Day Three – Porto (6/3/16)

Today was absolutely lovely! Katie, one of my best friends from high school, came to Portugal for her honeymoon three years ago and she was the first person I asked for recommendations regarding things to do. “You have to do a tour of the Douro Valley! You absolutely have to!!” So, the first thing we booked when actually planning the trip was a day-long tour out along the Douro river. Apparently, all the grapes for port wine are grown along the river as far as 50 km away from Porto itself; being grown along the river bank is one of the criteria for being considered port wine. So, we were picked up this morning at 9:00 and driven out into the country. Our first stop was Lamego, where we saw the town’s sé (which I assume is the generic Portuguese word for “cathedral” or “church,” kind of like the Italian duomo) and then ascended up to the shrine of Our Lady of the Remedies, Portugal’s most important pilgrimage site. There’s a little church at the top, but leading up to it is an impressive staircase with about 600 steps and landings decorated with the tiles that are so typical in this region. Both were designed and built in the 18th century. We drove to the top in the van but then walked back down, which was much more pleasant than walking up would have been. Once we made it to the bottom, we had a lovely lunch at a small restaurant in the square. Sea bass and sole, plates of Portuguese cheese and salami, as well as a fabulous white wine – not outstanding, but definitely a solid meal after a lengthy walk.

After lunch, we drove to Pinhão, which is a tiny village where most of the vineyards are. The scenery was incredible: terraced hills covered in grape vines rising up from the river bank alongside whitewashed wineries, and everything surrounded by wildflowers. In Pinhão, we visited Croft, which unfortunately was the same establishment we saw yesterday, but at least this was a different aspect of production. Since we had lingered a bit long at lunch, we were rushed through the tour of the facility, had our obligatory port tastings, before going down to the river for an hour long cruise up and down that stretch of the Douro. Such a pleasant afternoon!

Everything about today was great, but once again, as with yesterday, the highlight was interacting with others in our tour group. There was a lone Canadian woman who is walking parts of the Portuguese Camino, as well as a nice British couple who were staying in Porto for an extended period. It even turned out that the husband had been a Latin teacher! Also, our friendly guide was informative and obviously passionate about the region. It was also great to get out of the city a bit and see what the countryside is like, especially since it is so damn beautiful!!! (once again, I’m hoping to have time to figure out the whole Flickr thing tomorrow; seriously, you guys need to see the Douro Valley!)

Tomorrow we get our rental car and head south to Lisbon, with some stops along the way. Hopefully the driving part isn’t too difficult!

Day Two – Porto (6/2/16)

Hi friends! A quick word about the blog – even if the post doesn’t go up the actual day of, it will always include the day, and I will always be writing as if it were the actual day (“Today we…”). This is because I do usually write about the day in the evening right before going to bed, but sometimes for various reasons don’t get around to posting (usually due to internet issues). It is common for me to post a few days worth of adventures at a time, so just keep that in mind! ☺

So, today was fabulous. The weather here in Porto is perfect – high 70’s and sunny, with a lovely breeze that can make it almost chilly in the shade. After a nice breakfast of rolls and coffee at our adorable guesthouse (apparently there is a difference between guesthouse and hotel and hostel, etc., so I’ll try to be specific about what we’re staying in), we decided to take the walking tour recommended by our guide book (we use Lonely Planet). We spent three or so happy hours wandering around Porto and getting a much better sense of the city than we did yesterday with The Worst Tour.

Highlights of our wander include: lunch. We stopped for lunch at a little café filled with locals, almost all of whom were eating a francesinha, a rich, heart-attack-inducing sandwich made up of three different types of meat, cheese, and a rich gravy-like sauce on top. You absolutely have to eat it with a knife and fork and you should absolutely share one between two people. I have no idea how anyone could eat an entire one by themselves, though our tour guide later said that some of his friends could eat two in one sitting. Anyway, obviously the francesinha was what we had come for, and it was pretty delicious. It’s apparently a dish that only exists in Porto, so I’m glad we gave it a try (thanks, Katie, for letting us know about it!).

Other highlights include: the Sao Bento train station – covered in tiles on the inside with a very Parisian French feel; the Igreja de Sao Francisco – a gothic church on the outide but crazy Baroque on the inside (the interior is covered in about 100kg of gold leaf; unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos); and the Casa do Infante – supposedly the house where Henry the Navigator was born, this little museum is great – the first floor walks you through the Roman ruins (including a great mosaic) that were recently excavated, as well as the remains of the 13th and 15th century customs houses that stood there. It also has an exhibit about Portugal’s role in exploration during the 16th and 17th centuries, which is really informative and definitely lets you know that Portugal had a lot to do with expanding knowledge of the world at the time.

