A Winter Pilgrimage to Porto

Saturday: in which we stumble blindly through the streets

It was a chilly Saturday evening when we arrived in Portugal’s port city: aptly named Porto. Hopping from one metro line to another we made our way to the little apartment that would be our home. And little was right. But it was perfectly formed to fit our needs.

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That night we discovered beers for less than two euros (Super Bock mostly) and gobbled up all the tapas. My first impression on that dark night? This is not a city for bikes. The whole of Porto is just one big hill, I must have burned a million calories as we wandered the darkened streets, pulling each other up the cobbled lanes. Peering through the windows of hipster cafes, places that sold vegan take-out alongside vinyl records.

Sunday: where we succumbed to the lure of the port houses

We knew going into it that Sunday’s weather wouldn’t be the best. But the light drizzle didn’t dampen our spirits as we meandered down the hill to the Rio Douro and crossed the bridge on our Port Pilgrimage.

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Why are all the port houses on the opposite side of the river you may well ask? Well, back in the day, the guy responsible for setting up and regulating Porto’s port infrastructure was not a big fan of the church. Back then Porto was split into two sides, the side controlled by the church and the side controlled by the state (or the king I guess). And since he was not the clergy’s biggest fan, our main man decided to set up the Port houses on the Gaia side of Porto so he wouldn’t have to pay taxes to the clergy.

The rain kicked up and we dived into the port houses for shelter. What a shame! (wink). Our first and probably least favourite stop was Sandeman. It’s a slick operation which offers an interesting insight into the world of advertising, but leaves you wanting on the port front. But it only got better from there with Kopke, Cockburn, Croft and Ferrier offering tastings (5-6 euros) and giving tours of their store houses. Oh, and Kopke even gives you chocolates!

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Interesting fact: while tensions increased between France and England, the English had to find alternative means of obtaining red wine. They turned to Portugal. But, obviously, Portugal is much further than France. So to maintain the quality of the wine on its long voyage, brandy was added to help its shelf-life. And thus port was invented.

Likewise, white port began to be manufactured because as Spain was thrown into war, the sherry output was looking uncertain. So the English needed to find alternate means of keeping their beloved drink flowing.

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Monday: in which the sun came out and we stuffed our faces

By Monday morning the clouds had parted and we could get out and properly explore the sites of Porto. Our first stop was the Majestic Café. One of Porto’s most famous tourist spots, this café dating from the 1920s is a little pricey but perfectly adequate for a coffee and Pastel de Nata: my favourite culinary discovery in Porto. This is also the café where J K Rowling wrote most of the first Harry Potter book, so if you’re into that kind of stuff you might want to check it out.

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Next up we admired the tile fronted buildings and climbed the many stairs to the top of the Clérigos Tower: looking out of the city from one of its highest points.

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We then wandered along the Ribera, which is the section of the city which runs along the river. This is one of the oldest parts of Porto, but also the most expensive with stores catering to all touristic needs set up along this stretch. We stopped at a one of the bistro-type places for a drink and a bowl of hot chips. Our server warned us about the loitering seagulls who like to pinch her customers’ food, but we didn’t pay her warnings much heed.

Maybe fifteen minutes later a terrified cry rang out behind me and I turned in time to witness the co-ordinated attack of maybe five to eight birds. As one unit they swooped in on the table behind us while their king nabbed the woman’s leftover burger. They then wheeled away in truly organised fashion. It was quite astounding.

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After one more port stop (this time at Taylors, which sits high on a hill and really takes a lot of steadfastness of character to get to) we explored a little more before our thoughts turned to food. I knew I wanted to try the famed Francisinha, and with one of my party also keen to try it, we set off in search.

What is a Francisinha? Well, what isn’t it?? It’s a sandwich covered in cheese, sitting on fries while also floating in tomato and beer gravy. Between the layer of cheese and bread there is likely to be a hidden egg while between the two toasted slices you are assaulted by ham and steak and sausage. Needless to say the last quarter was a real struggle to finish!

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Tuesday: where our plucky adventurers return to the real world

Our Ryan Air flight back to Bordeaux was scheduled for 12:15. As we got to the train station a little late and realized the next trip to the airport had been canceled, we nabbed a taxi. For 16 euros we were at the airport in plenty of time. Enough time to grab another Pastel de Nata (my sixth by this time I think… not including the two mini ones I got as free tasters), before catching the plane home.

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Regrets: where I bemoan lost opportunities

My one regret on this trip was that I didn’t get to visit the Livraria Lello & Irmão bookstore. When we got there we found it all shut up with a sign saying they were closed for a stock take. If you love old book stores or have seen photos of this place you’ll know how devastated I was. I guess I’ll just have to return.

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