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Porto: Portugal’s Second City

For our first meal in Portugal, PJ and I had pizza. No doubt some people would be horrified by that, but I’m not apologizing for it. We had arrived at our hotel in Porto—technically a rental apartment—at about five PM—three flights and some 24 hours after we left our home in Birmingham. We dropped off our stuff and then walked around the neighborhood for about an hour, but we were very tired and really just wanted to get something to eat and go back to the hotel, take a shower and crash with a book before going to sleep at an unfashionably early hour. We started looking for a restaurant, but although plenty of people were sitting outside at sidewalk cafes, none of them seemed to be eating. They all had glasses of wine/beer/other. People tend to eat late in Portugal, and most restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7 o’clock at the very earliest. We decided to ask at an Italian restaurant if we could get something to eat, and they said we could get pizza, and we said pizza would be just fine. We were staying in the historic district, and we didn’t realize at the time that we were a stone’s throw from the Clerigos (Clerics) Church and Tower, one of the iconic landmarks of the city.  Later in the week, we climbed the tower and attended a multimedia show in the church called “Spiritus.” It was inspired by the poem “After all, the best way to travel is to feel,” by Alvaro de Campos, and is truly spectacular. The entire church is filled with light and music. Still later in our stay, on one of our last days in Porto, we were walking back to our hotel when we were treated to music from the tower itself—a sort of fantasia on “Ode to Joy” while the tower bells rang.

There’s actually a story behind “Spiritus.” As with every trip, our journey to Portugal began well before we left Birmingham with a certain amount of research and reservations for a few events that we knew we wanted to attend and were afraid we might not be able to get tickets for at the last minute. “Spiritus” was one of those. Now, in general, there’s a way to translate most foreign-language pages to English, but if there is a way to translate the “Spiritus” booking page, I never found it. Calendars and times are fairly universal, however, and I was able to figure out “two adults” without any issues. I came to the payment screen and that’s when the whole thing pretty much started to fall apart. First of all, I had to use a different credit card than I normally do, so I didn’t have the numbers memorized, and by the time I got my wallet, a couple of minutes of the time allotted to make the reservation had already ticked away. Oops. I noticed for the first time that I had a time limit, and it was pretty darn short, too. I typed in all the numbers required, and then my address (tick, tock, tick, tock) and then it wanted my phone number, country code first. The countries were, of course, listed in Portuguese. I had, in fact, recently learned “United States” in Portuguese, and I still drew a blank. (Tick, tock, tick, tock, time is running out!) I was in a panic as I frantically searched the list. I knew the number was +1 but I had to select the name from a very long list. Barbados–well, what do you know? Barbados is also a +1. (Tick, tock, tick, tock!) There it is! (Thank God for all those Spanish classes! It’s spelled the same!) I hit the key to send the payment with about a minute to spare, and it sent a confirmation to my cell phone. “Where’s my cell phone?” I ran frantically around the house. “WHERE IS MY CELL PHONE?!?” I found the phone and clicked the confirmation, and the payment went through, just barely under the wire. Altogether an exhausting experience, but “Spiritus” was worth it. If you ever decide to book tickets, though, have your credit card and cell phone handy, and know your country! Mine is Estados Unidos.

