Porto: Birthplace of Port Wine and Beautiful Beyond Belief

Let me start by saying I had never heard of this place before. Sure, I had heard of Port wine (hello, wine is amazing), but I had no idea that it came from a little city in Portugal named Oporto (or Porto in English). Before going on the trip, I was lucky enough to get some great advice from my host family on where to go and what to see… and Porto was high up on their list. They advised us to take the train one night from Lisbon, stay the night, then spend all day the next day exploring and take a train back. They insisted i was such a small city that you didn’t need to spend more than a day.

Thank God we gave ourselves two days instead of one.

It’s about a 3 hour train ride from Lisbon, and as we approached this little city my jaw dropped… literally. The train passes over the bridge and gives amazing views of the city and the Douro River. It was one of those times when you see something just so beautiful you can’t believe it (which was nice after about 3 hours of seeing nothing out the window on the train).

From the train station, we took the short trek up the hill to our hotel (the entire city is located on various hills). Up at the top, there was this beautiful church called Igreja de Santo Ildefonso. I have seen many churches in my life, but this one was unique in that it had this beautiful blue and white tile work all across it.

Igreja de Santo Ildefonso

We walked down the hill in search of a good place to eat. Everywhere you looked, there was something beautiful to admire. There weren’t all too many people around, either, which I liked. It was like we had this beautiful city to ourselves.

Praça da Liberdade

We found a small, cheap restaurant just to the left of this statue. Food and drinks here were extremely cheap, especially compared to the other cities we had been to on this trip. When I was researching things to try in Portugal, a little delicacy called a Franceschina popped up. People insisted that it didn’t look all too appetizing and it was basically a heart attack on a plate, but that it was definitely worth trying. And I must agree! It was surprisingly delicious, I could taste the calories as I ate them. It is basically a sandwich filled with various meats and then covered in melted cheese and a sauce of tomato and beer… YUM! We got this franceschina for about €4, one hell of a deal! Washed it down with a €1 wine. I know it doesn’t look like much, but trust me… I ended up practically licking the bowl.

Even after having an incredibly fatty meal, my mother and I were attracted to a little pastry shop on the corner. There were so many things to choose from! I had heard of pastel de nata as I was researching, so I decided o give it a try. It was fantastic! Perfectly sweet and creamy. I could have easily eaten 3-4. I also bought another random pastry, just to give it a try. It was good, but I definitely would stick to the pastel de nata.

A while later, high on the sugar rush, I decided to try yet another pastry I had seen in all of the store windows… I’m not sure what it’s called, bu it looked interesting. It was gross. I had to throw it away. I was basically a partially cooked egg inside a flavorless crust (or a least that is what it tasted like).

As we were walking around, we noticed a group of singers in old, traditional clothing. That day, we saw at least 2 or 3 of these groups going around singing. I have no idea what was happening, but it was interesting to see!

We wandered over to the other side of the city to see the Lello Bookshop, famous for being one of the inspirations of Harry Potter. Unfortunately, it was a big disappointment. The store was very full, for one, and they didn’t allow pictures at all. And for a place so famous and well-known, you’d think they keep the place in shape… the famous stairs were all scuffed up and the whole place looked a bit dreary. And the shopkeepers were extremely rude. Here are some pictures regardless that you can find on google images, and I promise you it looks better in the pictures. 

From there, we wandered down the hill towards the famous Douro River. It is such a beautiful city with so much to explore! Like this strange park with floating disco balls.

Many of the buildings seem very run-down, unfortunately. In fact, a few of them had signs up saying that it was unsafe to occupy the building. However, once you get closer to the river things brighten up with vendors selling their wares and lovely, brightly-colored buildings. Oh, and more restaurants than you can count!We ended up arriving right on time to take a river cruise at sunset, the last of the day. It was €10 and well worth every cent! The views there are just unbelievable. Seeing all of the lovely European buildings spread out carefully over the hills and the handful of bridges connecting both sides… it was just magical. I’ve also never seen so many giant bridges in my life. I’ll shutup for a bit… the pictures speak for themselves.

My first west coast sunset in months! West coast, best coast.

After seeing so much beauty that we didn’t know what to do with ourselves, we decided to grab dinner at a small restaurant right along the Douro River. We got their famous assa chouriço, a sausage that cooks right in front of you on fire. It is such a fun thing to order! (read more about it here). And the view at night couldn’t be beat.

