It was February, two months into my dissertation semester, and I was already over a month behind on my work. I did what any sane person would do: book a two-week vacation to Portugal.
15 March: from Swansea to Bristol, to Porto
Waking up before the sun to meet our ride on the corner outside the pub, my travel buddy and I remarked once more about our excitement to get out of Swansea, city of dreams, for a few days. Hopes of sun and warm weather sustained us through the chilly and somewhat concerning ride across Wales and into England to Bristol airport — the youngish Polish chap took a bit of a wayward route, to say the least.
Stepping off the plane a few hours later, I was greeted with that same whiff of familiarity I experienced on the tarmacs of Croatia and Tunisia: the sweet headiness of humidity. Not the average, damp levels you find near water (or at my current home in southern Wales), but the sticky sort of humidity that, even in January, signals warmth.
We hopped the train from the airport to Porto centre without incident, other than the utter irony of leaving a sunny day in the UK to be greeted by pelting rain in Portugal. Finding the first hostel of the trip perched near the top of a long hill in Porto’s eastern reaches, we passed several wonderful-smelling bakeries and cafes that reminded us we were no longer in the land of sheep and cockles (no offence to either, they’re both delicious).
Determined to not let the rain deter us, we ambled around the sloping tiled streets for hours. I had heard about the Portuguese tile thing before, but had no idea the extent to which the cities were enveloped by it. The streets, the buildings, the storefronts and souvenirs, all of it bedecked in the ceramic stuff.
One of the highlights of the day was finding the big, open-air market near the middle of the city: Mercado Bolhao. The 19th century structure was dilapidated and most of the stalls empty, but there was still a hum of life in the place. People were selling fresh fruit and vegetables, cut flowers, assorted touristy trinkets. There were butcheries selling fish that had probably still been minding their own business in the sea that morning. The shopkeepers called at one another across the stalls, loud and melodic.
Yet possibly one of the highlights of the entire trip for me was finding a quintessential tasca, sort of a small tavern or bar that also serves up some light food (meat, mostly), on this first evening in Porto. After walking over a dozen kilometers in the cold rain, I needed a drink. Following a few narrow, winding alleyways off of the Douro River, we passed a shop where a man was hand-carving guitars and took it as a providential sign that something good was close by. And it was: a small, dark tasca right on the alley.
The joint was long and dim, with the wooden counter running nearly the entire length of the place. The low rafters were covered in dusty bottles, some murky and full, others just murky. The gentleman who ran the place was the picture of Portuguese: short, no-nonsense, maybe a little bit brooding, but quick to smile at our effort to purchase port in Portuguese. We killed a couple of hours in that bar, drinking port and drinking in the feel of the place.
Just after sunset we made our way back to the hostel. It was the Alma Porto Hostel, and I can 100% recommend it to anyone traveling through Porto who wants a cheap but reasonably well-located place to stay and meet a lot of travelers from other countries.
That night it was especially full, and a couple of English blokes were already three sheets to the wind. They got themselves into a bit of trouble after falling down the stairs, smashing a few things and yelling insults at some of the hostel workers, but besides that the night was good fun. It was an interesting end to our first day in Portugal.
16 March: a friend arrives and the weather clears
Day two started with strong coffee and bright sunshine. The weather had cleared marvelously, and we spent most of the morning out on the hostel’s balcony soaking it up (and actually working on our dissertations!).
A good friend arrived halfway through the day to start her Portuguese adventure with us, and we set off back to do some adventuring. Stopping, of course, for beautifully strong and cheap espresso and the famous pasteis de nata: a little custard pastry that basically tastes like an egg tart that has reached nirvana.
Porto had already left a good impression from the first day, but the appearance of the sun transformed the city. We headed south to the river and spent a good portion of the day just taking in the view, the warmth, and each other’s company (and, of course, more port wine).
17 March: my first Saint Patrick’s Day without any Guinness
Our third day in Porto we took a free walking tour with Pancho Tours, and our guide, Íris, was a riot. It seemed like we covered every inch of the city.
At the end of the tour, Íris led us to a nearby restaurant to try a Porto staple: francesinha, a dish we collectively decided was a little bit like a poutine lasagna. The dish, or “Little Frenchie” as it’s literally translated, is made up of bread, cured sausage, fresh sausage and steak, tucked-in with a mass of cheese, with the whole thing sunk in a beer-tomato sauce and surrounded by French fries.
Yeah, my arteries just clogged a little bit just describing it.
We stayed around the restaurant for a couple of hours exchanging stories and laughs before setting off in search of our own Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations. While it ended up lacking the usual pint (or three) of Guinness, we split a bottle of port on the river, got properly tipsy, and headed home to the hostel for some serious shenanigans with a bottle of cheap whiskey and a deck of Italian cards.
It was, by far, the most globalised Saint Paddy’s of my life.
18 March: in search of port wine
The first part of our final day in Porto was spent in the hostel, figuring out how to get to our next stop (Lisbon) and where we would stay the first night. The storeyed hostel was quiet with most of the travelers of the previous nights departed, and many of the hostel workers out making preparations for another’s birthday that night.
We were able to enjoy some more time out on the balcony; from there we observed the stark differences in architecture on the street, something repeated across the entire city. While some buildings looked almost brand-new in their shiny, clean appearance, many others were abandoned and seemed to be falling apart at the seams.
Our tour-friend the day before had briefly described the housing conditions in Portugal. How after the financial crisis of 2008, the city began to fall into a sort of state of dilapidation. People moved, businesses closed, the vibe and very spirit of the city suffered. We saw it in the multitude of multicoloured houses shuttered, dusty and empty like hollow skulls in the rows of otherwise vibrant life.
By now, months later, the day is a blur. A sweet wine hangover is nowhere near as sweet as the dark red liquid that begets it. We debated taking the Teleférico de Gaia cable car across the Douro to the port wine lodges, but ended up walking the Dom Louís bridge instead.
Once across, we took the advice of our tour guide from the day prior to head uphill to Taylor’s, where for a paltry 5 euro each we received a brief historical tour of the cellars, and three different port tastings. We took our glasses to the outdoor terrace, found a quiet corner table. We sat basking in the setting sun, enjoying the porto, the quiet, and each others’ company.
Wanting to relish every last moment in this gorgeous city, we took a different, ambling route back downhill to the river. Let’s not call it getting lost; let’s call it exploring.
Before crossing back over to find dinner and our hostel, we climbed a steep road to an overlook to watch the sun set over the river. It was a perfect ending to my first stop in Portugal.