We booked our trip to Porto, Portugal, expecting sun and beaches.
Porto, also known as Oporto, is located in the north of Portugal by mouth of the Douro River — hence it being called “the Port” — and is the second largest city in the country. After we landed, we struggled to make our way to the hotel without Google Maps since our phones didn’t work in Portugal. Somehow we found the cute square where our hostel sat after a while of searching in the rain and quickly scurried inside to dry off. We couldn’t check in until 3:00pm and were hungry for some lunch, so we headed out in search of one of the must-dos for any visitor to Portugal: the Francesinha.
We weren’t really sure what to expect, but we had read that we had to try to eat a francesinha when we came to the city and were willing to give it a try. It’s a sandwich, one of the top 10 best in the world apparently, with thick Texas-toast style bread, many different layers of meat like steak, sausage, and ham, covered with cheese and a spicy sauce (in Iberian terms though, so not really) — all served over a bed of french fries. One of Haley’s friends from Madrid is actually originally from the city of Porto, so he gave us a place to go that apparently has really good francesinhas, Capa Negra II. It was a little bit of a walk, but we utilized our navigational skills with our map and definitely weren’t disappointed. Apparently you’re supposed to share them if it’s your first time, but no one told us that so we all ordered one… I was the only one who finished mine, but no shame at all. Some of the meats were a little strange, but it was amazing. 🙂
After lunch, we headed back to the hostel to catch the 3:30pm tour. It started down-pouring while we were out there and we almost considered heading back, but I’m glad we didn’t. My pants might not have dried until halfway through the next day and I’m pretty sure my shoes will never recover from being that wet, but I’m glad we took advantage of the city and stayed on the tour. We met at the Liberdade Square close to where we had taken the metro from the airport (Aliados), right in front of the statue to Pedro IV. Along the tour, we saw a few of the sites we had passed on our way to the hostel like the Clérigos Church with its high tower and the main building of the University of Porto, but we also saw a lot of new things and learned more about them.
Two of the coolest things we saw that we probably wouldn’t have learned about without the tour were two sites that are thought to have inspired Harry Potter. J. K. Rowling actually taught English in Porto for a while and started writing the novels while living in the city, so many aspects of the city probably made it into her book. The first was the famous Livraria Lello, one of the oldest bookstores in Portugal, whose beautiful décor probably inspired many of the beautiful bookshops. We also saw the supposed inspiration for Sirius Black’s house, which might seem like a stretch but definitely has a good argument. Apparently there’s a rule in Portugal that no two churches can share a wall, so when they wanted to build the Igreja do Carmo right next to the Igreja dos Carmelitas, they needed to add a very skinny house right in between. Like Sirius Black’s hidden house, you almost wouldn’t notice it’s there even if you walked by the street everyday. Beyond those two sites, we also saw a bunch of students from the university wearing robes. Nowadays they apparently just use them when hazing the new students, but in the past they wore them as part of a uniform to not make poorer students feel left out. Who’d have thought that we’d see so much Harry Potter-related things in Portugal?
Throughout the rest of that tour and the one we took the next day, we saw quite a bit more of what Porto had to offer. Because the city is located so close to the river, it has many important bridges that our guide pointed out to us and has had to deal with lots of flooding over the years. We also saw the historical São Bento railway station, a very beautiful building that was apparently built by an architect fresh out of school who was so excited to impress everyone with his first project that he forgot to add bathrooms and ticket offices! Paco would also be proud of us because we saw quite a few churches, including the Porto Cathedral, but we didn’t go inside any except for one attached to a convent. Our guide explained to us that many of the older Portuguese nuns came from wealthy families but were sent to convents when they refused to participate in their arranged marriages. I’m not sure how much I believe all of the anecdotes he told us, but they’re all interesting nevertheless. 🙂
After our tour on the second day, we decided to head across the river through one of the bridges that our guide, Pedro, had shown us. Porto is actually like San Francisco in that the area across the river is actually a different city: Gaia. This is the area home to the various wine producers and cellars that produce the port wine that Porto is known for. Because it has protected designation of origin status, only wine coming from this area can actually be labeled port wine, similar to the protections given to the Champagne region of France. The protected region along the Douro River was actually established in 1756, making it the oldest demarcated region in the world — something we actually learned from the wall in our hostel, because it was named the Porto Wine Hostel. 😉 We were also pretty excited when we realized that the “Douro River” is actually the same as the “Duero River” we have in Spain, meaning that the popular Ribera red wine also comes from grapes grown along that river as well. Visiting some of the adegas for a tour and tasting is another one of the must-see Porto tourist attractions, so naturally we had to check that out.
We didn’t really do that much the rest of that night because we had to get up really early the next day — our flight left at 8:25am, so we needed to be up by 3:45am for everyone to get ready and for us to catch the 5:00am bus. Between the rain and that early wake up call, we didn’t really get to enjoy the nightlife that our hostel was so close to (though we did see people still partying when we left in the morning…), but we definitely had a worthwhile trip regardless. The bad weather on Friday also made us truly appreciate that it was only foggy on Saturday with the occasional drizzle. We can only imagine how beautiful the city is with the nice weather and sun though. Fortunately, Paco and Elena surprised us by adding Porto to our Northern Spain trip after finals finish, so hopefully we’ll get see some nicer weather then. We’ll be the experts on the trip and will be able to show everyone some of the many cheap food places (5€ per person!) and get them to fall in love with francesinhas. Maybe we’ll even try some of the tripe that the city is apparently famous for, given the affectionate nickname of people from Porto, tripe eaters or tripeiros. 🙂