Portugal, in my opinion, is one of the most perplexingly over-looked travel destinations in Europe. Bold statement, I know, but my third and latest rendezvous through the dusty old streets of Spain’s western neighbor absolutely confirmed it. Portugal’s food is more delicious than Britain’s, its cities are more colorful than Spain’s, and its sweet wine is more scrumptious than Germany’s. Not to mention a three-course Portuguese meal sets you back less than 20 euro and a night at some of the highest-ranked hostels in Europe clocks in at even less!
So with a three-day weekend looming thanks to Spain’s celebration of All Saints Day, I booked a whirlwind weekend in Porto, Portugal, the country’s second-largest city and (more importantly) the hub of Portuguese wine production.
Despite the fact that D.C. and New York are father apart than Porto and Madrid, getting from the Spanish capitol to the Portuguese port is frustratingly difficult. This may be the only time America beats Europe at public transportation. Unlike my East Coast cities, there are no direct trains between Madrid and Porto. And while it takes a mere 5 hours to go by car (the same amount of time it takes a bus to go from D.C. to NYC), it takes nearly 10 hours for ALSA to roll the 560-odd kilometers from Madrid to Porto. Only three airlines (Iberia, TAP Portugal and RyanAir) fly nonstop between the two cities and of those only the ultra-budget, less-than-cozy RyanAir offered holiday-weekend flights at less-than-extortionist prices. RyanAir for the win, again.
An overhead bin fiasco, two checked carry-ons and a parade of duty-free perfume later, we touched down in a rainy, grey Porto. It was 10:30 a.m. on All Saints Day (or The Day After Halloween as we call in it in the States) and we had been in Portugal for less than an hour when we discovered the first of many pleasant surprises in Porto. Halfway through the hedge-maze that is the Carregal Gardens, we spotted our hostel. Tucked between brightly colored buildings with balconies overflowing with ferns and flowers was The Wine Hostel, without question one of the nicest hostels I’ve stayed in throughout Europe. Upon opening the door we found blue painted tiles and boxes of dusty Port bottles lining the staircase. Instead of numbers, each room is named after a type of Port. Our bright and airy six-bunk room was “Late Bottle Vintage,” a term I would come to appreciate during the follow day’s winery tour.
Bags stowed and stomachs screaming we braved the wind and rain in search of breakfast. Five minutes and as many map consultations later we reached the oldest cafe in Porto, Cafe Progresso. The menu was surprisingly modern for a café that celebrated its 114th anniversary last month, sporting the word “Brunch” at the top and “scrambled egg” not far below. After a month in Spain where eggs are strictly relegated to the afternoon hours and brunch is a distant concept, Progresso was quickly making my life.
Food requirements filled, our next stop was the third most beautiful bookstore in the world, Livraria Lello. Despite crowds of revelers, the century-old bookstore is spectacular, with a huge central staircase that looks like something straight out of Cinderella, or, perhaps, Harry Potter. Rumor in Porto is that J.K. Rowling, who began writing the Harry Potter books while teaching English in Porto, based the grand Hogwarts staircases off of the huge, winding centerpiece staircase at Livraria Lello’s, where she is also rumored to have scratched out a few pages in the upstairs cafe.
One block down from the packed bookstore was an equally impressive gem, this one’s shelves filled with every imaginable Portuguese-made product from chocolate “Bomboms” to brass horns. We spent nearly an hour sifting through tables piled with soaps and and books, clocks and kitchen cutlery at A Vida Portuguesa, a two-story shop dedicated to selling only items made in Portugal.
With Porto a sure winner in the “gorgeous shops” category, we climbed — and yes, climbed is absolutely the right word; Porto is insanely hilly — over to the Sāo Bento train station to see how the city fared in the art department.
The station’s main hall is decorated on all sides with pearly-white tile painted in brilliant blue depicting everything from daily farm life in 18th-century Porto, to the timeline of transportation from horses to steam engines. The hall is impressive, to say the least, but more so for me was the story of how it was made. The architect, as our walking tour guide later informed us, was fresh out of college when the king commissioned him to create Sāo Bento Station. He worked on the building for eleven years, laying tile after the king who began the project was killed and through the revolution that overthrew his successor and ended the Portuguese monarchy. If only those tiles could talk…
Those blue tiles, or azulejos, speckle the city with bursts of color. With the spitting rain and thick grey cloudy skies, the streaks of blue along the giant stone buildings gave the city an almost- eerie melancholy feel that was ironically juxtaposed with springy palm trees and vibrantly happy-colored houses.
Day two in Porto was dedicated to my two favorite things: eating and drinking. For lunch we stumbled upon a tiny restaurant tucked into a corner among the maze of tiny streets behind the Ribeiro, or riverwalk. Low wood-slatted ceilings and dim recess lighting gave the feeling that we were dining on board a private yacht. White and blue china painted in the same style as the city’s azulejos clinked throughout the tiny space, further adding to the upscale yachtiness of the place.
