Coffee, Port, Sun and Sardines - 5 days in Portugal

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May 26th 2011
Published: July 26th 2011
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The sun is high, the weather is warm and the streets are cobbled. We’re in Portugal! Avoiding the touristy restaurants, we happily take a seat at a local spot and order the nation’s favourite- sardines! We thoroughly enjoy perfecting our technique stripping the flesh off the bones and tucking in to the most delicious sardines we’ve ever tasted. All encounters we’ve had with the locals so far has been incredible warm and friendly, including teenagers offering us seats on the train and strangers stopping to help us buy our tickets.

We find our way to the main train station to purchase some tickets to Porto for tomorrow. The whole city is centered around a huge bay/port with huge ships. The streets lead off from here in to a valley at the centre of town with dual hills on each side. We spot a lookout on the opposite side to the castle accessible by an ancient wooden lift. It’s a photo taking location for tourists but is predominantly a form of transport for the locals to get to and from work. The view from the top is incredible and it’s from this vantage point that we get our first good look at the castle opposite. We can’t resist and head back down intent on finding the tram to take us there.

Like the old lift, the city is filled with an incredible network of old trams including some incredibly rickety wooden ones which feel more like you’re on a ride at a theme park than commuting around town. We find the number 28 tram stop which is completely packed! Hmm...strategy. We follow the tracks up the hill in the opposite direction to the castle in the hope that we can board ahead of the crowds. We let two pass by before one comes along that has enough room on it for us to board. The old interior is impressive and with the sash windows pulled down we grin as the old vehicle shakes and shudders its way up the hill to the base of the castle.

It’s a great experience and we hurry our way up the cobbled paths to the castle entrance keen to not miss closing time. Fortunately it’s still open with many hours to spare and to our surprise and delight, there is a cool music and art festival on all night! Funky music is playing from the speakers around the castle grounds and dozens of stalls selling food, beer, cocktails and hand crafted clothing, bags and shoes are set up along with a number of stages ready for the night’s acts. Like the chilled out city down below, the atmosphere is incredibly relaxed and the view of the bay and city down below is breathtaking.

We can’t believe our luck and take our time wandering around the castle walls, stopping to pick up a snack or drink from time to time along the way. It’s blissful and we hang out chatting and taking in the scenery for most of the evening before picking up some typical Portuguese custard tarts to enjoy on the way home.

We have a short amount of time the next morning before we need to catch our train to Porto. Last night we had spotted an elevated spot on the northern side of the castle and so we decide to check it out. We take the number 28 to the castle in the opposite direction from last night and we pass through some eye opening suburbs of Lisbon, before hopping off and walking the rest of the way to a vantage point to take in the view of the castle from another direction.

The train to Porto is newer than expected, nicely air conditioned and to top it all off we’ve been given table seats to ourselves! To our surprise, the group at the table opposite ours includes a lovely couple from Australia and their local friend who has family in Porto. We thoroughly enjoy chatting with them most of the way to our destination and the time flies by.

After checking in to our apartment we head out for some brief sightseeing around town. Our first stop is to the renowned and glamorous Cafe Majestic. It’s not like us to come to a place like this but the prices are reasonable and we can’t resist a quick coffee. It’s like stepping back in time. The waiters are dressed immaculately and the walls are decorated with beautiful painted images, moulded faces and gold framed mirrors. And just as good as the setting is the Portuguese coffee. Fantastic! Dare we say it... (almost) as good as Italian coffee.

After our enjoyable coffee stop, we head back in to the streets and follow our map to another historic spot, Livraria Lello, which has been recommended to us. It’s non other than...a bookshop! We weren’t sure what to expect but this delightful shop dating back to the late 1800s it features the most incredibly designed staircase we have ever seen in our lives! The two sets of stairs swirl away and towards each other in such an unusual way, it couldn’t be drawn in 2D to describe it to someone. Photos aren’t permitted giving us the chance to stand back and admire its beauty at our leisure.

Having hired an apartment for our stay in Porto, we collect some supplies to create our own antipasto dinner accompanied by the most expensive local wine in the supermarket, (which at Euro 4-50, is an absolute bargain) and return for a night in.

The next morning we walk our way towards the river taking in the impressive architecture along the way. We stop at a few key sites along the way including the cathedral and palace, and enjoy a leisurely stroll along the main prominade. Across the water we have a great view of the port houses lining the river as well as the impressive bridge which will take us there.

It’s lunch time and most port houses are closing for a midday break. There are helpful signs all around the city showing us the way to the various cellar doors and we follow the cobbled path up the steep hill all the way to Taylors. Not only are they open but they’re also serving lunch. We’re welcomed with a delicious white port and shown to our tables where we’re offered yet another tasty port aperitif while we make our selections from the menu. Being this high up we can see the entire old town of Porto from the restaurant and we enjoy taking in the view while we patiently wait the hour it takes for our food to arrive. The food and service are both impeccable but by the time we get to eat, we’re too hungry to appreciate it. On the bright side, the long wait has meant that by the time we leave the restaurant the other port houses are open and we’re delighted to find Croft just around the corner. We’re given a warm welcome and offered a place on the next tour starting in a few minutes. Just enough time to enjoy a taste of their white port offering.

The guide is a bright and enthusiastic Portuguese woman who excitedly tells us all about the port making process as she shows our group through their impressive store house. We’ve learnt a lot about wine over the years but know very little about port so we enjoy her patter and even learn about the difference between ruby and tawny ports. Very interesting! The ruby port we’re offered at the end of the tour is delicious and we decide to stay on for another tasting. Lachlan enjoys an old tawny and Ariana chooses the novelty pink port slushie and chocolate combination. Delicious!

Further down the hill, Fereira is also open and while we would have to wait a while for the next tour we’re given a personal explanation about the ruby port tastings we select and enjoy savoring the flavour inside their beautiful tiled interior.

We’d purchased some Cockburns for Christmas one year and go in search of their port house but are disappointed to find it at the very top of the hill, and closed. However, ever faithful Sandeman is still open and we’re invited for a tasting inside before enjoying some port sangrias on the front deck looking out at the late afternoon sun on the water. Fabulous!

On the way back to the apartment, we stop for dinner, a tasty seafood rice which is quite unlike the paella we’re used to in Spain. In fact, much to our naive surprise, Portugal is very unlike Spain. We feel like we should have realised this long ago but even so, it’s a refreshing discovery.

The return train journey to Lisbon is absolutely packed due to strike activity and to our surprise and delight the Australian couple with their Portuguese companion are on the same train and have even been allocated seats opposite us again! What are the odds? It’s lovely to hear their stories of their time in Porto and about their next travel plans and we again happily chat all the way back to Lisbon.

Having missed it the first time around, we drop our bags off at the hotel in Lisbon and take tram 15 to the monastery on the waterfront on the western side of the city. It’s another lovely warm sunny day and we enjoy a long stroll along the waterfront to an old fort at the far end which looks a little like a huge sand castle!

Before we leave, we can’t resist one more ride on tram 28 up to the castle and drop in to a small shaded cafe we’d spotted a few days earlier where Lachlan orders more sardines. Well, when they’re this good- why not?

As we journey back to the airport we continue to marvel at the relaxed pace of this capital city and the warmth of its people. Portugal has certainly surprised and delighted us. What a wonderful place to be.


26th July 2011

Good to see you had better luck with tram 28
Must sort our photos one day..
28th July 2011

Hi guys!
That Port sounds awesome. So much history! Love from D, H, E & E
24th December 2011

Just catching up on your blogs now....
Hey guys. I know I'm MONTHS behind the goss.....but this sounds like a great trip. Always wondered what Portugal was like!

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