Travelogue Iberia 6: Porto

16-18 September 2013

Porto started in Roman times as twin city settlements on either side of the Duoro river mouth. When Cale on the south bank grew to be an important crossing on the Lisbon-Braga road and Portus on the north bank established itself as a harbour, the cities merged (much like Buda and Pest in Hungary) and became Portus-Cale, the capital of the county of Portucale. This land was given to Henri of Burgandy on his marriage to the daughter of the King of León in 1095 and it was their son, Alfonso Henriques, who ultimately founded the independent kingdom of Portugal. 

Our introduction to Porto was complicated. We’ve found the Google maps to be a bit vague at times and to leave out a vital instruction here or there that complicates things no end. Porto was one of those and a simple “first roundabout” instead of “second” sent us on a wild goose chase, entering the city from the wrong side completely – and consequently being nowhere near where we needed to be (and quite disappointed with the look of the city, since it was the quite grungy industrial side). Matters were made infinitely worse by the Porto drivers, who are far more aggressive than any we’ve encountered anywhere else – and who remind us of home with their “stop anywhere” double-parking and zeal in taking gaps that don’t exist!

Some angst later, we managed to rectify our course and find the road that runs along the river and into the Centro through the Ribeira, which allowed us to find our road with relative ease. Challenge now was that our road was closed to cars and wedged between 2 parallel roads… but not in a grid system, so circling back from overshooting the road the first time proved to be challenging at best (and very frustrating). Of course our Google Maps were of no use, so we were left trying to patch together our directions using the few maps in the Lonely Planet guide, which were clearly not designed for this exercise, and street name markings, which were few and far between. 

We spotted an Info office – coincidentally across the intersection from our ‘hidden’ road – and pulled a Porto, double-parking outside. Christian ran into the Info office; I ran across to our road to confirm our hotel.

Christian hit paydirt with an English-speaker, a free city map and instructions on where to find free parking; I found our road in turmoil, with the whole road blocked off as a construction site, with narrow walkways caged off on either side. I followed one of the walkways halfway down and couldn’t find the hotel, so turned around and made my way back since it was slow going and we were double-parked.

The plan was to circle around back to the bottom of the main road (Rue de Mouzinho da Silveira) that runs parallel to our road (Rue das Flores) to find a free parking spot. But that proved to be more difficult than anticipated as the town planner apparently went to the same school as Gaudi since he seems to have been incapable of a straight line. In fact, if you look at the city map topographically, you think that there are hidden hieroglyphs in the floral arrangement of streets since they are so uniformly ununiform! Very frustrating for newcomers!

Eventually we caved and parked at an Underground pay parking an indeterminate distance from our accommodation. Fortunately though, we each had backpacks so we each packed an overnight bag and locked the suitcases in the boot of the car.

Turns out it was much easier to move around Porto on foot and we were at Porto Alive only a few minutes later and checking into our “penthouse terraced room with a view”, which really translated into a room on the 3rd of 3 floors, with a square metre of balcony that of course has to look onto something, namely the back of the Cathedral (of which, in such long-standing Catholic territory, there are many). 

On check-in we were advised of free daily walking tours at 10.30 and 15.30, so we decided to join the afternoon tour since it was 2.30 already so it left just enough time for lunch – and we wouldn’t have to where or why of what to see in Porto.

What to have for lunch was an easy decision, having read that Porto’s claim to fame is a mega sandwich called a Francesinha. Filled with cheese, steak, ham and two types of sausage, the behemoth is then topped with a fried egg, has cheese sauce poured over it and then a layer of light yellow stringy cheese melted over the top of that, enough so that it melts down the sides to form a sort of cheese case around the whole parcel. It is then served in a soup bowl with a thick, rich gravy poured over the whole lot and an optional portion of fries packed around the sandwich on top of the gravy. You can see why we opted to share one (and nixed the fries).

