The name of the country: Portugal derives from a Roman-Celtic city name Portus Cale and it means harbor. This ancient settlement used to be located at the mouth of the River Douro in the north of Portugal and today is called Vila Nova de Gaia that is basically part of the Porto metropolitan area where we are heading together. The safest, easiest, and fastest way to get to Porto from Lisbon is to take the high-speed Alfa Pendular bullet train; the 200 miles long ride takes less than three hours, and besides you can enjoy viewing the countryside, talk to locals and other tourists who travel with you or read up on Porto before you get to your next destination. The train passes by Coimbra the former capital of Portugal and home to the University of Coimbra established in 1290. The oldest academic institution in the Portuguese-speaking world apart from attracting many students from all over is visited by tons of tourists for its monuments and history. You can get off the train, visit the institution and take another train to continue to Porto.
Before hitting the second largest city in the country your train passes by the ocean and the inviting sand dunes of the Atlantic Coast – indeed you envy those who are walking them as your train is zooming by. Calm, peaceful, cold, and yet warm – beautiful scenery. Another attraction is the Douro river and its gorgeous valley as you are crossing it on top of a viaduct before arriving at São Bento (Saint Benedict) Railway Station, a 20th-century railway terminal located in the historic center of Porto. The exploration of the city starts here since the station is one of the main tourist attractions because of the large panels of azulejo tiles designed and painted by Jorge Colaço during WW I. The murals represent moments from Portugal's history and rural scenes. For me that was the most amazing example of the azulejos I have ever seen.
Upon leaving the station you are ready to bite into the heart of the city as it was a delicious Francesinha* and the scenic view of the narrow streets old and new houses invite you for immediate discovery. As we were walking towards our grand hotel, we were listening closely to the stories of every single house we passed by as if they were talking to us. After a quick freshening up in our lovely old hotel with its creaky floors we asked the receptionist if he could recommend a restaurant nearby. We were given the tip of the day and killed two birds with one stone following the thoroughly advice of the gentleman behind the desk. He was kind to arm us with a city map, a bus line number and not an exact address but a settlement name: Matosinhos that is a city and a municipality in the northern Porto district. So, that is how our excursion for getting our lunch and much more began. We walked back to the station and took bus line 500 and had an awesome sightseeing tour of the city and greater Porto along the Duoro and the mighty Atlantic Coast. And that is for a few Euros instead spending crazy on a hop on hop off – this is how we spared some coins for our lunch. The ride from the very heart of the city takes around an hour.
Matosinhos is famous for its ocean side fish restaurants, plenty of them, cozy and family operated. In one of them (I do not think there a is bad choice there) we were convinced to have a fish plate for two with a bottle of our beloved Vinho Verde. The plate could have been enough for two adults and two kids – the Verde not so much. Our lunch could not have been any better in a posh or high-end restaurant. Plus, the gentle and salty ocean breeze kept filling the air with pleasant smells as we were dining in the street full of vendors. On the way back to Porto we decided to cover the 5 miles on foot which was a good idea keeping in mind the amount of food and wine we consumed. Most of all we could take in all those sites we saw from our sightseeing local bus and all those we could not see. There were surfers, sunbathers and walkers sharing the beach with us and sometimes it was challenging to choose between a nice park or the shore to walk in back to the city.
After our two hours and three miles long trip (normally the walk would take an hour but there were bars and a lot to see along the way) we could not resist to continue and cover the remaining two more miles by a vehicle instead of burning more fat. The reason for that just like in Lisbon was a moving museum standing in our way. We by that time had known that there were old trams in Portugal and there it was: in front of us Linha 1 as the angel of tired tourist with a magic wand had placed it there. The Linha 1 Tram departs from Passeio Alegre Park in the Foz district. A wonderful route indeed as it trundles along the banks of the Douro Rivera and passes beneath the Ponte de Arrábida Bridge. Another tourist attraction: tick! Although it cost you three times more than Bus 500 but you pay for the unique experience that will be with you for a long time that is for sure and not because we felt like risking our lives sometimes when our tram tried to negotiate with other more robust vehicles. It was almost dark when we got back to the very center of the city and were ready for another drink on the riverbank because the street music, the view of the beautiful valley, the mountain of the colorful century old houses sucked you in and did not released you. Tempting. That evening we just wandered around without a specific aim and kept a few more sites for the other day.
The next morning shone through our small but big enough window to see the forest of red roofs around us bathing in the warm Portuguese sunshine. We could not wait to go back to the old quarter but first followed our nose leading us to the restaurant where we had our excellent breakfast. This morning no public transport and no rickshas – the extremely narrow shoulder to shoulder and steep cobblestone streets must have been discovered on foot. We knew that we were going to see medieval houses and happily noticed that they have been standing for centuries. Our favorite was as old as eight hundred years and had five floors and steps outside leading you to the entrance which was quite common in those days – in the 13th century that is.
Porto is probably most famous for its Port wine also known as vinho do Porto or simply port. It is a fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley that is typically a sweet red wine, often served as a dessert wine, although it also comes in dry, semi-dry, and white varieties. Traditionally, the wine was taken downriver in flat-bottom boats called 'barcos rabelos', currently, the wine is transported from the vineyards by tanker trucks but a few barcos rabelos are on display and you can take a closer look as you cruise near by them. You can learn everything about the port in one of the cellars on the left bank of the river or while cruising on the Douro. We opted for both. Now, I know that the Douro region is the third oldest (1756) protected wine region in the world after the Tokaj-Hegyalja region in Hungary, established in 1730, and Chianti, in 1716. Now I also know that port comes in several styles, which can be divided into two broad categories: wines matured in sealed glass bottles, and wines that have matured in wooden barrels and you can taste and purchase them all in one those historical cellars: the ruby, reserve, tawny, rose, colheita, garrafeira, white port, vintage port. I highly recommend both the river cruise and the wine tasting but be extremely careful: the alcohol content in the port is twice of that of a regular wine.
Other must-see sites include: the Clérigos Tower an ornate 250-foot bell tower opened in 1763 offering some amazing 360° views of the city; Porto’s Cathedral (‘Sé’) built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries; Crystal Palace gardens that overlook the Douro River and well worth the hike up there for those who like nature in a city; and last the Livraria Lello that is said to be one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores but there were too many visitors so we skipped it. Maybe because we knew we would be coming back to Portugal again in the future.
Stay healthy and tuned – next time we are going to roam Barcelona with my stories I experienced and pictures I took in March 2018.
*Francesinha is a Portuguese sandwich originally from Porto, made with bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat, and covered with melted cheese and a hot and thick spiced tomato and beer sauce.