Porto: Blue Valentine
For our most recent adventure, we took advantage of a brand new direct flight route between Luxembourg and Portugal. In planning our first trip to the western neighbor to Spain, we chose Portugal's second largest city of Porto. Porto is in the north of the country and lies along the Douro river just a few kilometers inland from the Atlantic Ocean. Despite our recent outings to Milan, Amsterdam and Brussels, it had been seemingly forever since we'd seen sunlight so we embarked on a weekend getaway in search of sand, sea and hopefully sun.
We arrived in Porto after a 2.5 hour flight Friday evening and checked into an awesome apartment looking out onto the Douro. Our place was lined with windows facing across the waterway to the traditional Port houses that line the opposite shore. With the one hour time change from Lux, it was nearly midnight when we arrived so we shoved off to get an early start the next day.
We started our Saturday morning by opening up all the windows to let the cool, crisp air in while we did a quick morning yoga session to the sounds of squawking seagulls. From there, we headed up a winding, cobblestone street to the top of hilly Porto town to visit Sa do Porto, Porto's main cathedral. We were immediately drawn to the blue and white tiled images lining the church walls. Scanning below us from the church tower, we could see that the town was dotted with both crumbling and restored classical buildings with bright orange roofs that shone in the sunlight.
We entered the cathedral and headed to the baroque structure which was under construction for more than 400 years from the 12th-16th centuries. Unexpectedly, we were impressed with the unique style of Portugal's churches. For example, Jesus is decked out in colorful, intricate robes and often stands atop a layer-cake like structure on the cross. Erin commented that the Portuguese rendition of Jesus was the best she's seen thus far. We strolled through the impressive Gothic cloisters and wandered through floors of tiled walls overlooking a courtyard and impressive halls filled with religious artifacts. Since we arrived early, we had the whole place to ourselves. It was hauntingly beautiful and the colors and textures were intricate in a way that we hadn't seen before.
From the cathedral, we traipsed over to the train station. Train stations in Europe tend to be industrial at best and sketchy at worst, but Porto's Sao Bento station is spectacular. The entryway dates from 1916 and is covered with blue and white tile panels that depict the history of Portugal. We took a few minutes to enjoy the scene and headed to our next stop, a smaller church called Dos Carmelitas, which sits in a palm tree-filled square and is lined with the same blue and white tiles and dates from the 1600s. The lavish interior featured various renditions of Jesus and Mary in ornate attire along with gorgeous pastel-colored frescoes.
From there, we trotted down the street to Liveria Lello, a famous bookstore opened in 1906 that features art nouveau interiors and sweeping curved wooden staircases. The bookstore was frequented by JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, when she taught English in Porto and is reported to be an inspiration for her writing. Next on our marathon morning of sightseeing, we headed to Clerigos Church, a baroque structure featuring a 76 meter tower that dominates the skyline of Porto. We climbed the 240 steps to the top of the tower and took in epic views of the city sloping downward toward the river, leading out to the Atlantic. We took time to appreciate the sunny day, and the style of architecture that was so new to us, before heading down to check out another decadent church.
After an intense morning of sightseeing without breakfast, we decided to head to the oldest market in Porto called Mercado Bolhao for lunch and shopping. Although the 19th century wrought iron structure was dilapidated, it was filled with vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, fish, meat, breads, candies and souvenirs. We spotted a few restaurant tables with umbrellas in the center of the market and a tiny kitchen located in a market stall, and sat down for lunch. The menu contained images of various meat and seafood dishes, and we each selected a fish and vegetable dish. Upon ordering, the restaurant staff walked down a few stalls to the fish monger and selected our lunch fresh. The simply prepared fish was served with potatoes and a light vegetable salad, and it was superb. We ordered a few bottles of local wine and had a delicious brunch surrounded by locals picking up their weekly essentials.
After lunch, we headed back to our apartment for an afternoon siesta and in the late afternoon we walked along the river over the Dom Louis bridge and watched the sun begin to set over Porto town from the other side of the Douro. We headed back just as the sky turned pink and purple to Quay Wine bar and enjoyed tapas and wines. Our waitress recommended a few local reds from the famous Douro RIver Valley and we paired them with spicy tuna, bread and local olive oil with cod. Along with our food and drink, our waitress brought along a squirt gun to use in case the seagulls wanted to share in our snacks. We were both surprised at the quality of the food and especially the wine, which is the best we've had since moving to Europe.
After the sun went down, we sauntered down the street to an alley off of the main riverside square to Jimao, a Portuguese tapas restaurant in a tiny, two story traditional townhouse. Most of the tables were reserved for the night, but we were led upstairs to the only remaining table. In Porto, tables are reserved for the whole night, so because we arrived relatively early we enjoyed our meal upstairs all alone. We enjoyed a variety of tapas including curried shrimp, feta walnut salad, potato and egg tortilla among others all paired with local beer and wine. Exhausted from our long day, we headed back and fell asleep while watching the seagulls coast above the river.
