing along its edge and could only imagine how many intoxicated diners stumbled into the river.

On the other side in Gaia there are also a lot of restaurants and shops and even a ferris wheel that is lit up at night, but the main highlight is the port wine caves. Some of the most famous port wine makers in the world have places where you can sample their products and some will even give you a tour and history of the art of port wine making. We went into the Royal Oporto cave where we sampled more than a couple of glasses of port and learned about the different kinds and the different grades; Ruby is the sweetest (cloyingly sweet); Tawny we both found to be delicious, much different from what we had expected from Port that has a reputation as a rich, heavy wine; Tawny Premium was older and also stronger tasting; the white was smooth and refreshing, again not what either of us had expected. Each glass was just 2 euros each, the premium was 3 euros and of course you are encouraged to buy a bottle or two to take home to enjoy as a souvenir of your trip.

Porto is the gateway to a number of northern Portuguese cities; the Douro River Valley, Braga, Aveiro and Guimaraes, all just a short train ride away, which makes it also a great excuse to visit the Porto Sao Bento, the main railway station. While it was built in the 20th century, inside the walls are covered in panels and tiles or Azulejo, depicting historic events, in fact there are said to be more than 20,000 tiles dating from the early 20th century adorning the walls and ceiling.

Just north of Sao Bento Train station is Aliados, the main street in Porto. It’s a great place to stroll, wander through the main square and admire the surrounding domes and pinnacles of the buildings as well as numerous statues, with city hall the central focus.

If you are looking for souvenirs in Porto or anywhere in Portugal, take a close look at some of the cork pieces. Cork is a big industry in the country and you can buy just about anything made of cork, from hats and umbrellas (it’s waterproof) to postcards, purses, shoes and even a bicycle. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the other hot item for souvenirs are tiles (azulejo) which you can buy as trivets, magnets or individual tiles or you can buy hand painted artwork on tiles (I purchased a beautiful painting on 6 tiles, pieced together, which I brought home and have had framed.)

Porto is a foodie’s haven with something for everyone, from high end gourmet meals to fast food. If it’s fast food you are after, you have to check out the McDonalds. Yes, I said McDonalds. It is said to be the most beautiful McDonald’s restaurant in the world. It is the former Imperial Café, a historic building that was built in the 1930s and was inaugurated as a fast food restaurant in 1995. The front arched glass window with the McDonald’s logo topped by an eagle, prepares you for what’s inside. The stained-glass window, the chandelier and the art deco motif makes a Big Mac taste better than ever.

We also stumbled across a café that caters to breakfast cereal lovers. Called Cereal World Porto, you can find your favourite cereal and either have it plain or with one of a number of toppings like chocolates, cookies or M&Ms.

I love visiting markets in every city I visit. They give you a glimpse into everyday life for the people that live there as well as a snapshot of the food of the country. Unfortunately, the Bolhao Market was closed for renovations when we were there.

One night we dined at Oficina Arte Gastronomia which was a good choice because it was near our hotel and it was pouring rain outside. Our first impression wasn’t a good one. We were asked if we had a reservation and when we said no, the maitre d’ “searched” to find us a table but it was right next to the bar and the “pass” where waiters were coming and going throughout our meal (the place remained mostly empty the entire time we were there.) There was a lot of staff for the number of customers inside but they made it very uncomfortable for diners as they stood around whispering, and nodding to different tables. The bartender was a young woman who actually seemed to be running the restaurant, working the pass and ordering the waiters to do this or that. Our waiter hovered near our table the entire time which was very uncomfortable. Still the food was delicious. I had a veal steak with fried pate de foix gras and a potato cake and for dessert a Portuguese bread pudding with salted caramel sauce (rich and creamy on the inside and crisp on the outside.)

Porto has some unique foods that it has made famous. If you are not worried about your cholesterol you must try the Francesinha sandwich. It consists of a Portuguese roll, layered with pork, beef, smoked sausage, and a fried egg and then covered in a cheese sauce. Something that is not quite so rich and is even more of a specialty of Porto, is the Bifana sandwich. Again, it starts with a Portuguese roll with piles of marinated pork roasted that has been absorbing the vinegar and garlic and spices. It’s served with a mound of caramelized onions. You can get it with or without mustard. We stumbled onto a small family owned restaurant in a side-street that served the best Bifana you will ever taste. It was served with a side of sauce that was rich and spicy (I’m sure it was a version of Peri Peri.) The restaurant is called ELoi’os Café and the sign Leitao out front leaves no doubt that their specialty is pork with humorous artwork on the walls featuring pigs. The restaurant is small and you may have to line up to get inside but it is well worth it.

I also wanted to mention that as I was booking our vacation, I couldn’t decide whether to get the Porto Card that was supposed to give us discounts for various sites as well as free transit. I finally decided it would be a good thing to have but I was mistaken. It was 25 euros for each of us and we didn’t use it once since we ended up walking everywhere and couldn’t be bothered to see if there was a discount for every place we stopped at, a complete waste of money. Lesson learned? Porto is best explored by foot.

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