It was an awesome quick trip to Porto, Portugal. Chinese New Year creates a short window of downtime for me at the office, so Becca and I planned a spontaneous trip to Porto to check out Portugal for the first time. It’s a seven and half hour drive from our home in Biarritz – you drive along the coast and into Spain, then suddenly cut inland and drive over mountains to a warm desert. Becca and I had not seen the sun for months so it was awesome to drive through the Spanish desert with the sun warming up our car. We made a pit stop in a Spanish city called Leon for some food and wine. Becca also got to shop for a bit, she always makes up an excuse, something about how cheap the merchandise is in Spain compared to Biarritz. Sadly I don’t have a good “come back” to argue the situation so shopping always wins out. We drove over another mountain range during the sunset and arrived in Porto at night. It’s always fun but still scary entering a new European city at night looking for your hotel. The GPS never has the exact location of your hotel, you drive the wrong way on one way streets and usually you can’t park near your hotel anyways because its located on some vintage pre-car era street. But again that’s usually why we pick these hotels because of their awesome location not necessarily their parking amenities (although that is a bonus).
Becca and I initially didn’t know a thing about Portugal. In fact we hired a personal guide off Tripadvisor.com just to show us around and give us some quick tips. Our guide Ricardo, from City Taylor Tours, left us a map at the hotel “check in” with restaurant recommendations close to our hotel for our first night. The city was alive on Friday night, our recommended hot spots were just too full for us and we were too intimidated to push through the crowd, so we settled on a simple dive bar for our first Portuguese meal. To our surprise the bartenders knew some English. Becca ordered some items and we each got a beverage, we waited for our food at our table while watching soccer on tv with the locals playing cards to the right of us. Now again, I am describing this in more detail than normal because this was our first Portuguese experience. I was feeling the vibe out and sipping on my Super Bock (the main Porto beer) when our waiter brings out a flaming pile of little weiners. “What the hell did you order” I asked Becca, shes responds with “Saucisson Flambe” of course. Now I will admit these little hot dogs doused in some sort of octane and set on fire were not that tasty, but the experience was a little surreal, it made both of us crack up. I drank my 3 Super Bocks and Becca had 2 glasses of local red while I cooked my hot dogs and Becca ate some pizza. Now here comes the best part of the story, we walk up to the bar to pay our tab and the bartenders give us a free shot of Hot Dog flame oil (not really its was just some sort of crazy Portuguese alcohol) and tell us our tab is 40 euro in broken English. “Awwww snap” I thought in my head, we were suckered! Chock this up to the first lesson learned in Portugal, I did read something on tripadvisor.com about Portguesse restuarants often over charging. I grab my debit card as the bartender hands me the common Euro debit pin machine to see my bill of 14.00 euro. Thats right, 14 euro for 3 beers, 2 red wines, 2 free shots, a large Pizza and flaming wieners with bread and chips. Portugal is a bargain! This put a large smile on my face because I knew Porto was going to be awesome.
We met our guide Ricardo in our hotel lobby at 10AM. The plan was for him to show us around and give us more of a “local vibe” tour of Porto while also recommending restaurants and things to do for our remaining time. First he took us to a popular local cafe for coffee and common pastries. It was my belief that the pastries we had where the best I’ve had in Europe. “But you live in France,” ppssshhhh the French don’t believe in breakfast outside of ham, butter and baguettes with the occasional croissant thrown in. I am not a man of sweets and creams but for some really weird reason I enjoyed all 4 of the traditional pastries. I’ve either grown up and suddenly turned into a man or the Portuguese pastries are just that good (I’ll go with the latter).
Ricardo showed us the local food market as well as the local delicacies like salted cod, lupin beans, ham etc… He then proceeded to show Becca the local flea market. It was a sad day for Becca because the flea market was not nearly as packed as usual due to the light rain that day. She was still able to grab some souvenirs for home. The flea market was just above the Douro River which was used to transport Port wine from the mountains/vineyards of Porto (more on this later). The Bridge in the background is known as the Maria Pia Bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, you know, the same dude who designed Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty.
