If you are thinking about visiting Portugal…stop thinking; go! This little country surprised us. Although often overshadowed by its bigger, more suave, European neighbors like France, Italy, and Spain, Portugal packed a big punch. Don’t underestimate this lil’ sport.
Portugal competed at all levels (except for maybe in Fútbol) with all the other European countries we visited, but at a fraction of the cost. She had hospitable locals, beautiful architecture, historical monuments, gorgeous coastline, hip nightlife, and tasty wine. And between Lisbon and Porto you can experience all of the above.
In my opinion, Porto holds the charm and Lisbon’s got the spunk.
Porto: A Perfect Follow-Up To The Camino De Santiago
We took a four hour bus ride south from Santiago de Compostela (where we finished our walk on the Camino de Santiago) to Porto, Portugal. Two of our dear friends, Ken and Jeroen, whom we met on the Camino, joined us here for a few days to debrief before heading home.
We scored an awesome little one-bedroom apartment right in the middle of the city through airbnb.com for the same price our friends paid for a hotel. After 30 days of living in albergues on the Camino, you can’t imagine how refreshing it felt to sit our buns down on an actual couch and cook in our own clean kitchen.
So we took advantage of both: I cooked a big pot of healthy soup for our lunches and we cozied up on the couch to watch Forrest Gump. Forrest was a fellow walker you know; I'm pretty tired...I think I'll go home now.
But even if you’re not a veteran pilgrim looking to rest up like us, I still recommend staying in an apartment over a hotel. The winding streets built on the hills of Porto are quaint and I enjoyed hearing our little strip of cobblestone come to life each morning.
Women lifted groceries up to the third floor by lowering a rope. Neighbors shouted to each other from their windows. Kids played ball in the street and fed the plethora of homeless cats. Teenagers revved their engines and blasted Madonna. Two wrinkly old Portuguese men congregated at the tiny family-owned market before and after work, and one even more wrinkly old woman sat all day on an over-turned bucket silently eying the street like a neighborhood watch dog. The same characters coming and going all day long, I felt like we were on the set of Sesame Street.
Visiting The Port Caves
Every afternoon we walked across the Dom Luis Bridge, designed and built in part by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel Tower fame, to taste some Port. The hills that descend down to the riverbank of the Duoro River house the world’s Port caves. And the massive signs of each Port brand that dot the hillside directed our way and begged us to come near.
Port, because of the liquor that is added to stop grape fermentation, has a higher alcohol content than normal wine, which is why we spread out our Port tastings over several days.
We started with Calem as it was located right along the main walking street. For just five euro per person (about $7 USD) we got a 30-minute tour in English and two port tastings (a white and a tawny).
However, our favorite Port house was Taylor’s. The walk up the hill to find it will burn your quads, but it’s worth the extra effort. The older port houses tend to be higher up the hill. First come, first served; they secured the premier location on the hill to avoid the infamous Duoro River floods. Taylor’s tour and tasting only set us back three euro per person (about $5 USD) and included three tastings (a white, a ruby, and a tawny).
There Is More To Porto Than Port
Porto has more than just Port to tickle your taste buds. We found a sandwich that comes close to competing with the warm piece of heaven served between two slices of focaccia that we found in Florence. In Porto, she’s called the Francesinha and she has two pieces of toast with various meats and cheeses in the middle, then she’s topped with cheese (sometimes an egg) and a special beer sauce. The secret is in the sauce and while you can get this sandwich elsewhere in Portugal, rumor has it that you can only find it with the authentic sauce in Porto.
Porto had other non-culinary treats as well, for example, the architecture. The Portuguese cover their building fronts with beautiful tile, some of which is hand-painted, making each building unique. I think the Portuguese would be horrified by the uniform paint jobs we employ in California track-home neighborhoods. How boring.
Our Finesterre in Portugal
Also, the Duoro River meanders through the city to its outlet at the Atlantic. A nicely kept walking path stretches the whole length (or if you don’t like to walk, a trolly is also available) and takes you to Foz do Duoro, a small beach area on the edge of Porto, at the mouth of the river, and home to many of Porto’s upper class. Since we skipped the extra three-day Camino extension hike to Finisterre, this was our Finesterre and I think it was about as beautiful.
Like San Francisco, Porto is situated on hills, overlooking a large body of water. She doesn't lack breath-taking views, day or night. She’s a “small big city,” so you can really wrap your arms around her in just a day or two, and then spend your extra days enjoying her warm embrace.
Stay tuned for the next Portuguese post about Lisbon!
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!