Right along the river they also had many vendors selling cheap items like table cloths, little bottles of Port wine, and various souveniers with the famous lucky Portuguese chicken on it. We ended up buying a few little bottles of Port to try them out and keep us warm 🙂 When in Porto… drink Port! And Ginja, a strong cherry liqueur.

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Lisbon, Day 2: Castelo de São Jorge, Sé de Lisboa, Igreja de São Roque, and Flaming Sausage!

On January 2nd, we woke up bright and early to take advantage of the day since everything was closed the day before. We wisened up and decided to take a taxi instead of bothering with the public transportation, per our concierge’s advice. It only cost us €7 to go from one side of the city to the other, and up a steep hill! For 2 people, that was fantastic. If you have problems walking uphill, or are just plain lazy, do not try to make the trek all the way up. Get the famous trolley or grab a taxi.

We started at the Castelo de São Jorge, or St. George’s Castle. It is at the top of the hill overlooking the entire city, which gives it some absolutely breathtaking views. I’m pretty sure I said “wow” more times than is socially appropriate. Once again, with the lovely view of the bay, the hills, and that red bridge, I kept thinking we were in San Francisco.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1640 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1649 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1653When we were done gawking at the city skyline, we walked through the castle walls and were introduced to some gorgeous peacocks. There were at least 15 of them just chilling in the courtyard. Who doesn’t love peacocks? They’re just so goddamn pretty. Very nice touch.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1664 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1666Then we reached the actual castle, which dates back to the medieval period and was built by the Moors. It was nothing all too interesting, though. Perhaps a guided tour (which I’m not sure they even offered) would be more educational and interesting. We just ended up wandering around, climbing all of the turrets and stairs we could see, and snapping away. There wasn’t any art on display or any educational signs explaining anything, so that’s pretty much all there is to do there anyways. But hey, you’re in a castle… which is pretty damn cool.

Quick note… if you’re afraid of heights, you might have a problem here. My mom is, and she was terrified at certain points because there were no hand rails.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1669 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1678 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1684 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1688From the castle, it is a short walk (downhill – hooray!) to the Sé de Lisboa, Lisbon’s oldest cathedral which dates back all the way to the year 1147. Crazy, right? It is unfathomable just how old some buildings are and how much history they have. It is free to go inside, but towards the back you have the option to see the cloisters for a fee. We decided against it because we have seen our fair share of cathedrals in our lifetime.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1702We ate lunch again at the My Story Hotel that I mentioned before, which has delicious cabbage soup and Portuguese dishes for good prices. Then we headed to another part of the city we hadn’t yet visited to the west of Chiado called Bairro Alto. To get there, you have to find hidden elevators or take the famous Santa Justa Lift (we decided against it because we had already seen lovely views of the city). After asking numerous people, we finally found the correct door and elevator to get there. It took us up to a multi-story mall, where on one of the levels you could exit back out onto the street, but on the other side and at a higher level. It’s very interesting how they constructed this city!

We arrived at the Igreja de São Roque, the world’s most expensive chapel. It really doesn’t look like anything special from the outside, and I was a bit worried that we had wasted our time in coming. However, when you walk in, you can see how it won this title. Everything is covered in gold, it’s insane. It is very lavishly decorated on all sides. It was interesting to see, and had free entrance, but honestly this is something you can skip unless you’re a deeply religious person.

From the outside... pretty plain looking, eh? Especially for the world's most expensive chapel.

From the outside… pretty plain looking, eh? Especially for the world’s most expensive chapel.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1719Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1721 Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1727After that, we didn’t feel like walking across the city yet again (plus we had some shopping bags weighing us down). So we found a little wine bar called Wine Lover Bairro Alto (let’s be honest, the name got us inside). It was a lovely bar with a knowledgeable waiter who told us about all of the different wines and encouraged us to come back later that night for some live music. After a glass of vino, we shopped some more and came back! The waiter there was amazing.

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When we came back later that night, they had prepared many big plates of food that you could choose from, such as the pig shown above. It looked amazing, but unfortunately we didn’t try it. Instead, we tried a portuguese specialty called Assa Chouriço, basically a flaming sausage. They have special serving plates (that kind of look like mini boats) where they pour oil into the bottom part, place the sausage on top lifted up from the oil, and then set the whole thing on fire to cook it in front of you. It is super cool to try! Expect to get the attention of everyone in the restaurant, also trying to steal pictures… but totally worth it.

