Porto: The Unsung Portuguese Gem

Porto is a blend of chilled, happy days and charged, wild nights. It feels very, very safe and the people are amongst the friendliest of any city I’ve ever visited. 

This is the first travel article I’ve done for my own blog on a place other than Andalusia but I feel it’s now a natural progression to cover more of the world. I’ve noticed that over the past few years, I’ve travelled a fair amount around my home continent of Europe (my last long-haul trip was back in 2015 to Las Vegas).

The beauty of Europe is how the culture, climate, language and history is so varied and you can be in a completely different place after only a 2-3 hour flight!

My cousin works with a Portuguese woman who had long been recommending for him to visit Porto as she knew he had visited the Algarve around five times. When he suggested Porto to me, I had no visual impression of what it was like, I had never seen photos of the place.

The only thing I knew was that it has a football team and is sometimes referred to as Oporto.

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My cousin and I drinking the nicest white sangria ever

Given that I actually moved abroad to a place I had never heard of until I saw the advert for the job (in Córdoba, Spain), I am no stranger to booking flights to places I am totally unfamiliar with. May half-term flights can be extortionate when you’re a teacher and bound to only going away when prices escalate and it just so happened that flights to Porto were the most reasonable. So, we booked it and I waited four weeks to find out what we were in store for as even online research only tended to mention a few samey, token things.

We arrived at our apartment which was ideally located on the Rua Sá de Noronha, right in the middle of the city centre, on a Saturday night. People were spilling out from the bars into the street and quite clearly a few hours into partying- there was a buzz in the air and we knew that we were going to be in for a treat. This could be a nightmare for those who prefer a more rural and peaceful situation for accommodation but we only had a few nights here so were glad to catch some of the weekend spirit.

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River Douro

Porto is a blend of chilled, happy days and charged, wild nights. It feels very, very safe and the people are amongst the friendliest of any city I’ve ever visited.

The first sight we came across was one of my favourite of the whole city: the Igreja do Carmo and Carmelitas. I love anything in blue so it caught my eye instantly and I continued to stare at it every single time we left or returned to the apartment which was in the next street. The Portuguese azulejos are famous worldwide for their eye-catching intricate designs which lend an ornate look to what would otherwise be standard grey stone buildings. The tiles depict Portuguese warriors and heroes who protected their country in battles or scenes of nuns and monks worshipping God. The Rococo style architecture is quite stunning and the blue-white dreamy tiles leave you in no doubt that you are definitely in Portugal.

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After a brief walk around this corner of the city, we decided to jump a bus to a local beach to relax. In countries such as Portugal and Spain, you will find that not as many shops, restaurants or attractions are open so we thought Sunday was the best time to spend some time doing nothing on the beach.

There are several beaches within Porto’s vicinity but we chose Matosinhos Beach. Take the 500 bus from near Porto’s train station and you will find yourself at immaculate, powdery-white beaches within 25 minutes. The brief journey itself is quite scenic and passes around three other beaches which also look lovely but we hung on for Matosinhos.

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Matosinhos Beach

It is one of the cleanest beaches I have ever seen, dusted with talcum powder white beaches and the Atlantic sparkling deep blue with a very far off horizon. Most of the people there were locals and it all had a very peaceful vibe.

The wind was quite strong that day however to the point where the sand was being whipped up from the surface into the air so unfortunately we couldn’t spend too much long there. That beach on a calmer day would be an absolute treat though!

The river that runs through Porto and beyond is the Douro river. This name means ‘golden river’ and the wines produced in the Douro valley are fast becoming one of my favourite reds. Obviously, Port wine is the most famous alcoholic drink from Porto but I just cannot take to it… this is after three and a half years living in Spain where sherry was quite a common addition to meals and festivals. These fortified wines just don’t do it for me although I can appreciate how many people do enjoy their richness. I actually found myself drinking more white wine than usual, perhaps due to the heat and the gorgeous simplicity of the Portuguese vinho verde:

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My cousin and I booked on to a Douro river boat trip (15 euros for 50 minutes) at 6pm when the May sun fades down to a softer glow. We made our way along this wide, deep blue river, passing the UNESCO World Heritage site riverfront, the Ribeira. The array of coloured buildings could be plucked straight out of a Scandinavian harbour but the higgledy-piggledy layout is definitely not. It makes for a charming and cheerful riverbank as joyful as the city’s people.