We skipped the three-course menu featuring bacalao, Portugal’s most famous dish, and opted instead for a quick and fancy lunch of Porto’s traditional soup (a thick potato broth with kale-like leaves) and a simple salad (lettuce, big chunks of tomato, olives and onion all drenched in olive oil). You’d have thought we were eating naked. The chef, who happened to be having lunch with his wife at the table next to us, chastised the waiter for not bringing us our food before realizing that we’d received all that we’d ordered. The cooks and wait staff in the kitchen took turns peering through the small window to catch a glimpse of the locas who had ordered only primer platos. The blasphemy of our meal was sure to ignite at any moment a riot among our fellow diners. Thus we high-tailed it out of our little corner of lunch luxury the second our painted china plates were cleared.
Across the Duoro River and comfortably far away from the perplexed restaurant staff, we set out for the main event, Port wine tasting. Choosing from the dozens of wine cellars at random, we ended up at Ferreira, one of the oldest cellars in Porto. While waiting for the English tour to begin, we strolled down to a bodega that served tastes of Ports from a conglomerate of cellars. Port wine is stronger and sweeter than your typical table wine having been fortified with Brandy at the early stages of fermentation. As we would later learn in the wine tasting of all wine tastings, the Brandy used in ports has a super high alcohol content (more than 70 percent), which stops the fermentation of the grapes’ natural sugars into alcohol. Depending on the type of Port and the desired sweetness level, the Brady is added at different times. The earlier in the process that the Brandy is added, the sweeter the Port will be.
Our first two tastes were white ports, the Burmester ‘extra-dry’ which had a strong Sherry flavor, and the Barros ‘semi-sweet’ which, as Maureen described it, tasted like a warm fire at Christmas (I’d say it’s more caramelly toast). Next we explored the difference between “Tawny” Port, which is aged in small oak barrels allowing the wine to oxidize slightly and thus turn a caramel-rust color, and a “Ruby” Port, which is aged in huge oak barrels for fewer years and thus maintains its ruby-red color. The verdict for me: Ruby Port all the way. The Ruby maintained many of the robust, fruity flavors of typical red wine but enhanced those flavors with an intense, yet smooth sweetness emblematic of Port wine.
Armed with our four exploratory tastes and an utterly basic understanding of how Port is produced, we set off on our tour of Ferreira, a company that has been producing Port wine longer than the United States has been an independent nation. We strolled through dimly-lit cellars filled with giant barrels of meticulously aging Port while our appropriately-named guide Fabio explained why the floor was made of wood blocks rather than tile (two reasons: 1) to cushion the barrels so they don’t break when rolling them across the floor and 2) the wood acts as air conditioning; if the temperature starts to rise, they douse the wood floors with water, the evaporation of which keeps the cellars cool and slightly humid).
We saw giant French Oak vats where nearly 11,000 liters of Tawny Port was getting a weeks-worth of large-barrel aging before being bottled. We filed past pyramids of 350-pound barrels of the sweetest type of Port wine, Lagrima (which translates to “tear”) as Fabio informed us that the wine got its name because its sweetness caused it to run slowly down the side of the glass, like tears sliding down a face. We saw bottles of vintage Port from the 1800s, stacked on their sides awaiting the day their flavors will finally “mature” (because apparently 100 years isn’t quite enough). And finally we sat down to taste the Ferreira wine ourselves, a bright red Ruby and golden sweet Branco Lagrima.
After a long, hard day of wine tasting we were in desperate need of some stellar Portuguese food at my new favorite restaurant. After experiencing the wine tour of all wine tours I didn’t think it possible to fit in an “everything I want out of a restaurant” dinner into the same day. I was wrong. At Casa Santo Antonio I had to make two decisions: what type of wine I wanted to drink and when I was too full for more delicious tapas-style traditional Portuguese dishes. That, in my opinion, is how every restaurant should be. No stressing about what to order or post-plate remorse about whether I ordered the right thing. At this Porto gem of a restaurant I was worry free and ravishingly expectant. I had no idea what our most adorable waiter Nelson would bring us next, only that it would undoubtably be ricisimo.
The parade of deliciousness started out fresh with Galician-style dense bread, garlic-marinated black olives, curried cooked carrots and jumbo pickled corn kernel-type things that I can never remember the name of. Fried bacalao (cod fish) fritters of joy followed with a side of perfectly spiced and scrumptious beyond it’s simplicity red beans and rice. Next we devoured a fava bean-chorizo–murcillo stew that was even more flavorful than the picture leads on.
And as the grandest of grand finales to this most amazing meal, Nelson brought us pork cheek in an olive oil-red wine- clove sauce. It was, without question, the tenderest, most melt-in-your-mouth meat I have ever tasted. This one dish freed cloves from their corner as a Christmas-time cider adornment and propelled them into ‘fascinating spice I can’t wait to add to everything’ status, a title they will have to fight with cumin over. We decided it’s worth another RyanAir flying adventure to Porto solely to taste Santo Antonio’s pork cheek one more time…