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Lisbon, Day 1: Praça do Comércio and the Rua Augusta Arch (a rough start)

We boarded a plane early on January 1st, leaving Sevilla and headed for Lisbon (or Lisboa). We had heard so many fantastic things about Portugal, it had been a dream of ours to go for years… one aunt of mine once said it was the most beautiful country she had ever seen (she used to be an airline stewardess and travelled quite a bit). So we had high hopes for this city.

Let’s start from the beginning, though… (but please, feel free to ignore my ramblings and scroll down for the pictures!) with TAP Portugal airlines. We arrived to the airport about 2 hours ahead of time after a little hitch getting there (there were apparently 0 taxis available on that first day of 2015… quite a stressful ordeal, let me tell you). We tried to find the check-in counter for TAP, but found nothing. I asked one guy who worked there if he knew where the counter was, and he pointed to the other end of the long hall. So we walk all the way over there to see nothing open, and no signs for TAP. After running back and forth trying to figure this out, the same guy found me again and explained that TAP doesn’t open it’s counter until something like an hour before the flight. Ah. So we waited around for awhile.

We were finally able to check-in, check our luggage, go through security, and get to our gate. Normally, planes board 30 minutes before take-off, right? Well, time kept passing and still we had no sign of our plane… and they weren’t announcing anything. Finally, 10 minutes before take-off, a bus showed up outside. We were ushered in and then driven to another part of the airport where a small little adventure plane was awaiting us. Wow! Let’s hope for calm skies…

It turned out to be a great flight, and they even provided everyone with little sandwiches and water bottles. As we approached Lisbon, the views outside of our windows were absolutely stunning. I got this warm feeling in my gut that I’d absolutely love this city.

We took a taxi to our hotel (FYI – taxis here are SUPER cheap and it is definitely worth taking one instead of trying to figure out public transportation!), quickly unpacked, and headed to the metro station to get into town (rookie mistake – just take a taxi! Trust me!). The metro station was absolutely dead (and hard to find in the neighbourhood we were in). We tried to buy a metro pass on the machines using our credit cards, only to find that it was declining every card we had with us. Oh, and it only accepted credit cards. This first day of the new year was proving to be a frustrating one.

We walked around the metro station a bit more, hoping to find someone who worked there. We didn’t find that, but luckily we found another machine that accepted cash. They have a weird system where you have to actually buy the card for 50 cents and then add money to it, and the more you put, the more of a discount you get. We decided to buy a card and add 10 euros to it for the both of us.

I swiped the card and had my mom go through, then I tried to swipe the card again for myself… to no avail. It doesn’t let more than one person use the card. How absolutely ridiculous. So I had to go back to the machine and buy yet another card with €5 of travels, and I had to do it in a hurry to catch the next metro. Super frustrating.

Anyways, we finally made it to the Chiado region of Lisbon, and from there we were going to try to get to the Castle of São Jorge nearby. I got a little bit lost and decided to step into a hotel to ask for directions. Before going on the trip, I decided to learn a little bit of Portuguese to get me by, such as “Você fala Inglês?” or “Do you speak English?” so that I wouldn’t just rudely walk up to people assuming they’d know my language. I highly recommend trying to learn a few phrases! It isn’t too hard, and the people there really appreciate it. Anyways, the hotel staff said yes, they spoke English… another quick note: MANY people in Lisbon speak English fluently! It is incredible.

So I asked if they could direct me to the castle, to which they responded that it was closed 😥 In fact, pretty much everything would be closed that day because they considered January 1st a holiday. What an unexpected and unfortunate turn of events. Apparently all of Spain and Portugal decides to shut down if they have ever the slightest excuse…

We asked them if they would recommend anything else we can do to sight-see so that the day wasn’t completely wasted, to which they replied: “You can try to go to the other end of Lisbon and see some of the monuments, or you can just do what the locals do: eat, drink, and be merry.” We chose the latter since we had planned another day around the monuments.

