The São Bento station’s delicately painted blue tiles depicted scenes from Portugal’s history. As we walked ahead, sombre stone buildings glistened in the light of dusk like grumpy old men judging my actions. And I felt guilty. Guilty of not expecting more, guilty of not doing my homework before the trip. I avoided their gaze as we walked from the station to our hotel through the historic centre of the city of Porto that has been around since the fourth century. I knew then that this visit was going to be about more than just port wine.
I admit that when I thought of visiting Portugal, Lisbon was the first city that came to mind. Maybe it was my terrible knowledge of world geography, or the many Lisboetas I had met, but I had never considered Porto as a destination. Two things changed my mind—some cajoling by friends from Porto, and a good low-cost carrier deal.
Porto offered us many ways to move through its winding roads and along its sliding slopes: metro, bus, cable car, funicular, tram. The funicular provided a great perspective, and the bus was useful when we got lost after being chased by an aggressive alms-seeking lady. The throbbing of a city’s heart, however, is best felt by walking through it, and so, we walked.
We walked through the market—reminiscent of Indian mandis, with familiar spices and fruits. The modern Casa da Música music building and the Santa Catarina mall felt like anachronisms, when contrasted with the old buildings that line the Avenue dos Aliados. Christmas was just over, but the nip in the air, the lights in the streets and the roasted chestnuts sold everywhere made the season linger.
Almost every special sight in Porto was punctuated by either the river or the ocean. The city is situated where the Douro river meets the Atlantic Ocean in an estuary, these two large water bodies seemingly making a pact to keep the city under their protection. This view also made the ascent of the Clérigos Church tower well worth the €2 entry fee and the hundred-and-something steps it took to get there.
We took a tour of one of the wine cellars at the ribeira (the riverside), including a sampling of their wines at the end. I learnt more about port and I appreciated the many varieties, but for me port still means the sweet Ruby port of my childhood, the one that underlines so many Christmas memories of dinner with family. As children, we were allowed to taste a little bit of this wine, and I had never at that time imagined I would be in Portugal, visiting its home.
The ribeira was a microcosm with its own identity. The river transports the only genuine port wines in the world, from the vineyards to the cellars by its banks.
The narrow alleys that led down a slope to the river were like little rivulets flowing into the Douro. By day, they bore witness to the daily humdrum of life in Porto. Houses wore clotheslines on their walls. People met on the corner over a café. Old folks looked out of their windows in thought or boredom or both, as they do throughout the world.
At night, these streets were thrilling, adventurous, dark. The lit-up logos of Porto’s famous wine houses lay scattered across the landscape, each shining like Portugal’s own version of the “Hollywood” sign. “The city of bridges” was in all its glory, with the bridges like an illuminated finger of a giant hand, connecting Porto to Gaia, the other side.
Taking in a city’s history and culture is incomplete without ingesting some of its cuisine, and that we did extensively. My first lunch in Porto was a francesinha. If I could eat only one thing in Porto, this would be it.
Every bite made me feel that I would soon be full, but I still kept eating, because the francesinha—slices of bread stuffed with ham, sausages, beef, topped with melted cheese, a fried egg, and served in a sauce made from beer, with a generous side of fries—is not something I would easily find again. Francesinha translates to “little French girl”, but it is anything but dainty, delicate, or giggling. Other versions exist, but even a friend from Lisbon confessed this was the best he’d ever eaten. I washed it down with a panache—a blend of the local beer and 7UP.
Experiencing Porto cuisine would not have been complete without the codfish (bacalhau). Unlike most other fish, this is cooked after it is salted, stored, and then de-salted by soaking in water for a few days. There was also tripas—soup with stomach or intestines of cow as its main ingredient, along with sausages (chouriço), a sow’s ear, lard, some other parts, and white beans thrown in for good measure.
Porto has a sweet tooth and the egg tart (pastel de nata) is a well-known pastry. I had many a quick bite in coffee houses there without burning a hole in my wallet. I will never forget the torrada, my most favoured breakfast. I noticed two old ladies next to us ordering it, and although I’m not a big believer in ESP (extra sensory perception), there was a sense of prescience about the torrada. It was just bread toasted with salted butter, but it was special because my earliest memories of breakfast are those of bread toasted in Amul butter, dunked in sweet tea with milk— an occasional quick breakfast from a working mother. The first bite of the torrada was my own Ratatouille moment. Another day in Porto, another childhood memory revisited.
Portugal is one of the most religious countries in Europe, and Fatima, a major Catholic shrine, is a couple of hours from Porto. Apart from a square, which is bigger than the Vatican’s, there is also a radically modern church in Fátima that feels like a giant auditorium. It is a flat building with 12 massive doors, one representing each of the 12 apostles.
We stopped by in Coimbra, one of the oldest universities in Europe, on our way to Fátima. The university library is an ornate work of art and is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. It even has a prison attached to it. Yes, you read that right—a students’ prison.
Any visitor to Porto will find the city endearing. I had moments where I felt a deep connection with it, which is not common in a strange city. I can only hope that one day I will visit Porto again, and relive the charm of this city by the Douro.