Ao Porto!

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April 23rd 2014
Published: April 24th 2014
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Today we woke up to overcast skies and a bit of rain, so it seemed like a good day for our 3 hour or so train ride to the north to Porto. We packed all of our stuff, had breakfast, and were out by 8:30 to catch the metro toward the Gare do Oriente, from where our train would be departing. Getting there and getting our tickets were straightforward, so we had time to spare before boarding at 9:39. The train was pretty standard - it was an Intercidade train, so one step up from the Urbano train we had been using to get to Sintra and Cascais from Lisbon - that basically meant that we now had a tray table. It didn't seem as though the assigned car and seat meant anything, especially since the seats made no sense, with 42 and 48 next to each other, but we were told to move two cars up when the attendant came around.

We got in around around 12:40 and quickly found the metro to get to the city center. Like Lisbon's, Porto's metro is super clean and efficient and in around 15 minutes we were in the city center and steps from our hotel. This hotel was an upgrade to say the least, and we're looking forward to breakfast on the outside terrace in the morning. First impressions were that it was a kind of gritty Barcelona/Valencia/SanFrancisco, but Porto definitely has a feel of its own. Walking outside we first stumbled upon the Avenida dos Aliados, a main drag that includes the town hall and many beautiful beaux-arts buildings. We hadn't eaten since our pathetic breakfast, so that was the immediate plan. The restaurant I had hoped to eat at was in the shade and seemed kind of dead, so we instead were frugal and ate at a hole in the wall where we had a couple of sandwiches. I had a fried cod cake on a Portuguese roll for little more than a euro, and I made Chris get a francesinha, a Porto specially. It's a really light dish, just steak, ham, and chouriço on a roll smothered in cheese and doused in a spicy beer-tomato broth.

Reenergized, we went back toward the hotel to do a recommended walking tour that seemed to give a good basic overview of the main city sights. We started with the Torre dos Clérigos, a baroque-style tower from the 1700s that offers sweeping views of the city...after you climb 225 steep spiral steps. The next stop was the São Bento train station, which might sound kind of dull, but only until you see the incredible azulejos that cover the walls of the front hall. Up another hill took us to Porto's, Sé, it's cathedral - a 12th century fortress that was later redone in the 18th century. It wasn't anything to write home about, and we opted against paying to see the cloister. The view over the Ribeira, the old waterfront district, however, were awesome. Similar to the Alfama, it's a tight network of winding alleys and stairwells that eventually lead down to the river Douro.

We had now spent a couple of hours in Porto without drinking any port, so that had to be fixed. Luckily we came across the Instituto dos Vinhos do Douro e do Porto. This institute is the sole licensing body for Port and Douro wine - every bottle of wine that someone claims to be port, for example, comes through here. While you can't tour the laboratories and such, you can definitely do a tasting and watch an informational video, so that's what we did! It was €5 for 4 ports - a white, tawny, late vintage, and a ten year. I'm really starting to enjoy chilled white port as an aperitif - it can be super dry like a sherry or very sweet. My go-to is Tawny, though, but perhaps our afternoon at the cellars tomorrow will change my mind.

Meandering down toward the water we came across another couple of churches, but they were closed, so we'd have to return earlier in the day. We instead sat along the water and had some more wine with olives at a little cafe that actually started to feel like the Pine Street Inn as drunk, homeless-looking men kept coming in and out. It was actually some kind of sports club a la an Elks club or Knights of Columbus - O Grupo Desportivo Infante D. Enrique. Whatever - €3 for two glasses of wine and a plate of olives works for me! We then made our way back to the hotel to freshen up and make a dinner plan.

Dinner took us to A Grade, which had come recommended by a number of sources and which was where I'd hoped to have lunch. We sat outside and started with a plate of octopus salad, a bottle of Douro red, and bread. It was the first time anyone actually asked if we wanted starters instead of just bringing them. In Portugal often they will bring bread, olives, a seafood salad, or whatever when you sit down, but it is not free and you have to tell them if you want it or not. For my main dish I had ameijoas à bulhão pato, clams in a white wine garlic broth. It came with tomato rice and a salad. Chris got fried cod filets with some kind of a warm cole-slaw that he really liked. For dessert we had some cheese with quince paste, and the waitress brought us aguardente - a generic term for alcohol with a certain percentage, but in this case a strong brandy-like alcohol made from leftover white grapes used in port-making.

After dinner we had one last stop at a bar called Café Lusitano. The bouncer-type lady looked like Pam from TrueBlood, and she handed us two cards. For every drink you get the bartender makes a mark, then you show the card when you leave and pay accordingly. The place had an Eastern feel, lots of incense and with music like they play at trendy sushi restaurants. It eventually got more clubby-sounding and we were captivated by terrifying artsy videos that looked like the intro to TrueBlood or Dexter or any weirdo Showtime/HBO intro. After having our fill, as well as reeking of cigarettes (you can still smoke in bars, apparently), we called it a night!

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