The next morning, we decided to jump on a train 30 minutes out of town to Miramar, a small town that sits along the rugged Atlantic coast. Miramar is home to Senhar da Pedra, a chapel sitting upon a rock in the ocean. At high tide, visitors must wade through the ocean to reach the chapel steps. The structure on the rock dates back from pre-Christian days, when Pagans would make a pilgrimage to worship the nature gods at the place where the land met the sea. Dave climbed around the rocks surrounding the structure and then stripped down and dove into the 57 degree Atlantic water for a healthy cold plunge. We walked along the rough Atlantic for a few miles before taking the train back into town for lunch and an afternoon rest.
In the evening, we followed a recommendation and headed to a tiny, hole in the wall joint near the train station for what would be our best meal since moving to Europe. When we arrived, we thought the restaurant was closed as there seemed to be no lights on, but we stepped in and were pleasantly surprised to see a small bar and four or five tables next to a tiny open kitchen. The little space was all outfitted with classic tiles and flowered Portuguese tablecloths and felt instantly welcoming. The place was very rustic although clean and cozy - the lights went out six times during our meal and each time the wait staff scampered over to a fusebox to reset the power.
We sat down and ordered 6 courses of tapas along with fresh-made sangria and local wine. As soon as our first course arrived, we knew we were in for something special. We started with vegetable soup drizzled with olive oil, pesto and chiles and followed that with fresh shucked oysters with caviar and lemon, tuna pesto guacamole toast on crispy homemade grilled bread, potato pie with onion confit, roasted tomatoes with fresh berries, walnuts and seared goat cheese, and a massive bowl of wild Mozambique prawns with garlic. To top it off, we ordered desserts: Erin had a delicious vegan peanut butter mouse with crispy peanuts and rice and Dave had "the last cookie in the bag" which was described as an homage to childhood cookie fantasies, both of which were out of this world. In most major European or US cities, a meal like this would cost hundreds of dollars. Everything we ordered was only about 40 Euro a person, including wine and Sangria, making the perfect meal even more appreciated. We staggered home in a Sangria and food haze and quickly passed out from culinary delirium.
The following morning we still felt the dinner and drinks from the night before so we decided to embark on an 8 mile urban hike throughout Porto. We started by walking up steep outdoor stairs under the bridge to take a walk high across the river to a fortified chapel. Just as we arrived to take in the views, a huge grey cloud moved in and we were caught in a downpour. We ducked under the closed chapel entrance. Dave focused on the sky for a moment and whispered with confidence, "keep an eye out, there's bound to be a rainbow any minute."
Seemingly within seconds, an intense perfectly arched rainbow appeared and straddled the river right over the Porto old town. Erin ran out into the rain hooting and hollering with her phone trying to get a shot of the perfectly placed natural phenomenon. Since we were the only ones atop this cliff side chapel, it felt like the view and the rainbow was just for us. We took a moment to appreciate our luck and, just as soon as it appeared, the rainbow faded and the sun returned.
Fresh off the adrenaline from interacting with nature, we continued our map-free and phone-free trek along the opposite side of the river, wandering through old Port houses, neighborhoods and car-free streets for miles until we reached the next bridge over the Douro. We trekked across that tall, highway-like bridge and stared out to Atlantic views. From there, we winded towards a palatial structure and stumbled upon a garden filled with peacocks. The peacocks were just wandering around the garden, with no fences or enclosures. A few Chinese tourists were feeding them bread and crackers, which brought over many other birds, so Dave enjoyed another "Ace Ventura" moment surrounded by scores of animals - "Come to me, jungle friends." We continued our walk until we made it back to our hotel with enough time to break fast before departing for the airport.
With somewhat rubbery legs, we ascended back up near the train station to a 20-seat lunch spot specializing in soup, salads and sandwiches. We shared frites, a salmon toasted sandwich and a salad along with lemonade which was perfectly fresh. We couldn't resist snatching a homemade pineapple cake slice for the road. After lunch, we picked up our bags from our apartment and taxied to the airport for an afternoon flight back to Lux.
Porto was a huge surprise. We went in not really knowing what to expect, but were stunned by the unique architecture, heavenly food and wine and gorgeous nature. We had our best meal in years in Porto, and we would recommend it to anyone. We plan to head back to Portugal to check out Lisbon, Sintra and sweet swim spots this summer. Next up, a quick few days in London and then a throwback trip to Florence, the site our first time in Europe together.
Check out our Porto travel film below.
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