Or, in which we eat pig’s blood and lock ourselves in hotel bathrooms.
By mistake, of course. The hotel bathroom thing. We were no match for a jammed door.
Out of respect for a city not my own but which hosts its guests openly and with no reserve, allow me to start with a disclaimer. I say this because, as a Roman, I tend to find it frustrating when people come to my city for a weekend flurry and then make large, one-size-fits-all statements about it. So allow me to express that I do not pretend to know the heart of this city, what works and what does not, or what the Portuenses are truly all about. This is all I can offer, even to myself: a snapshot of a beautiful, proud European port city that tends towards the enchanting and is, happily, not aimed entirely at tearing tourists from their money. We got lucky from top to bottom, from the hotel to the weather and back again to the port wine. Oh, the port wine.
It turns out, no great traveler, I. You would think that, having grown up puddle-jumping (and sometimes puddle-heaving) I would be an organized and efficient traveler, but you would be wrong. Honestly, who likes to pack? Don’t answer that, I know, a downright shocking amount of people, yet I freely admit that I find it hair-tearingly tedious. Is color coordination truly a necessity? Don’t answer that either. Until I arrive at destination with four sweaters and no pants, I will inevitably push back the packing stage until a hair past the last redeemable moment, where panic will, naturally, set in, and good thing, too. I once did what my more organized comrades do, and began the packing process for a big trip with days to spare. I proudly flung open my massive suitcase almost an entire week ahead of time, putting away a few things each day as specified by my, yes I’ll say it proudly, packing list. Lo and behold, I arrived at my departure date calm, well-coiffed, and impeccably packed. It made so much sense, I told myself smugly as I wheeled past the panicked airport hordes. I’m not ashamed to say that my carry-on baggage was only my purse, so well-planned and essentials-only was my process on that occasion. I’m going to do this every time I travel.
I don’t need to tell you that that never happened again.
1. Why do they call the noble people of Porto tripeiros, or tripe-eaters, you ask? Oh, you don’t ask? Well, maybe you should, because if you don’t, you may go there not knowing the city’s delight in various dishes that involve tripe (pig guts, I’m sorry), piggy brains, and also piggy blood. I am not trying to be insensitive here, as I am fully aware that one of the beauteous things of this world is that we all find pleasure in different tastes and experiences. All I am saying is, if you don’t happen to speak Portuguese, and the translation you are given for a dish is “pieces of pork”, you may believe them and get through more than half a portion of what you think are somewhat off-tasting and quite dark pork chops, before discovering the chilling truth.
Legend has it, and by legend I mean history but we favor legend here, that this preference for delectable tripe came about when old-time Porto (no historian either, I) sent its best cuts of meat with its traders to the capital and itself subsisted largely on tripe, creating soups and various other ways of enjoying these dishes.
On the subject of names: This brave little river city also calls itself Cidade Invicta, or Unvanquished City. Every person you ask for an explanation will give you a new one that will color in more of Porto’s history, whether it be that it fiercely fought off Napoleon’s invading armies, or successfully resisted the Miguelist siege, or a combination of depictions of a small city fighting far more fiercely than its size would have predicted, whether it was victorious or not. So much respect to Porto. But also, watch out for the tripe.
2. Life is by the water. Chill out by the river, but maybe don’t eat there, or at least not at the bar-restaurants that hover directly next to the edge of the water. Both sides of the river are picturesque and buzzing with life, as any port city worth its weight in tripe, but eating right there is a bit like eating at the bars right on Piazza Navona in Rome – over-priced and tending towards under-tasty. Also, as Seneca was fond of saying, Cool Stuff Is Down By The River (minor artistic license possibly taken there). We strolled down by the Cais da Ribeira, and discovered that Porto is also fond of metal-working on scarf clasps. You can pick up a colorful scarf with a metal carving of your choice to hold it chicly in place, the benefits of which include a) if it’s a gift, you can say you just picked it up in a delightful little spot down by the Douro River in Porto, darling, and b) if you’re wearing it and someone compliments you, you can say the same thing. Really though, these are lovely and unique pieces, and the older Portuguese lady who is making them will get super lively about picking them out with you.
3. Harry Potter fans, I have one place for you (us), and that place is the striking Livraria Lello & Irmão, considered one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world and also, rumor has it, J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for the Hogwarts Library. Potter fan or no, this bookshop is more than worth a visit, and is right in the historical city center, so you will probably find yourself walking by it regardless. It is a splendid spot, and you will feel extremely noble as you slowly walk up the ornate, looping staircase. Well, not that slowly, because it will be packed in there. If you are indeed a Potter fan, you may consider running up the staircase muttering Lumos, or, if you’re not much of a nice person, perhaps Avada Kedavra. Either way, unless it’s between the hours of 9 and 10 AM on a weekday, you won’t be taking pictures as you go unless you want the staff to thoroughly have a go at you (Avada Kedavra!), but have a little looksee here.
4. Port wine and flying through the air. Separately. People say that the city invented port wine when they found that wine spoiled during long journeys, and so they began liberally mixing in brandy and various other spirits to help it keep, subsequently thinking, damn this is delish (more slight artistic license on the end there). Of course, the process today is much more advanced, but we will leave it to the friendly experts of the wine cellars on the southern bank of the Douro to tell you all about it. We wandered over to Quevedo Port Wine and ended up staying for a most pleasant afternoon. These cellars are in Vila Nova de Gaia, which is a separate municipality, and they are easily reached by the Teleférico de Gaia, an aerial tramway which shall send you merrily scooting along an amazing view. You can buy wine tastings with your teleférico tickets, and hop from cellar to cellar joyfully. Prices are, both for the flying and for the port wine tastings, more than reasonable, but you’ll find that to be true of Porto in general.
5. Things on the must-do list for next time include surfing, because it seems Porto is quite famous for having some rather fantastic opportunities for this, along its equally rather fantastic beaches. Also on my list, give the tripe another chance.
6. Oporto lends itself graciously to exploration on foot. We were staying in the business district of Boavista, and the walk to the historic center was easily accomplished. We barely had to take any public transportation at all, although if you do, it actually works, which seems a nonsensical statement unless you live in Rome, in which case… Well, nevermind. Suffice it to say that we easily reached our hotel from the airport, which has a handy metro station inside it. Hear that, Fiumicino Airport?
The Sé Catedral. The long, winding steps down to the river (the first of these are called Escadas das Verdades, or The Steps of Truth, and you can take them from the piazza behind the beautiful, Romanesque Catedral). The blue and white tiles that dot the homes and churches of the city. Oporto is happy to be discovered, and once in a while, while you’re mid-pastry (another thing not to miss, as they are delicious), you may come upon the winding roads that loop down and then swing vertiginously up again. You’ll stop and snap a picture, but you won’t pause for too long, because you’ve just spotted something else to see. And always, something more to see. When you’re meandering down by the river, you might sit by the water’s edge, where the old colorful boats are bobbing, their oak barrels hitching a ride. The small, equally bright homes splash the other side, and the seagulls soaring overhead remember it all. After all, Porto leads to the sea. Narrow your eyes, and let the sounds of the cars behind you, the whoosh of the teleferica above you, fade away. There are only the birds, the boats, the creak of the barrels, and the cries of the proud Portuguese sailors, whose features you see marked in the faces of passerby today. There. It’s five hundred years ago. Hello, Porto.