But I digress. On our first full day in Porto, I woke up at noon (six AM CDT, but it still shocked me to sleep so late) and, unsurprisingly, PJ wasn’t interested at all in getting up. I decided to stretch my legs by walking to one of the tourist offices and picking up a map of the city, and then stopping on the way back to pick up lunch. It was supposed to be a 10-minute walk to the tourist office, according to my GPS. What I didn’t know at the time is that Porto, for reasons both known and unknown, chews up GPS systems and spits them back out at the feet of unsuspecting tourists. The known reason is that there’s a ton of construction going on in the city at the moment for an expansion of the metro system, and the GPS would regularly try to send us in a direction that simply wasn’t possible due to a sidewalk or road closure. As to reasons unknown, well, that’s a good question. Since we were staying in the historical center, it was an area crowded with tourists, and all I know is, I have never in my life seen so many people holding their phones in front of them, looking first down at their phones and then up and around, searchingly, with expressions ranging from bewildered to slightly desperate. My little trip that should have taken 45 minutes max took over two hours.  I finally made it to the tourist office, knowing even as I got there that I had gone by a rather circuitous route, but that was nothing compared to the return trip. I set off with a little more confidence, seeing immediately where I had taken a wrong turn on the way there and rectifying the error. I retraced my steps fairly successfully and stopped at one of the cities’ bakeries on the Rua das flores (Street of flowers) for sandwiches and codfish cakes, which came in two cardboard boxes. There was no bag to put them in. About that time, I realized that it had started to rain. I put on the rain jacket I had brought with me, wrapped it around the boxes and balanced my phone on top. The situation went downhill from there. (The situation, not the walk itself—it went uphill and downhill, as the hills are pretty relentless in the historical center.) I started walking again, trying to keep the lunch dry and doing my best to follow the GPS directions. The GPS would tell me that I was 200 meters away, and to take a right turn, and I would take a right turn, and it would tell me I was now 450 meters away. Added to everything else, I was getting really hot, because it was really too warm for a jacket and hood. Things improved a little bit when I bought a 5-euro umbrella from an enterprising souvenir shop that had somebody standing outside with a whole rack of them. The young man even opened it for me while I was digging out the money. When I realized that the GPS had sent me to the Rua das flores for the fourth time, I was not happy, but I finally made it back to the hotel and while the cardboard boxes with our lunch looked kind of rough, the contents were, miraculously, still dry. And, as I predicted to myself on that first day, by our last day in Porto, we were getting to know that part of the city pretty well.

Porto is an ancient city. We hired a local guide for one day, and he pointed out a road, still in use, that had been built by the Romans. In 1387, John I of Portugal married Philippa of Lancaster (John of Gaunt’s daughter for the anglophiles in the group). The marriage took place in Porto and cemented the Treaty of Windsor, the world’s first recorded military alliance.  You’d think that something that happened so long ago wouldn’t have much of an effect today, but the English-Porto connection has been pretty strong ever since. The Sunday we were there, we attended church at St. James Anglican Church. The people we met there were primarily from the UK, but English-speaking Anglicans from all over the world find their way there when they’re in Porto.

As you might expect, the most predominant Christian denomination in Portugal is Roman Catholicism. Porto was already a well-established city in the twelfth century when construction began on the Porto Cathedral. The 1000-year-old cathedral has been rebuilt and renovated through its lifetime, so the styles tend to vary somewhat throughout the building. The nave is a little over the top for my taste, although very impressive, and the cloister is lovely, graceful, and decorated with the tiles that are so ubiquitous in Portugal.  The cathedral is at the top of a hill in the highest part of the city, close to one of the remnants of the old city walls. It’s possible to walk to the top of one of the towers, and the view is worth it. (The rise of each step is about 12 inches. You can apologize to your legs, but if they’re like mine, they’ll still complain all the way to the top and then whine about it for a couple of days afterwards.)

Tiles also figure prominently in the décor at Sao Bento train station, which happens to be just down the hill from the cathedral. It’s been described as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, and I won’t argue. It was formerly a convent, but by the late 18th century, it was living on borrowed time due to an order by an earlier prime minister abolishing Catholic religious orders. The government wanted a train station in the area and announced that they would take over the convent and turn it into a train station as soon as the last nun died. Nobody expected that to take 19 years, apparently, and there’s a rumor that they may have helped the process along. Sao Bento is said to be haunted by the spirit of the last nun (a gentle haunting, not a scary haunting). The building was in a state of disrepair and required considerable renovation. Our guide, Nuno, told us that the man in charge was a talented artist who also happened to be “a lazy playboy”—his words, not mine. He didn’t take time to properly supervise the renovation and would give his underlings insufficient instructions so that, in some cases, tiles were put in places that, in context, really didn’t make a lot of sense. He pointed out one example where three little girls have the heads of adult men.

