08/07/2018 - 08/09/2018
It had been four and a half years since our previous visit to Portugal, and in a way we were completing a circle. Lisbon was where we had kicked off our first European road trip, the journey where we had learned how much we could see and accomplish even with two small children. Now we had three with us and even our youngest was older and more demanding than Cleo had been on that first trip. Could we have even imagined traveling the way we do now at the beginning of that first adventure in 2014? I doubt it.
Lisbon wasn't one of the highlights of that itinerary, which also included the great cities of Andalusia as well as much of Morocco. It's sometimes hard to explain why certain cities that are lauded by others fall flat for us. Paris, Vienna and Chicago are other examples. Lisbon had its charms but aside from the Alfama area we didn't find much that captivated us during our four day stay. Because of that experience we were able to keep our expectations for Porto in check even though the city looked like it had a lot to offer.
The central area of Porto is actually a twin city, with Porto on the north side of the Douro River and Vila Nova de Gaia on the south side. Most of the antiquated neighborhoods and tourist attractions are in Porto, but Gaia has the port wineries, the Cais de Gaia riverfront area, and the area's best beaches. Our Airbnb was in Gaia right underneath the Dom Luís I bridge that traverses the Douro and connects the centers of the two parts of the city. We encounter some kind of logistical difficulty arriving at Airbnb's in Europe about three out of every four times. Sometimes the location doesn't match up with our GPS or Google Maps, sometimes there's no number on the door, and sometimes local parking is simply impossible. In Gaia our GPS kept guiding us to the traffic circle at the lower level of the bridge and our Airbnb clearly wasn't there. Eventually we ignored the GPS and took the road that went to the upper level of the southern bank. Going back down on the other side we finally spotted the name of our street and soon located our building. There was no parking on the steep, winding street but our host helped me reverse into a terraced patio with just enough room for the car. The only problem was that the left and right wheels of the car had to be on two different narrow steps. I made it without scraping the undercarriage or slipping off a stair but I knew as soon as I turned off the ignition that I wouldn't be moving the car until we left Porto.
Our Airbnb had some of the most enthusiastic reviews I'd ever seen on the site and once we were inside it was clear why. The apartment was modern and artfully decorated, and the building was directly under the upper span of the bridge. We had awesome views of the bridge and the Douro River from the apartment, and we were just a minute's walk from the entrances to either of the two decks of the bridge.
Once we were settled we followed the street the rest of the way back down to the traffic circle we had just repeatedly visited when we were looking for the apartment. Now that we were on foot it was much easier to appreciate the awesome iron bridge, which was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel and whose appearance is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower. A unique feature of the bridge is that there is a lower deck that carries vehicular traffic between the river banks and an upper deck far above that carries the metro between the urban centers of each half of the city. Pedestrians can cross on either deck. Between the two decks is an enormous arch that at the time of the bridge's construction was the largest of its kind in the world. The banks of the Douro rise very steeply on either side so the city truly exists on two levels near the river. On the Gaia side there is a cable car to take pedestrians between the two levels and on the Porto side there is a funicular. Once we were on the Porto side we encountered a very energetic team of percussionists banging out tribal rhythms on an array of plastic containers to an enthusiastic crowd.
Most of the dinner action on the Porto bank appeared to be in the Cais da Ribeira area to the west of the bridge, but it was clearly a very touristy scene. We decided to try our luck to the east in hopes of finding more authentic local cuisine for our first night in Portugal. The foot traffic thinned out very quickly and we had to walk a lot further than we realized to reach our chosen restaurant. Once we arrived, we were informed of an hour wait for a table. We weren't excited to go back all the way we had come but then I noticed a wine cask propping the front door open. Could we use that as a table? The staff shrugged and brought over a couple of chairs. The meal proved to be rather undistinguished Portuguese tapas, but getting fed at all had been a minor victory. After dinner we crossed back to Gaia and walked east along the Cais de Gaia riverfront esplanade. The area was still quite busy with pedestrians and souvenir sellers, and of all things we passed by a Korean cultural show on an outdoor stage.
Eventually we reached Mercado Beira Rio, one of Porto's two food halls. We found some diverse international flavors to complement the heavy Portuguese dishes we'd consumed for dinner, but it wasn't one of the more inspiring food halls we'd visited in Europe. Although we hadn't explored far beyond the immediate environs of the bridge, we felt like we'd given ourselves a good introduction to Porto and went to sleep excited about our full city exploration we had planned for the next day.
