While my mom has been in Spain, we’ve done the regular Madrid-sightseeing, as well as our adventures in wine country. But, because my mom has been here five times, we decided to check out Ryanair for cheap flights around Europe.
What we found? Two tickets to Porto, Portugal for approximately $70/ea for the upcoming weekend (roundtrip!)
So, we packed our bags and took off for Porto last Thursday, May 4th. I had read several blogs about Porto – how it is the up-and-coming gastronomical capital of Europe, known for delicious, fresh seafood. Not to mention the landscape – beautiful hills surrounding the area, as well as the amazing ceramic-encrusted buildings on every street corner. Upon learning that my mom and I were headed to Porto, my sister died with envy. She told me that Porto was her favorite city in Europe. That was quite a bold claim. To pick ONE city out of all the amazing places in Europe and call it the BEST? Whoa…
Needless to say, my expectations were very high.
Before heading to Porto, I started reading about it. It turns out the Porto literally means “the port” in English, and Porto comes from the mispronunciation of the Portuguese. As the second largest city in Portugal, it is most well-known for it’s port wine (which you think would be quite obvious, but didn’t even occur to me until right before our trip…), cork, olive oil, and more. Porto is one of the oldest European centers, and its historical core was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996, with it’s settlement dating back to 300 B.C., when it was an outpost of the Roman Empire.
Lo and behold, Porto wasn’t at all what I was expecting. The first day, my mom and I wandered around near the river, stopping by a restaurant that seemed to be in the perfect location for people watching, right along River de Duoro. Unfortunately, our first encounter with the Portuguese was less than ideal. The food? Meh. We ordered bacalhau (cod) expecting fresh fish, and instead, getting served a fried contraption which was more potatoes than anything, with mayyyybe a dash of cod somewhere in there… Not impressed. But, it is what it is. We hydrated with some beer and called it.
When we asked for our check, we waited for about 15 minutes just to get it. €13.50. Okay. That is actually a lot for two beers and an appetizer here in Porto. We hand over a €20 bill. Five minutes go by. Ten minutes. Finally, about 15 minutes later, I raise my hand at the waiter, asking him where our change is. He nods, recognizing that we have been waiting. Yet another five minutes go by, my patience was wearing. Usually, I try to take cultural differences into account when I’m traveling, especially when it comes to getting service at a restaurant. But this was too far.
I finally flag him down again, saying “POR favor?” – signifying to him that this was becoming ridiculous. Again, he recognized the issue, and comes back with €1.50 in change. I wave my finger at him in disapproval. We gave him €20 for €13.50! And he gives me €1.50? I say, no no no, that won’t do.
He nods and says “I just don’t have any change.”
Me, in my head – “Are you kidding me… not my problem buddy. You’re not getting €5 just because I want to leave and you don’t have change.”
He finally realized that we’re not budging until we get our change. He came back with our €5, and in turn, he didn’t get a single tip. That felt like a complete scam. I wonder how many times that guy has stolen tourist’s money. So, that was our initial experience – crappy service, scamming waiters, and so-so food.
First impressions matter, as you know.
During our long wait for the check, our greasy fingers wrestled with a map of Porto, where we eventually were able to plan out our next move. The plan was to do a tour of the port wineries, we we discovered were only a few steps away, to our enjoyment.
Mmmmm, not so much. Sure, everything was close, but we didn’t take into account that we would basically be bouldering the city of Porto. The entire city is made up of hills. Be aware! What goes down, must come up!
Sweaty and thirsty, we made it up to Taylor Fladgate’s winery, which by the way, is one of my favorite ports to buy back at home, due to it’s low cost for the high-quality wine. I had also read that this winery takes the cake when it comes to the winery itself.
The tasting room was so-so. We drank our port and headed out, but needed to make a pit stop to the bathroom. Thank goodness we did, because we stumbled upon the cellar, which was stacked from floor to ceiling with barrels upon barrels of port. This winery is also home to one of the largest wine barrels ever made – bearing 100,000 liters of delicious, strong, tangy port wine.