We ended up eating at the My Story Hotel and had an absolutely delicious meal. We actually went back twice more during that same trip! Many of the other restaurants in the area are too touristy, bland, and overpriced, but at the restaurant at the hotel they had some delicious, relatively cheap Portuguese options. It was amazing! We had the cabbage soup for €3 each which was to die for, and then took the recommendation of our waiter and had this delicious meat in a garlic sauce with potatoes. Definitely worth trying! And the ambiance is very nice.

Hawaii 2014 & Europe 2014-2015 1509One interesting tradition that both the Spanish and Portuguese have is Jamón Ibérico, or Iberian Ham. It is basically the entire leg of a pig, smoked and cured, and then mounted on a small pedestal where you simply shave off the meat you need. It is very common to go into a restaurant and see these legs hanging in the windows or from the ceiling. This day we were lucky enough to see the process of how to mount the leg and shave off the skin/hair properly in order to get to the meat, which is harder than it looks. In the states, we have a thing against seeing where our meat comes from. So it is super strange to see a leg, hoof, hair, and all, just chilling on the counter.

And the taste? Oh, it is delicious! Definitely give it a try! It is their prized meat, and is often quite expensive. One quality leg of ham can cost hundreds of euros.

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After eating, we decided to walk around the Praça do Comércio, or Commerce Square. It is also known as the Terreiro do Paço, or Palace Square, because the Royal Palace used to be located there before a huge earthquake destroyed it in 1755. On the day we went, there were many stands of local hand-crafted jewellers which was really fun to see. I even bought a few things! It was a lovely day to walk around, and it is always beautiful by the waterfront. You also have a great view of the Ponte 25 de Abril, a red bridge that looks a lot like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I had to keep reminding myself that I was in Portugal, not Cali!

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On the other end of the square is the Rua Augusta Arch, built to celebrate the reconstruction of the city and the square after the big earthquake. It also serves to welcome people into the city from the port, so it is a very important and popular square to visit.

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If you walk just inside the archway, on your right hand side you will see a door (and probably a line) where they allow you to take an elevator up to the top of the arch for about €3. It was well-worth it, in my opinion. Once you climb all the way up, you have gorgeous views of the city. We got up there just before the sun went down, perfect timing! We got to see the sun set over the bridge and also some nice views of the rest of the city, along with the beautiful lights in the streets coming on one by one.

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View of the Castle of São Jorge from the arch. Doesn't look like much, eh? It is completely hidden by all of the trees.

View of the Castle of São Jorge from the arch. Doesn’t look like much, eh? It is completely hidden by all of the trees.

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I absolutely love these lights! Some of the best street lights I've seen.

I absolutely love these lights! Some of the best street lights I’ve seen. It looks almost magical in person.

View of the Praça do Comércio and the big Christmas tree. The restaurant below is the beer museum, check it out!

View of the Praça do Comércio and the big Christmas tree. The restaurant below is the beer museum, check it out!

 

You get to chill with these cool guys at the top of the arch and see them up close and personal. Their feet are about the size of your face.

You get to chill with these cool guys at the top of the arch and see them up close and personal. Their feet are about the size of your face.

After we were finished snapping away photos, we wandered the streets a bit. They are famous for their sidewalks with various lovely designs in black and white. I really liked the effect it had, but for some it can be difficult to walk because it is very uneven.

Tiles

Photo Cred acidadenapontadosdedos.com

That night, although no actual stores were open, there were many street vendors selling various souveniers and crafts. They actually had some lovely things to offer! With my limited Portuguese, in fact, I could have an entire conversation void of any English… I was so proud of myself!

Vendor: Olá! (Hello)

Me: Olá, como bonito. Quanto custa? (Hello, how beautiful. How much is this?)

Vendor: Seis euros. (6 euros)

Me: Muito obrigada. (Thank you very much)

Even though it was a very simple conversation, you could tell the locals appreciated my effort.

We continued wandering the streets and found many different beautiful squares and fountains with beautiful Christmas decorations, such as the giant presents below. Lisbon is definitely a fun place to explore! And the locals know so much English it makes the world a whole lot easier. On our way back using the metro (I repeat, don’t bother with the metro… just do yourself a favor and take a taxi!), a young and very attractive guy recognized the horribly confused and lost look on my face. He went out of his way to help my mother and I find our way back to the hotel without us even having to ask, and in perfect English no less. I can not say enough how impressed I am with the rest of the world in their ability to learn numerous languages, especially when I’m stuck here learning my second. Oh well…

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