Porto was our first sizable, walkable city since Bilbao. In the morning we walked up the road to the top of the southern bank of the Douro where there are amazing views over the Douro and the northern riverbank.
The viewpoint was just steps away from the entrance to the upper deck of the Dom Luis bridge. From the bridge the views were even more spectacular. It was fascinating to see the city spill down the steep banks on either side of the river where some of the busiest commercial activity was right at the water's edge. I had been impressed by the interaction of Bilbao with the Nervion, but I realized that we were seeing something here that was on a completely different level.
Once over the bridge and on Porto's upper level we headed in the direction of the municipal market. On the way there we encountered the breathtaking Church of Saint Ildefonso. The visual impact of this small baroque church comes form the thousands of blue and white azulejo tiles that were added to the facade in 1932. The azulejo is a design feature that is emblematic of Portuguese architecture and some of the best displays are in Porto.
From the church we set off down the wildly congested pedestrian thoroughfare Rua da Santa Catarina. The street was reminiscent of the similarly-named Rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux but even more crowded and frenetic. At the corner where we turned towards the market was another paragon of azulejo decoration, the Capela das Almas.
The Mercado do Bolhão was opened more than a hundred years ago and has acquired a reputation for being dilapidated and outdated, which would have been selling points for us as long as the stalls were laden with fresh and interesting produce and the energy level was high. Unfortunately Porto picked the year of our visit to finally initiate a long-awaited restoration of the building and the market was now relocated to the basement of a shopping center around a block away. As soon as we took the escalator downstairs I knew we were going to be disappointed. The produce and the vendors may have been the same, but the fluorescent lighting and modern display counters were more reminiscent of a supermarket than the loud, gritty markets we prefer to frequent.
One unique feature of the market that we hadn't seen before was the port kiosks. They were very generous with the pours to the point where we had to turn down the last glass we had paid for. Mei Ling's not a fan of sweet wine and I knew I was still going to have to carry the kids when they needed to nap.
There were a few restaurants in another area of the basement and we had a surprisingly good meal with a lot of fresh seafood. Spenser disappeared under the table for a few minutes and we realized too late that he had been scribbling on his chair with his crayons. The restaurant proprietor walked by and handed Spenser a damp washcloth with a stern look on his face, and Spenser painstakingly scrubbed off every mark he had made.
At the center of old Porto is the most recognizable landmark of the city. The Clérigos Tower is visible from practically anywhere in Porto thanks to its height and its placement at the summit of a hill. On the way there we walked through some of the most beautiful parts of the old town, stopping in at an amazing wine store whose proprietor watched our kids warily as they peered at the selections.
Clérigos Tower is the Baroque belltower of a long, narrow church that hardly anyone notices behind it. The tower looked very familiar although we'd never been to Porto before, which confused me until I realized it was almost identical to the belltower of the Zaragoza Cathedral. On the north side of the church was an exquisite little park overlying a subterranean shopping center, and on the south side there was a long row of charming, antiquated townhouses with colorful and contrasting facades.
There was a long line to enter the tower which I normally would have passed by without a second thought, but Porto was a particularly beautiful city that I wanted to see from above. We waited on the line for about half an hour only to find when we got inside that we wouldn't be allowed to ascend for another four hours after buying our tickets. As we left we informed the people on the lengthening line of that fact, a courtesy we wished someone had extended to us. Fortunately there are ways to see the view without buying tickets and waiting for hours.
As we slowly meandered westward through the city center there were many more treats for the eye. The twin churches of Igreja do Carmo and Igreja dos Carmelitas are separated by a very thin building that only exists to satisfy a technical requirement that the priests and nuns not be housed under the same roof. Igreja do Carmo has a much more elaborate Baroque facade and a breathtaking azulejo mural on the side.