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The other side of the river is called Vila Nova de Gaia and is where one can find Calem, the most famous port wine cellar. There are six bridges along the river in Porto, with the most famous being the Ponte Dom Luís, designed by Gustave Eiffel of the Parisian tower fame. Walking across this bridge (shared with the passing trams!) provides the best views although if you have vertigo, it can get slightly dizzying.

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One particular highlight of the trip was when we were en route to watch a traditional Fado show and we stumbled across a vantage point with stunning views right across the river and the city behind it.

We were maybe half an hour away from sunset and the locals had gathered on the grassy verge with several cervejas to admire it. It was so chilled and peaceful, we banked on having half an hour or so to spare to get a beer for ourselves and hopefully catch the sun melt into the riverbank’s horizon.

The view was so beautiful, we found it hard to pull ourselves way to arrive at the show punctually. We asked ourselves several times how Porto can remain relatively unknown to the average tourist when it is so beautiful, so peaceful, so affordable and so scenic.

 

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Eventually, we arrived at the venue to see the Fado show. After living in Spain for three and a half years, I was more than familiar with the grandeur of a flamenco show so I was wondering what the famous fado would be like. I had read an excellent BBC article which first enlightened me on the tradition of fado and the emotional rooting of saudade in this music.

Saudade has been covered in many an online article so I’ll keep its explanation brief: it is an essentially untranslatable word which evokes nostalgia and sorrow for times or people gone by, or those that never were.. a sense of longing and absence. There is also a happy and indulgent aspect to saudade as it allows one to celebrate the capacity to feel, the better to love and lose than never love at all thing..

Fado is loud and powerful, full of wailing, mourning cries with intricate and sensual guitar. There were two guitars played at our show: a traditional acoustic guitar and a voluptuous Portuguese guitar. Three singers took their turn to belt out their heartaches as we enjoyed a three course meal and a bottle of their beautiful Douro red wine.

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Fado Guitarristas
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A non-commercial place to see Saudade in action in a  Fado show- a local’s house

As an English teacher and writer, I had to visit the ‘Livraria Lello‘- one of the world’s most beautiful and most famous book shops. Its main claim to fame is that J.K Rowling reportedly found the inspiration for Hogwarts  here amongst the thousands of books and winding grand staircase.

You have to queue up once to buy an entrance ticket for 5 euros. Here, you must leave all bags in a locker (due to freeing up physical space once inside the rather small book shop). You then join another queue to enter. Once inside, you can peruse the books in various languages before scaling the beautiful staircase where you will see a tribute to Harry Potter in a glass case with books signed by J.K Rowling especially for the shop.

It is fun and nice to look at with its ornate stained glass ceiling but you don’t need any more than 20 minutes in here, maximum.

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In the Livraria Lello

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The final thing I’ll mention about Porto to close this blog entry is the stunning train station which is adorned with those beautiful blue Portuguese azulejos (tiles), telling stories from Portugal’s illustrious past. Tales of war and colonialism are depicted on the historic walls of this busy train station. I have visited several picturesque train stations but Porto’s probably holds my current title for best looking to date:

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So- Porto is another hidden gem I’ve uncovered by chance and I’d recommend anyone who loves good wine, beautiful beaches, vivid nightlife, calm daytimes, stunning architecture and fabulous food to go NOW. The Algarve is stunning and I’ve yet to check out Lisbon but one thing is for sure, Porto is certainly somewhere to discover this year!

 

 

 

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