Sunday, September 28, 2008

Oh, Porto

After weekends in Barcelona, riding a bike from London to Cambridge, attending the folk festival, and the 3 week trip to Paris and Italy, I had almost forgotten my wonderful weekend in Porto, now more than three months ago. That's a shame so I'm reviving the post I began so long ago. Porto--its English name has long been Oporto but the city actively discourages that now-- is Portugal's second biggest city, after Lisbon, but we consider it first-rate after our recent (ok, not so recent--early June) weekend there. Our friend Andrea was attending a meeting in Lisbon and wanted to vacation first, so we decided to meet in Porto the weekend before her conference and she and KT would then drive to Lisbon, stopping off at various sites while I went home to work. Andrea's friend Caroline, who was touring Europe, decided to join the fun so we went ahead and rented an apartment for the Porto weekend.

Although we like the space and flexibility of an apartment, we're always slightly nervous about going that route--will it look like the pictures on the internet, is the location ok, etc. Who knew the biggest problem would be getting to the place. The apartment wasn't actually in Porto, it was in Vila de Nova Gaia, the town across the river from Porto--they're really two sides of the same coin, but our taxidriver at the airport was mystified. It's never good when you tell a taxi driver the location and he hops out of the cab to ask the other drivers. Turns out the instructions he got were confused and the other driver told ours to go someplace near the coast--we could see the ocean--and far away from Villa de Noa Gai. It took KT and I a bit to realize we were off track and even longer to have the nerve to tell the driver (maybe he knew a secret route) but we eventually headed back in the right direction--only to get lost again. And again. We were in the right neighborhood but not even the local cop could direct our driver the right way. Eventually he stopped at a local taxi stand and the drivers there put us on the right path to the apartment.

And no one is home. We were supposed to get keys from Rosie, the neighbor and cleaner of the apartment but she didn't answer the bell. KT finally called Rosie's cell phone but we don't speak Portuguese and she doesn't speak English. Fortunately, the embarrassed cab driver had stuck around to help and he started chatting with Rosie and learned she had left the keys at the cafe across the street. A long walk up the stairs to the 5th floor apartment and we had finally made it! And it was worth it--the apt was huge and the living room view (the picture at the top and at the end of this post) was worth being outside of Porto itself.

After unpacking, KT and I made our way down the hill to the river on a curving street with no sidewalk. We also passed Graham's port lodge, the one whose sign we could see the back of from the apartment (see picture at top). After roaming the riverfront a bit, we gave into hunger and stopped at what was apparently a brewpub. There we had our first encounter with the francenshina (right), the carnivore-lovers sandwich that's popular in Portugal. As I recall, mine had steak, ham, and sausage--hmm, I may be forgetting another meat--and was then covered with a huge slice of melted cheese, before a spicy tomato souplike sauce was poured on top. KT had the same, but added prawns--which she expected on the side but came in the sandwich. Each sandwich was a meal for two and certainly slowed us down for the rest of the afternoon. We meandered along the Vila de Nova Gaia side of the river, crossed the bridge and strolled along the bank on the Porto side. By that time we had to rush to meet our friends at the train station and take them back to the apartment, thankfully with a cab driver who knew his way.

Still wondering if there was an easier route from the apartment down to the river, we decided to take what looked like a promising back-street route that soon turned into a back alley and then a walled hidden walkway that we worried would hit a dead-end or contain muggers waiting for silly tourists. But we eventually found a way out and walked the city/cities a bit more, having a glass of port naturally along the river, before landing for dinner at a guide-booked recommended restaurant that was clearly a locals place. The food was decent but we spent much of the time debating what leafy vegetable made up Andrea's caldo verde (green soup)--we learned at the market the next day when we saw elderly women shredding lots of kale on a hand-powered machine.

On the Saturday trip to the market--thankfully we discovered a bus that went from our apartment down the huge hill and right into Porto--we loaded up a bag with bread, cheese, meats and olives because we had decided to hop a train out to the Douro valley, which is essentially the port equivalent of what Napa valley is for wine. All the grapes for port are grown in this region, often on spectacularly terraced hills than can only be handpicked during the late summer heat. Once the port is made it is then shipped down to Porto where it ages in huge lodges, either in bottles or casks. The port used to be transferred by boat, and you still see port sailboats on the river, mostly for show. I should note the train stations in the Porto region are noted for the beauty of their hand-painted tile murals (left) called azulejo. You can see many more pictures of them at our Porto web album.

The second hour of the train ride when we got into the river valley was beautiful and when we reached the town of Regua we found a park on a hill overlooking the Douro river and lunched on our market purchases. We then roamed Regua a bit aimlessly, not finding the port lodges we expected to see but finally making it to the Port Wine Institute, which was part a museum devoted to the history of port production and part a beautiful tasting room where one could sample hundreds of ports at ridiculously cheap prices. I think the 4 of us had 12 different glasses of port and I bought a bottle of port, all of it for less than $50--in the U.S some of the ports we had would have cost more than $50 a glass.

Sunday was a day to roam Porto itself. And we started with finally visiting a port lodge, Graham's since we could see it outside our window. We had a great tour where we learned the differences between, ruby, tawny, crusted and vintage ports. don't ask me what they are because we followed the tour with a leisurely tasting of 6 different Graham's ports! And if starting Sunday morning by drinking port wasn't bad enough, we then moved onto a brunch with endless supply of more drinks. Andrea had read of a great restaurant that serves an all you can eat buffet of Portuguese specialities but the first two nights we passed on it for dinner as we weren't that hungry. Sunday we more than made up for it with a nearly 3 hour frenzy of food and drink that started around noon--a huge cheese table, endless buffet, bottles of the lovely vino verde wine, champaigne, port and our new favorite, an almond liquer called Amenoda amarga that is served highly chilled and with a squeeze of lemon. We spent the rest of the day working off the meal and the port tasting by walking up the many hills of Porto. One sidetrip went a beautiful church with an impressive crypt full of bones. And we ended the day at a little riverfront plaza where a huge TV screen had been placed so people could watch each day's Euro2008 football matches. That night Portugal was playing Switzerland and we got good seats and waved the flags handed out--Portugal lost but the crowd wasn't too depressed as the team had already qualified for the next round. I'm not sure we saw all Porto had to offer in the short weekend I had there, but we certainly had fun.--J.T.



Nighttime view from our apartment, courtesy Andrea's skill and camera.

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