By now I was carrying the kids on my back in shifts. We had foregone the strollers for more flexibility in moving around the city but that meant the most rigorous test of my aging physique I'd had since we started our travels. By the time we arrived at Jardins do Palácio de Cristal Ian had already finished his nap and I was carrying Spenser. Thus far I was holding up pretty well but it was hard to ignore the relentless pressure of the mei tai straps on my shoulders. The name of the park makes it almost impossible to pass up, although the Crystal Palace exhibition hall that gave the park its name was demolished in 1952. In its place stands an odd-looking domed stadium that locals have affectionately christened "the UFO". Fortunately the gardens remain in pristine condition, tumbling downward along the upper part of the northern bank of the Douro with views of the river and Gaia. I unloaded Spenser into Mei Ling's arms and she waited at the upper level while I explored the grounds with Cleo and Ian. Much to the kids' delight there were more peacocks than people in the elegant gardens.
From here we had a long walk back to the Dom Luis bridge and it was finally Cleo's turn to nap on my back. The break at the gardens had relieved my shoulders enough to put up with the heaviest weight of the day. The descent to Cais da Ribeira took us past a view point from which we had still another perspective of Porto's jumbled yet enchanting cityscape. The steep streets we descended to the riverside old town were lined with classical, colorful Portuguese townhouses and busy cafes.
Once down at the Douro we decided to take the water taxi to Cais de Gaia, which the kids loved and gave us a unique view of the arch of the Dom Luis bridge. From here we took the Teleférico de Gaia cable car back up to Jardim do Morro close to where we had begun the day.
We hadn't gone all the way up to the garden in the morning but I was glad we had a second chance to see it in the afternoon. If anything the views of Porto were even better than they had been from the walkway below, and the small garden was quite beautifully landscaped. It seemed like a favorite place for locals and tourists alike to stretch out and watch the sunset.
This had been our most rewarding city walk of the trip, and probably the best since Budapest two years earlier. I wasn't expecting Porto to be the most interesting stop of the entire journey, but there was no question in our minds after just one day that it is possibly the most underrated city in all of Europe. We used our last evening in Porto to visit the other food hall in town, Mercado de Bom Sucesso. Rather than move the car from our precious and precarious parking spot we caught an Uber from the traffic circle in front of the bridge. Bom Sucesso was fairly far from the river in the residential area of Boavista. The long drive through relatively featureless modern neighborhoods was a reminder that most of the time what we see in the touristic center of major European cities is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true expanse of the metropolis. Even out here we were still relatively close to the center of the conurbation of Porto and its suburbs, which has a population of almost two million.
Mercado de Bom Sucesso was a big improvement over Mercado Beira Rio from the previous night and well worth the trip out of the center. The food hall was spacious and the individual stalls were much more like miniature restaurants than food trucks. We complemented our seafood and jamón with grilled meat from a sit-down steakhouse on the upper level. After the dinner it was easy to get another Uber back to the Airbnb.
Downtown Porto is about four miles inland from the mouth of the Douro and the west coast of Portugal and there are several interesting suburbs closer to the shoreline. In the morning we packed up and drove to Foz do Douro, an affluent coastal neighborhood with its own daily market. When we arrived at the market the area was so quiet we thought we were in the wrong location until we found the entrance. The market was very modern and looked more like it belonged in Scandinavia or San Francisco than it did in Portugal. There were barely a handful of customers and most of the vendors were just beginning to open their stalls. Fortunately one restaurant was already open for lunch and we took the edge off our hunger with sandwiches and bean stew.
We were still eager to try one of the grilled fish restaurants that the area was famous for. People at the market told us we would find them a few blocks away at the beach but when we drove down there we didn't see anything at all. In fact, the oceanside promenade was practically deserted and the neighborhood was fairly commercial and unattractive. Later I realized that we should have driven further north to the town of Matosinhos which is famous for seafood restaurants. Fortunately our strikeout in Foz do Douro didn't matter because we ended up getting exactly what we were looking for in Afurada, a fishing village just west of Gaia on the southern bank of the Douro. We had no trouble at all locating the sidewalk seafood barbecues in this colorful residential neighborhood with cobblestone streets. We picked the busiest place and soon were washing down the grilled seafood we had craved with cold Portuguese beer. The coup de grace was a crème brûlée that was caramelized at the table with a hot iron from the barbecue. It was the perfect ending to an amazing city experience that had surpassed all expectations. I would never have imagined that in an itinerary that included Valencia, Bordeaux, and Bilbao that Porto would prove to be the most impressive and memorable city that we encountered.