We kept cruising with Ricardo as he spoke about Portugal’s history and how a previous dictator’s regime, the church and trade merchants all fought and impacted the current look of the city. Massive castle walls built long ago to protect Porto have been etched out in sections as the city outgrew its protection and bled into more modern day streets. Ricardo showed us the oldest part of the city, right next to the river and explained that living in this location was super rare because homes never go up for sale and are passed down from generation to generation. Becca loved all the colors of the old homes, we had hoped for some sun to really see them but sadly it never came out for us. A bit later we had more food. Ricardo asked me if l like chorizo…. phhhhssshhhh does Meatneck like chorizo??? 3 minutes later a chorizo was set on fire and being cooked on the bar top as we tried local Porto wine. Charred chorizo was awesome, the local wine and corn bread was “speck-tac-que-lair” as the French say. The restaurant Ricardo took us to for a snack was a owned by a friend of his from college, and he mentioned it’s doing really well because they use local wine and chorizo as well as other local products. In fact we returned on Sunday and Becca and I each had a beer that was so rare it was only sold in 1 other location and it was made a block up the street by some friends who liked making beer. It felt like Porto is just on the cusp of turning into a real “trendy place”. Ricardo pointed out a couple of new bars and restaurants that had a chic and hipster vibe to them, but they weren’t trying to be cool… they just were cool. Nothing was overdone or expensive, and everything felt simple and efficient to me.
A little more walking here and there, a couple of finger points at cool stuff and then BOOM! we were back to eating and drinking. I sampled their smoky ham and poultry sausage while Becca had a cod sandwich. We tried and amazing sparkling rose that comes straight out the tap. It was so refreshing and Ricardo tells us they go down real easy in the summertime, Becca and I wanted more but knew we still had to explore the city before we got too drunk off Portugal’s awesome beverages.
The next day was completely planned out thanks to the help of Ricardo. Becca beach combed in the rain looking to add to her amazing collection. We walked over the bridge to the other side of the River to the city known as Gaia. It is here where they now store the world famous Port before the ship it off to the rest of the world.
After reading some info on Port I was surprised by one important fact: I always associated Port as being created to be able to ship around the world and not spoil, just like an Indian Pale Ale (IPA) beer. But the reality was that the Portuguese had always drank Port and the merchants/sailors knew the higher level of alcohol would make it easier to ship around the world and England (most importantly). I came to the conclusion that because the people from Porto traded so much with England that they are more open to speaking english than some other countries. I dont know if thats right but I am sticking to it. No more history lets talk drinks!
Becca’s dad Bryan… I mean my father in law Bryan (thats a thing I never wrote before) would have been proud of the many Ports we sampled. White, Pink, Tawny, Late Bottle Vintage and Vintage, we tried them all. It was Bryan who introduced me to Ports or “sippies” as he calls them, and because Becca and I now like Port so much it was a major factor in deciding to go to Porto. In fact we didn’t know much about the traditional wine that grew next to the Douro River, we only knew about Port. It wasn’t until we arrived in Porto that we discovered the rising popularity of Portuguese wine and how 3 out of the top 5 wines on this year’s “Wine Spectator” are from or near the Douro river….. BOOOM!!! that was a wine fact, back to Port talk. We went to 2 different tasting rooms and even took a tour of the cellars. I settled a friendly argument that I have with the French when I asked our tour guide if regular (not white or pink) Port should be drunk as an aperitif and with ice. She looked puzzled and confused but I told her that’s not how I drink my sippies but thats the French roll, she mentioned the French like to everything “their way”…. not my words thats what she said.
Overall It was a very cool experience I am so happy to have gone to Porto. We came back with many bottles to drink in Château Grettenberger. We also cleared out a store of black beans because they tasted so good and we are unable to buy them in France. We will try and make it back to Porto but will continue to travel to new places. But I would put Porto high on your list of places to visit if you ever come to Europe.