We met up with the tour guide and group at the “man on a horse” statue in the middle of Avenidu dos Aliados) for our walking tour. We found out that our guide’s name was Pedro, as was the fellow on the horse who was Pedro I of Brazil, having been the son of King Pedro of Portugal who went to Brazil (being a Portuguese colony) and loved it so much that he convinced his dad to give it to him, thus giving Brazil independence under his reign as King Pedro I of Portugal. When his dad died, the Portuguese wanted Pedro I of Brazil to come back and become Pedro IV of Portugal, but he wasn’t keen so he instead sent his daughter to marry his brother, Miguel, and in so doing unintentionally set in motion quite a malarky since since Miguel then dissolved the Parliament and made Portugal an absolute monarchy. Obviously, the people were less than pleased, so Pedro came back from Brazil to Porto, whereupon Miguel laid siege on the city and for over a year not a person was allowed in or out. The people of Porto held out and Miguel was overthrown in 1833. Pedro was so overwhelmed by the solidarity of the people of Porto that he wished his heart to remain there (conjecture as to how literally he meant this) so when he died, his body was laid to rest in Brazil but his heart is in a jar of formaldehyde in a local church in Porto (which apparently sounds more romantic than it looks).

Having a tour guide was great for depth of stories like that – and he even had us going that the swarms of young people in black and white uniforms with black capes were Harry Potter fans, which was verified as feasible by one of the tour attendees who knew that JK Rowling had lived for some time in Porto. Turns out that they’re also actually second year university students, who earn the right to wear the uniform by passing first year. There was some credence to the Potter link though as Rowling is said to have drawn inspiration on the uniforms and some elements of the book from here. Bearing testament, we visited the glorious bookstore, Livrario Lello, with the staircase that was said to have inspired the moving staircases in the books. The bookstore is voted the third most beautiful (after ones in Buenos Aires and Maastricht, housed in an old church and theatre respectively) and is easy to see why with its towering double volume floor-to-ceiling shelves and the magnificent staircase that occupies the whole of the middle of the floor, with split elevations that boggle the eyes and give the appearance of motion.

 The guide then took us to the Park Municipal das Virtudes with its beautiful fountain and terraces, which flowed from the now long-gone Cristal Palace, which looked like it must’ve been breathtakjng. The gardens alone are pretty spectacular and it’s reassuring to see the locals enjoying the space.

We concluded with a series of look-out points and while the views of the bridges, waters and landmarks were awesome, the look out points themselves were a mess and there’s a lot of squalor to be seen as well. Pedro went into great detail about the chronology and history of the bridges, but the important thing is that it’s the Ponte Luis I bridge that’s the main one now (train on the top part, cars and pedestrians on the bottom). Interestingly, the bridge was launched with a toll attached, but as soon as the cost of the bridge had been covered, the toll was removed. That would never happen in South Africa! 

It was at the Porto side of the Mont Luis I bridge that our tour came to a close at about 6.30pm, with Pedro advising that the best next step was to cross the bridge over to the Vila Nova de Gaia on the other side to enjoy sunset with the perfect view, of Porto. That side of the river is also known for port wine production, for which the region is world famous. One of the producers, Krohn, hosts free tasting until 8pm, so we decided to do that first since they’re positioned at the far end of the promenade.

We were given 3 varieties to try: white, tawny and full-bodied. They’re awful! Not just Krohn’s, but port in general. It’s sweet and syrupy with a very strong taste – not our thing at all! That put a spanner into the itinerary since the whole of the next afternoon was supposed to be dedicated to this side of the river and sampling at a selection of the many producers! Nevermind though, always something else to do.

We left Krohn’s, deciding we needed a palette cleanser and got drawn in by a 5 ’til 8 Happy Hour (clearly not ones to be constrained by the literal), at a front table with perfect unobstructed river view. We’d already decided this night to be the one that would sate our quest for Bacalhau (codfish) and we’d come to the right place! Taberninha do Manel served an excellent Bacalhau com Natas (codfish with with diced potatoes in a cream al forno) and Bacalhau á Braz (codfish with diced potatoes, egg and onions) and we were very happy our choice… and appreciative if the gesture of the complimentary port wine that came with the bill and forced it back to be polite. 