We left Taylor’s. Next on the list – something downhill. We wandered down and stumbled upon Croft’s, another port winery. This estate had a different feel; an entirely different experience. Less well-known, not touristy… more authentic. We were greeted by a wonderful French woman, who explained to us the history of Porto wines, the agreements between the British and Portugeuse, and how to this very day, it is unknown who is to take credit for the success of the port industry – the Portuguese or the British? According to the Frenchie, it’s the Portuguese. Without their discovery, it wouldn’t have been possible. But, without the funding of the British, who knows where the industry would have ended up…
The woman served us their classic port, a delicious, dark red. We inquired about their white, out of curiosity, and she made it clear that they don’t specialize in the white. The red is their specialty. A few minutes later, she comes out with a complimentary white. I asked her what she recommends to accompany the wine, their cheese or chocolate. But, because this was our first time at their winery, she recommended that we continue to taste the wines without cheese or chocolate, in order to enjoy the full flavors of the wine. Hmmm… Someone who doesn’t want our money? That was a drastic change from our first experience.
Okay, things were looking up!
We tipsily wander back to our hotel, calling it an early night. The next day, we wondered what we would do the rest of the time in Porto. Wine tasting for four days straight might be a bit much.
The next day, after spending quite awhile wrestling our map, we decided to see play it by ear, with some loose plans to check off some of the tourist attractions. Mostly, we wanted to see where the tiny, windy cobblestone streets of Porto would take us.
Here’s a list of the places we enjoyed the most while in Porto. Some of these you will not find on Trip Advisor or as “top attractions” except #1. The rest were little gem discoveries that I would go out of my way to visit if I ever go back to Porto again.
- Santa Catarina – a walking street in the heart of downtown Porto, where you can stop by and have a coffee at the historic Majestic Café, supposedly on the list of top ten most beautiful cafes in the world. This cafe dates back to 1921. It is not only well-known for it’s breathtaking decor, but also because J.K. Rowling would frequent this cafe while writing the very first Harry Potter books. (I learned that she lived in Porto for awhile; her boyfriend was a local.)
- The Refuge Restaurant – on our second to last day, we were wandering through a less touristy neighborhood, so hungry we were about to eat each other. In what appeared to be a residential area, it was as though someone had opened their garage and converted it into a restaurant. We were warmly greeted by a Portuguese man, clearly excited to have newcomers in his restaurant. He didn’t speak English, but we both spoke a little Spanish, and somehow we got by with broken Spanish and hand motions. Trying to explain to us what the meal of the day was, my confused look clearly gave away the fact that I didn’t know what he was saying. He grabs my hand, taking me into the kitchen, where his wife was preparing today’s dish. She opens a giant pot, revealing a traditional meal – meat, potatoes, and morcilla (blood sausage.) He recommended that we drink it with wine. After bringing the entire bottle to our table, he wouldn’t let us say no to any more booze. But it would be a dirty shame to not follow up our meal with port wine. Finally, he tells my mom he has something special for her. A special wine, made from white grapes… He brings over an unlabeled bottle, clearly something homemade. After tasting a little of her shot, she exclaims that this wasn’t wine, it was brandy. And for all of this, we paid €20. We ended up going back the next day.
- Just wandering – the more time we spent in Porto, the more we appreciated it. If you simply wander the streets, you begin to discover it’s hidden charm. Many of the buildings are old and need to be renovated. The once-shiny ceramic tiles on many of the building are now chipped and peeling off. Like I said, at first we thought it was shanty. But over time, it became beautiful in a way that we didn’t appreciate from first glance. We also noticed street art on almost every corner. It turns out that Porto has had a long history with graffiti artists versus the city. Apparently the city had decided to declare what was considered “art” on the street versus “graffiti”, removing a lot of well-known murals. This caused many street artists to revolt, where they ensued to spray the city tenfold. One specific artist, Hazul, has even been compared to Banksy. Once we understood the history of the graffiti, the negative connotation disappeared.
- Afurando – this is a magical fishing village near Porto. We had heard from a local that this is the best place to get fresh seafood. While on our way (about a 30-40 minute walk from Porto) – along the River de Duoro, we hear a big yell from across the street. A restauranteur is signaling to us to come eat there instead. He was so cheery and inviting, that we thought, what the hell… why not. So we sit on the terrace, overlooking the water, taking in the aroma of fresh grilled fish, and sipping on some sangria and sampling homemade bread with olive oil. This was one of most delicious yet simple meals we had so far – fresh caught sardines as an appetizer, and fresh cod as the main course. Yummmmm. We continued our trek to Afurando. This village had a grill on every corner, where the fisherman bring the catch of the day. Although we weren’t hungry, we ordered some sardines here as well. We’d made it that far. Totally worth the full belly.
I have so much more I could add, but you’ll just have to go to Oporto and experience it for yourself.