Porto would be the first stop in a brand new country for me! I know very little about Portugal–their culture and even their food (other than their famed egg tarts, I don’t know that I’ve ever had Portuguese food). I usually take the opportunity afforded by getting airfare covered to attend an academic conference to wander for a week or so afterwards. I had literally stared at a map of Europe to consider where to go after Glasgow and thought that a sunny sojourn in southern Europe (particularly after the veritable fall-like weather in Scotland) sounded like a brilliant idea. Hence, Portugal!
I’d arrived at the Air BnB apartment the previous evening around 8 pm, so other than popping across the street for dinner, I hadn’t yet seen any of the town. As I tend to do when traveling alone, I got a rather luxurious start in the morning, setting off to see the city around 11 am. While I had a list of sights prepared, I thought I’d get the lay of the land by just wandering in the general direction of the waterfront. Despite my desire of warm summer weather, it was actually quite cool (about 20 C) and cloudy in Porto.It wasn’t long before I passed the impressive Avenida dos Aliados, a sloping boulevard lined with beaux-arts façades and with Town Hall at its peak. From there, I popped my head into São Bento train station for a peek at the azulejos-covered walls. Azulejos are tin-glazed ceramic telework, which are a dominant part of Portuguese architecture. I will definitely have to find a souvenir tile to take home with me!
From there, I strolled down Rua das Flores, a pedestrian-only street lined with cafés and shops (many of which were closed, as it was Sunday). I mentally noted some delicious-looking gelato and chocolate places to return to. There were a surprising number of tourists, by far outnumbering the locals. I suppose I hadn’t thought that Porto was as prime a destination as other places in Europe, but I am here in peak season. It wasn’t long before I reached the Ingreja Monumento de São Francisco, renowned for its elaborate interiors. The exterior of the Gothic church was severe and austere, standing in stark contrast to the opulence of its interior. They didn’t allow photography, so I practiced the art of “shooting from the hip” (one of the advantages of having a silent shutter). Though I did occasionally duck behind a pillar to get a shot. The lavish gilt wood carvings covered almost all surfaces (purportedly about 400 kg of gold in all), and I sat in a pew and simply stared up at it all, trying to take it all in.
The sun was starting to peek through the clouds as I continued my downhill descent, through the winding medieval streets of the Ribeira district to the Cais da Ribeira. I’d read somewhere that the Ribeira was a “crumbling but fantastic” place, which I think is an apt description. Peeling paint and crumbling stonework in places did not detract from the vibrancy of the area. Unsurprisingly, the area was tourist-central and stalls lined the boardwalk, flogging their wares (a disturbing number of sellers were roaming about trying to sell selfie sticks…sigh). I wandered my way through the narrow, medieval streets over to Ponte Luís I, a metal arch bridge spanning the Rio Douro connecting Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia. Fun fact: it was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel and was the longest of its type in the world when it was built.
I was definitely in need of food at this point, so I made my way back in the general direction of the apartment along the Rua das Flores. I came across a cute little café, Chocolataria das Flores, which looked to be just what I needed. I grabbed a seat outside and enjoyed my lasagna in the now sunny (and warm) weather. I headed back to the apartment to get in a bit of work and a little afternoon sesta. I used to feel guilty if I didn’t pound the pavement the whole day, getting in the full experience and seeing as much as possible–as if I were somehow cheating myself and not taking full advantage of the opportunity of being there. These days I don’t mind not seeing everything and am ultimately happy to divide up the day with quieter rest periods (maybe it’s age/laziness).
I eventually got myself going and decided to head back down to the waterfront to find myself a dinner spot. There were, unsurprisingly, a large number of restaurants to choose from, each with their own little patio spots along the narrow walkways overlooking the river. The only disadvantage of this is of course that you will have people walking through occasionally. I managed to find a recommended restaurant, Vinhas d’aloo, but was about half an hour early for dinner (they don’t usually serve dinner until around 7 pm). I was, however, happy to sit and enjoy my view across the river of the Port wine caves with a glass of sparkling wine. I decided on crab cannelloni to start with and golden (sea) bream for my main. The crab dish was served cold and was super delicious, creamy and crabby (just the way I like it). My bream arrived as a whole fish, so I went to work on de-boning it. It was lovely and flavourful, uncomplicated by sauce or anything more than lemon. At some point during dinner, it started lightly misting. Thankfully, all the outdoor seating had umbrellas open, but I did feel the occasional drop. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal nonetheless and was warmed by my wine all the way back through the rain-splattered streets.