A whirlwind tour of Portugal’s second largest city shows that there’s much more to see than fado and francesinhas
Like many Spaniards, we took advantage of the long Easter weekend to escape the pointy hats and manic church bells. The destination? Porto.
First things first: Porto is beautiful. A hilly metropolis filled with tile-clad, low-rise houses and apartment blocks with terracotta rooftops, overlooking the river Douro. And all those hills means that you’ll leave the city with thighs of steel, especially if you climb the Clérigos Tower – one of the few main monuments to see. No, Porto is more of an “everything is beautiful” city – leaving tourists content with just wandering through the cobbled streets and stopping off for um fino and a Portuguese tapa every now and again to recharge.
Portugal is old. The buildings are old, some derelict but still standing pretty. The hotels are old, complete with suitably old furniture. But all this contributes to the unbeatable charm of the area. The capital Lisbon is very similar – everything is slightly antiquated, charming, fascinating.
One of the main draws of Porto is, of course, the tiles. Houses and churches covered in tiles, tile souvenirs, special tile-oriented tours of the city… If you’re a tile fan, you’ve hit the motherload. Rather than being geometric and brightly coloured, something that is often associated with, for example, Al-Andalus in Southern Spain, Portuguese tiles often depict historical events, predominantly in blue tones.
Sao Bento train station is one of the first places a tile lover goes to see in Porto. Nearing it’s centennial anniversary, Sao Bento offers huge, tiled portayals of historical events on each of it’s four walls, including the Conquest of Ceuta.
Culinary options are vast thanks to the city’s prime location on the Atlantic coast. There are no prizes for guessing what one of the nations most favoured dishes is. Cod and octopus are regular components of Portuguese menus. We also found that the Portuguese are big fans of…innards. Locals make sure that hardly anything of the animal is wasted – whether it be moelas (chicken gizzard stew), tripas a moda do Porto (intestines with beans in sauce) or papas (pigs blood, flour and odd-end cuts of chicken and pork). Please be careful with the latter, Spaniards, – don’t go thinking they’re going to serve you a nice bowl of crisps.
However we cannot touch on Portuguese food without mentioning the Bad Boys of West coast Iberian cuisine: the bifana and the francesinha. Again, don’t go asking for a francesa in Spain either, people. Don’t make me spell it out!
The bifana is a glorious pulled pork sandwich in a small bread bun, whereas the francesinha is a heart-attack inducing sandwich layered with steak, ham and sausage, with melted cheese, and possibly a fried egg, on top and chips around the side – all covered in a tomato and beer sauce. Hungry? You’d better be if you want to attempt to eat one. Our tour guide attributed Porto’s most famous dish to Daniel da Silva who set out to take great food back to Portugal after a culinary tour of France in the 1960’s. His version of the croque monsieur was apparently spiced up with a hot gravy to try and make the Portuguese woman as sexy as their French counterparts.
And what goes hand in hand with Portuguese food? Why, Portuguese drink, of course! You may already know that Porto is famous for it’s abundance of Port wine. What a coincidence, eh? Wine country can be found just over the river Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia. Stroll over the Dom Luis I bridge and take your pick of breweries and bodegas each offering tours of their wine cellars with two or three samples of local port, for around €5. We chose Offley’s and opted for a tour in Spanish. The port samples sure made up for the fact that the tour was a little short. Multilingual bar staff, however, were able to give a fair amount of information about the various different ports.
Porto is also famous for its “green wine”. Special thanks go out to the barman who explained it is called this because the grapes are very young when picked – not because the wine itself is green.
All food and drink is cheap. A typical meal of a bifana, a portion of papas and a beer will see change from a fiver. We also found out that the Portuguese can party as well as their Iberian counterparts with the clubs still alive and kicking in the old town until at least 6am.
There’s nothing left to say about Porto other than to reiterate the beauty of the city. Whether it be a stroll along the Douro, sampling local cuisine, becoming a wine connoisseur or partying all night with the locals, there’s no shortage of a plan – and all of it enchanting. And if you’re struggling with the language, a very wise man told us to try speaking Spanish with a Russian accent.
– The Wild Walkers free walking tour – let a local show you the sites and recommend good restaurants! Meet everyday at 10:30am and 3:30pm in the town hall square.
– The Clérigos Tower – Great views of Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia, the Douro and the Atlantic Ocean. Rua Senhor Filipe de Nery.
– Get the metro to coastal town Matosinhos for fresh fish. Try surfing at the schools on the huge beach.
– Wine sampling in Vila Nova de Gaia – Choose from dozens of bodegas.
– Livraria Lello – Beautiful bookshop reminiscent of the wand shop in Harry Potter. Ornate wooden decoration and stained glass windows (right). Rua das Carmelitas 144.
Até logo Porto!
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