Monday, February 17, 2014

What we did on our Porto vacation.

Porto was to be our magical reset. Our rejuvenation spot, our sleep-in spot, our "live like a local" spot. Our spot to buy more than a days' worth of groceries at a time. Our spot to fix Jen's boot (again).

It was to be our spot to catch up on emails and pictures and blogs, our spot to finally try to figure out this Twitter thing. Our spot to park for a week in between jetting around coastal Spain and our upcoming whirlwind Morocco trip. Oh yeah - and our spot to actually plan our upcoming whirlwind Morocco trip.

Porto is a few hours from port country and less than an hour from nice beaches. To a tourist's eye the city is split down the middle by a river lined with bridges (but really, the river divides Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia). Allegedly, Lisbon comes to Porto for its wonderful restaurants. It's an artsy, gritty, rainy-in-winter town with windy narrow cobblestone streets you could wander for hours.

We picked it somewhat randomly as a stopping point figuring if we hated it we'd just hole up indoors for a week. Long-term travelers often do this in places you might not expect - Prague, Budapest, Barcelona - just to rest in a comfortable city which allows some modern conveniences. Luckily, we ended up really enjoying Porto. Aside from the windy cobblestone streets (and lack of nearby mountains), it felt awfully familiar... and the longer we stayed, the more comfortable we felt.

We still did lots of touristy stuff that week - the most touristy being a day trip to the Douro Valley. Usually people take a boat tour up the river but it was cold and rainy so we skipped that.  And then of those who take the train through the scenic valley, most stop in Regua for the wine tours and tastings. We were more interested in seeing the countryside, so we took Lonely Planet's advice and went the extra half hour into Pinhão, a much smaller village.

the 8km hike was beautiful

the vineyards and olive orchards were stunning

and we did squeeze in a tasting at Real Companhia Velha
because when in Porto...
(and also it was right next to the train station
and we had some time to kill)

Totally worth the day and Euro investment.

Back in Porto we visited the São Francisco Church and adjoining catacombs. The church is about 600 years old; during the 18th century artisans covered every inch of the interior with the most incredible gilded wood carvings. (Around that time, Napoleon also decided to use the church as a horse stable. Quel bouffon!)

3 meters high? maybe 5?
google it for better pictures -
we had to sneak this one

Beneath the church are rows and rows of tombs. The church is the resting place for thousands of folks awaiting Judgment Day... but don't get any ideas - burials were banned in 1866 due to health concerns.

plaster skulls adorn the rows
and the floors are tombs too

It cost a few Euro each to see both, again totally worth it.

We visited a few museums. Many are free or free from 10am-2pm on Sundays, and the one we did pay for (because we went on Saturday) was at a reduced price since they were between exhibitions. Three museums for €5 sounded good to us...
  • Centro Portugues de Fotografia, our favorite of the three, is located in a former jail that's been remodeled. The architecture was beautiful and the permanent exhibit of cameras (from old spy cameras to Kodak disks to modern Canons) was pretty impressive.

    During our visit the main gallery featured an amazing exhibition by Gervasio Sánchez documenting the impacts of war in Central America, the Balkans, and Africa since the 1980s. Photographs of 10-year olds proudly sporting Uzis, villages in shambles, and bomb victim amputees were brilliantly composed and incredibly sobering.
the world's largest camera
was pretty neat too

  • Serralves (the one we paid for) was a combination foundation, art museum, garden, arboretum, tea house, and agricultural center... and probably some other things but we don't speak Portuguese. During our visit the art museum featured a temporary photography exhibit by Ahlam Shibli, including photographs of Palestinian families who built living room homages to family members who'd martyred themselves. Sounds gloomy?  It was, but it was also really interesting and not something we ever would've seen in Portland.

    The Serralves gardens are massive and manicured. Apparently, each year they spend 0.5FTEs keeping the fountains clean and over 20,000 hours maintaining the park overall (no idea how many FTEs that is - and sorry for mentioning FTEs).

    As noted above there's also a large herb garden, an arboretum, and a livestock area where cows, sheep, donkeys, and geese were living in harmony.
the garden part

the agriculture part

    It was a very bizarre but beautiful place and I'm glad we had a chance to visit it.

  • The Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis was not really to our taste but the permanent exhibit of classic art and the temporary exhibit of digital works by Polish artists were still impressive, and the building itself was really beautiful.

The other big tourist thing to do in Porto is to wander to Sao Bento station and Se Cathedral, and then walk across Ponte D. Luis I bridge to the port side of town. (They reeeeeeally push the "walking across the bridge" part which implies that some people opt to take the tram across the river. Our walk involved sideways rain and high winds; still would not have traded it for the tram ride.)

Anyway. From there you can visit tons of wine caves and fancypants restaurants, but we don't do that sort of thing and the weather wasn't great that day so we just took a few photos and headed back for pastries and coffee. The views were lovely when the sun broke through the clouds though.

to the north

to the south

We checked out Livraria Lello & Irmão and Chamine da Mota, bookstores famous for their staircase/Harry Potter inspiration and completely random antiques, respectively. They were much smaller than we expected.

We visited the Mercado do Bolhao market, also much smaller than we expected since most of the shops are closed for the season or no longer in business at all.  More on this in a follow-up post.

We wandered down the "art spot" - a few blocks of informal walk-in galleries featuring works by local artists. On the way back we checked out the massive Cemetery of Agramonte but only got a little ways in before another downpour.  Wish we could've spent more time there.

Oh, and have we mentioned the pastries? We ate a lot of pastries. Our favorite shop was Bakery Ribeiro, we went there twice and attempted a third but it was Sunday and everything but the museums was closed. Which brings us to...

Food notes:
  • you're supposed to eat salted cod and something called a francesinha (heart attack on a plate, anyone?), but for us it was all about the pastries







  • we also enjoyed the tasty €2 wine
  • otherwise, we cooked in the hostels or at the apartment

Which brings us to lodging notes:
  • Rivoli Cinema Hostel was fine for a few nights. Very centrally located, big open kitchen, great breakfast, helpful staff, noisy electronic fancy schmancy lockers, tiny rooms.
plus crazy, sometimes creepy aht

    Fine for a few nights.
  • But our Air B&B apartment rental was awesome. You mean Jen can get up at 6:30am to do yoga in the other room? (There's another room??) The heater runs all the time? We can do laundry for free? We don't have to listen to snorers or share a bathroom?
we have our very own kitchen?

    Sold. As added bonuses, we also got a half bottle of port and some amazing sea salt with which to cook. We slept on a futon mattress on top of wooden palates but it was so much better than college. There must've been some fate involved because the co-owner of our apartment had studied viticulture at OSU...

... and had a very nice wine bar downstairs

How did we do on the "magical reset"? Well, we still walked a million miles. We still went to the grocery store almost every day. There is still a giant hole in Jen's boot. We didn't figure out our Morocco plan or Twitter.

But one day we slept in and only left our rented apartment to walk three blocks and eat pastry. And then we went back home, watched Sherlock, listened to traditional Portuguese music, made dinner, and went to bed early. That was a good day.

Think you guys call those kinds of days "weekends"? 

we have decided we need more weekends...


  1. i mostly have to settle for Cinnabon™

  2. You did so many things we didn't have a chance to do. Except eating those pastries. I had to give in a bit, even though wheat doesn't agree with me. Yum, right?

    1. I'm supposed to be gluten-free too. Yeah, riiiiiiiight. :) Yes, having a full week in Porto was really nice!