In the beautiful and famous Lisbon, we preferred to discover Porto, the worker as the popular saying goes: “When Lisbon is beautiful, Porto works”.
Very quickly, the city of Porto seduced us. How did this magic work, what were the ingredients? I will unveil them here…
The Douro, that snake that flows into the Atlantic
A river coiled in the hollow of a valley always has its little effect and Porto is no exception. The presence of water always embellishes a city, in my opinion. But when this aquatic touch is combined with small hills, the panorama is breathtaking.
What is very beautiful is also that the river is not straight, it is not tamed, it undulates like a snake from the Atlantic to the valley that bears its name: the Douro. On the banks, the historic dwellings of Porto pass by on the cais (quays) covered with brightly coloured azulejos, further on they will give way to stretches of vines as far as the eye can see.
The azulejos, symbol of Porto: sublimated earthenware
Porto is well known for the abundance of its azulejos. These coloured earthenware tiles can be displayed both indoors and on the facades of buildings and churches. From Moorish geometric motifs to figurative representations of Italian and Flemish influence, the different styles trace the chronological frieze of the city. It was the Dutch who seduced the Portuguese with their deep blue earthenware, widely represented in Porto.
It is this colour which is at the origin of an etymological confusion of the word azulejos which does not mean Azul (blue in Spanish) but comes from a Moorish word with the same sound meaning “Small polished stone”. Even if today the azulejos factories almost no longer exist in the region, the city still has many ornate facades. The renovations being carried out in the city centre are an attempt to preserve this tradition that is the charm of the city.
Moreover, there is a place, the banco de materials, which lists the tiles on the façades to help the owners in their restoration process.
Coffee shops places to live and socialize in Porto
If you like small bistros and cafés, you will not be disappointed as they abound in Porto. Whether they are popular or a little stuffy, they will inform you about the city’s way of life. Whether you want to drink a cimbalinho (the name given by the Portuguese to espresso) on the go with a pasteis de Nata or a delicate tea in an art deco atmosphere at Café Guarany, you will let time pass by to observe local customs.
Moreover, the coffee is very cheap. It is not uncommon to be able to have a coffee plus a pastry or pastries for less than €1.50.
At any time of the day, you will find people ready to comment on a football game, talk about the rain and the sun or be thrilled by your child’s smile. Feel free to contact the Portuguese, even without speaking a word of Portuguese, you will have a very warm welcome.
Delicacies on every street corner
Pastelarias and panadarias (including pastries and bakeries) flourish on every street corner. You will, therefore, have no trouble settling their accounts with temporary cravings by tasting a croissant, a bolo de rei (brioche topped with candied fruit and dried fruit) or a sponge cake topped with cream.
We tested for you (and for us too;) two of the city’s must-see specialities at the Confeitaria do Bolhao (just across from the Bolhao Market).
The first one: the francesinha. It is a filling sandwich that should not be shown in pictures (otherwise you will not want to taste it). It’s a carnivorous version of our shy bite, sir. Inside you will find a bifana (steak style pork tenderloin), linguiça (thick paprika smoked pork sausage), sausage, ham and bologna slices… All topped with an egg (if you take the special version), processed cheese and a beer sauce (or white wine) and slightly spicy bay leaf. This description is as heavy as the dish… I have almost finished everything and to see the surprised look of the waiter, it can’t happen every day!
The second: The pasties de Nata (from Lisbon represented in Porto) is a pastry that consists of a puff pastry in the shape of a cup that generously holds a flan. Enjoy them fresh so that the dough keeps its crispness. With a coffee, it’s a must.
Wines full of sunshine
Of course, we cannot talk about Port without talking about port (wine). Whether you are a fan of this nectar or not, we still advise you to visit a cellar if only to appreciate the solemnity of these places. Huge barrels, almost in the semi-darkness, age this wine.
Older bottles can reach astronomical prices. We are talking about 5000 € per bottle. At this price, tasting becomes an art reserved for a few privileged people selected by hand.
Most of the cellars are located on the south bank of the Douro, on the Villa de Nova de Gaia side. The choice is huge. We went to Sandeman’s a little bit randomly and because we didn’t have time to look any further, as the closing time was approaching. The place is impressive and full of history because it is an old Porto house.
However, if you have the opportunity, we advise you to go further into the heart of Villa Nova de Gaia for a more authentic visit. You will have no trouble finding the different cellars and the alleys around are very pleasant to stroll around.
Amazing architectural icons
Porto is undoubtedly an open-air museum for apprentice architects. Each style is represented here by beautiful examples. Art deco for Batalha cinema, a hint of art nouveau at the Café Majestic, a wall and medieval alleys in the historic centre, baroque at the Sao Francisco church, neoclassicism at the Palacio Do Bolsa and finally something more contemporary for the Museum of Modern Art or the Casa de Musica.
The Cais de Ribeira district is of course a must. Its tall and narrow houses decorated with azulejos of different patterns and colours, its wrought iron railings, will offer you a superb view of the Douro and its bridges.