After our tour, we walked to the Ponte de Dom Luis I to meet our second tour of the trip – a wine and food tour. Only two other people joined us, a man from Spain who hardly spoke English, and a woman from Brazil who spoke English but obviously also spoke Portuguese. So, our wonderful tour guide led us around speaking three languages, which was extraordinarily impressive.

We wandered across the bridge, which, similar to Cincinnati and Covington, actually takes you into a different city, Vila Nova de Gaia, which is where all the port wine cellars are. We went to Croft, which is apparently the oldest port wine establishment, founded in the late 1500’s. We had a nice little tour of their facility, then tasted three different kids of port – pink, ruby, and tawny. Pink port is basically a new invention of Croft’s – it’s port that hasn’t been aged at all, but is made at the vineyard right after the grapes have been crushed. Basically, it’s a way for them to cheaply churn out a product more quickly, and though the flavor isn’t terrible, it’s not something I would actually spend money on. Ruby and tawny are the two main types of port, and the difference is how long they are aged and what they are aged in. Ruby port is aged in HUGE barrels so a shorter amount of time. Because it has less contact with the wood, there is less oxidation and so it has a fuller, fruitier flavor. Tawny is aged in smaller casks for longer, which means that its flavor is more like dried fruit and nuts. It was really amazing to try a ruby and tawny right next to each other, because it is hard to tell the difference if you can’t compare right away. I like both, but have a preference for tawny.

After the port tour, we walked back across the river into Porto and visited two different bars for tastings of other Douro valley wines, along with typical Portuguese meats and cheeses. Everything we tried was delicious, but the best part to me was getting to chat with our guide and the other two people on our tour about anything and everything – what’s life in Porto like? Do the young people who grow up here stay or move away? How close is Portuguese to Spanish? What is Brazilian Portuguese like? We had a great time just chatting away, and it was almost a surprise that it had already been four hours.

For dinner after the tour, Chris and I went to a little place that our guide had pointed out to us earlier in the evening. He had a cod dish with onions and I had baked octopus. Both were delicious, but I think we’re both still waiting to really be impressed by Portuguese food. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

~ciao~

P.S. Still haven’t had time to figure out the Flick thing. Maybe tomorrow?

Day 1 – Porto (6/1/16)

Greetings from Porto, friends! I didn’t post at the end of the first day because I was overcome by exhaustion.  It was a very long day.  And then yesterday, when I tried to post, the internet wasn’t working.  So, here we are. haha.

So,  we arrived in Porto after a very uneventful journey – Cincinnati to Philadelphia to Madrid to Porto. Our flight from Philly to Madrid did have a huge group of high school boys on it (a Spanish class trip, I think?) but they were astonishingly well behaved and nothing of incident happened. So, we took the Metro from the airport to our hotel (so easy!) and luckily, our room was ready so we were able to shower and relax a bit before heading back out.
We had booked a walking tour for that afternoon, partially so we could get our bearings around the city, but mostly so that we wouldn’t just fall asleep at the hotel (Getting Over Jet Lag 101 – don’t sleep unless it’s sleeping time. 2:00 pm is not sleeping time). We had read about The Worst Tours in our Lonely Planet guidebook and though it sounded interesting (plus, it’s free!) so we decided to go ahead with that one. We met our guide by a fountain in a square about a mile north of our hotel – and then proceeded to wander the city in a seemingly aimless pattern for the next four hours while the guide rambled on about “gentrification.” While extremely interesting, especially since the Portuguese meaning of “gentrification” is not the same as ours, I don’t think, BUT maybe not for four hours. We wandered into a community garden, a length of abandoned train track, and a super sketchy, mostly empty mall. And while I appreciate the effort to bring the attention of tourists to things that are actually happening to actual people in Porto, it would have been much more effective if it had been a) more organized (a.k.a., a clear route with a discernible link and prepared information about each stop) and b) much, much shorter. I thought my feet were going to fall off by the time we stumbled off to dinner. Not to mention the jet lag.
So, not a super awesome experience right off the bat, but if the goal of the walking tour was to keep us awake until an hour when people normally go to sleep, it definitely accomplished that. After the tour, we went to dinner at a place recommended by our hotel but that was fairly unimpressive. We haven’t done any of our own research yet regarding food, so I fully anticipate today’s menus to be much better. 🙂
So, bring it on Day Two! We are going to wander around the city center (and see all the stuff tourists are supposed to see) then we have a food and wine tour in the later afternoon. Should be great!
~ciao~
P.S. I should mention that I plan on posting all my pictures on a brand new Flickr account that I made and then linking it up to the blog, but I haven’t really had time to figure that out yet. Soon! Here’s one to whet your appetite:

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Here is Chris walking along the abandoned train tracks.  That bridge in the distance was designed by Gustav Eiffel, but has never been used.