Schedule wide open post premature port wine tasting the previous night, we decided to join Pedro for his Tuesday morning walking tour which he had assured covered completely different ground to the afternoon tour. Having walked the city flat the day before, we easily found our way to the meeting spot at the Pedro monument. 

Pedro again opened with a story relevant to our location, this time telling the story of why the Aliados avenue is actually a square and not an avenue at all. Apparently it was planned to be a 5km long avenue that stretched up the hill to from the site of the old town square, to celebrate prosperity and Portugal joining the Allies in World War I (hence the name Aliados, meaning Allies). The plan was thwarted however by a little old Catholic church in the planned path, which the Catholics said under church law could not be demolished. After lengthy back and forthing, the plans for the avenue had to be scrapped so to get even a big city hall was built in front of the church, exactly the same shape but much bigger so as to hide the offending building. 

We also visited  Sao Bento station, which is famed for its elaborate exterior, interior pressed the ceilings and its extensive Azulejos (handpainted blue on white tiles) telling the story of transportation evolution in Portugal on the one level and stories of great Portuguese victories on others. The other point of interest is that the architect got so wound up in the design and decor that he forgot some key functional elements, like ticket office and waiting rooms, so adjacent buildings had to be bought to annex for the station to be practically operational.

This intense decoration is visible in some of the (many) churches we saw. The Santa Clara church is decorated (so that it looks like it’s been dipped) in gold leaf from Brazil and the Sao Francisco church is decorated with 600kg of gold, which at today’s prices is about 25 million Euros of gold, which in turn with patrimonial value included brings the value of the church then to 250 million Euros!

Besides the opulence, Pedro encouraged us to enjoy some of the simpler pleasures, taking us up to a section of the Old City wall where we could get excellent photos both up and down the river and of Porto and Gaia. There are only small sections of the walls that remain as the majority was demolished in the early 18th century when Porto had outgrown the city space within the 2.6km perimeter and the wealthy living outside the city were complaining that their assets weren’t being protected. Using warped logic, they demolished sections of the walls… only to have the French invade the now vulnerable city and take everyone’s stuff!

Pedro ended off the 3 hour tour with advice on where and what to have for lunch. First he told us about the Francesinha, the epic sandwich that has been Porto’s claim to fame for 60+ years, since it was invented by a chap returning to Porto from his studies in France. He had had more luck with the more liberal French lasses so he devised a cunning plan to improve his chances with his Portuguese conquests. Contrary to popular belief, the Portuguese don’t eat spicy food and there are no traditional meals like the peri-peri ones they’re internationally famed for – in fact, an Australian in our group asked “What about Nando’s?” and had to be corrected that it’s a South African chain! So, the Francesinha guy concocted his meaty offering to appeal to all tastes and then added the spicy sauce so that the ladies would get hot and remove layers of clothing – and quash the burning by sipping on beers, which would make them more amiable. They must be real ninnies because we didn’t find the sauce to be burny at all!

The second story was about Tripas da mota do Porto, a tripe stew. Henry the Navigator was born in Porto and was quite popular wjth the people. When he decided to go seafaring, he realised the sailors would be at sea for a very long time and would need nourishment for the journey. He appealed to the locals to provide food and they gave him all the meat (salted) that they had, leaving the people only with less noble meats (innards, stomach, giblets etc). With necessity being the mother of invention, the people of Porto learned to make what they had palatable – and even into something they loved and preferred. When Henry’s sailors returned with rice and spices from Asia, and beans and spices from South America the recipe was enhanced and improved to what it is today. This is also the source of the options derogatory nickname the people of Lisbon have for them (Tripeiros or people who eat tripe), but the Portos in turn called the Lisboetas Alfacinhas or “lettuce eaters”.

To end off the day, we caught the 500 bus to Foz, Porto’s beaches at the rivermouth. We enjoyed a long stroll along all of the beaches  from Praia de Molhe (claiming to be a Blue Flag beach) where you find the Pergola da Foz, one of Porto’s most iconic postcard images. It was a lovely sunset walk, easily managed with the wide and even promenade, and highly recommended to round off the Porto experience.