The Portuguese love books, and bookstores are common throughout the city. The most famous is called Livraria Lello. J. K. Rowling lived in Porto for two years teaching English as a second language, and she started writing the first Harry Potter book there. Livraria Lello has been described as one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world, and a rumor started that Rowling used it as her inspiration for Flourish and Blotts in Diagon Alley. I did read somewhere that she has stated she never set foot in the place, but that doesn’t prevent fans from showing up in droves. It did, in fact, almost drive the store out of business, because most people just wanted to take pictures and never bought anything, and people who actually wanted to shop for books found it easier to shop elsewhere. Now the store charges a 6-euro admission, which is refundable if you buy a book. We weren’t above going ourselves and it is truly a lovely place, but so crowded that it was hard to appreciate the architecture. I wandered around, looking for a book to buy, and I wanted one in Portuguese. It needed to be something either really easy or one that I was really familiar with. James Joyce? I can’t understand James Joyce in English. PJ bought a simple children’s book, and I chose a copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. They were sold out of the first one in Portuguese. Not surprisingly, the Harry Potter series was available in several languages.

Another surprisingly beautiful building is McDonald’s, which Nuno took us to just so we could see the inside. I don’t recall that I’ve ever seen a McDonald’s with chandeliers and stained glass, and I know I’ve never seen one with somebody standing outside with a hawk to keep the pigeons away. There were some pigeons gathered just down the street, talking among themselves and looking surly, but they didn’t dare come closer.

One afternoon, we went to the Museu Soares dos Reis, the oldest museum in Porto and the most famous art museum. It was named after Antonio Soares dos Reis, a 19th century Portuguese sculptor, when it acquired his collection. The timing was unfortunate because the museum is closed for renovations, but they had a couple of small exhibits, including a few pieces from their permanent collection. It may be artistic heresy to say so, but from the few pieces we saw, I think Soares dos Reis could give Michelangelo a run for his money.  He completed “The Exile” at the age of 24, while studying in Rome.

The Exile

We set a new personal record for funicular rides: three rides in two different cities in three days. The first one was after a sailboat ride on the Douro River. Porto is north of the river where it empties into the Atlantic, and on the south side of the river is Vila Nova de Gaia, or just Gaia for short. This makes it sound like the cities are far apart, but Gaia is less than a 10-minute ride from the Sao Bento metro station. The boat tour that we booked left from the Gaia side. We walked down to the river, but took the funicular back up, which was a whole lot easier than walking. The other two trips were a round-trip that we took in Lisbon. Going down to Lisbon for the day was a spur-of-the-moment decision; PJ said he wanted to go to Lisbon, so we booked tickets for the next day. The train between the two cities takes about three hours. The train station in Lisbon is across the street from the Vasco da Gama Shopping Center, a large indoor mall with a food court. We had lunch there and walked around outside for a while, beside the ocean. We were only in Lisbon for about four hours before we boarded the train to come back, so we didn’t leave the immediate area.

Anyway, that’s some of what we did. We also did some fairly mundane things like go to markets and bakeries, since we ate some breakfasts and dinners at the apartment. We attempted to speak a little (a very little) Portuguese, and everyone we met was very warm and helpful. It would be a good place to live, I think.

4 comments on “Porto: Portugal’s Second City

  1. Sarah Baker says:

    Sounds like a nice place to live!

    I’m impressed you are going to attempt to read in Portuguese. Maybe you are more gifted with language than I, though. Wouldn’t take much!

    Fun fact: Vivienne’s soccer team this season is Porto. She was Roma last spring. The league has a theme going it seems.

    Hope you are well. Love, Sarah

    Get Outlook for iOS ________________________________

    1. If you’ve taken Spanish, you can figure out a lot of the words in written Portuguese, as they’re very similar or in some cases, identical. The pronunciation is generally very different. Nuno, our guide, told us that soccer (football to everyone else in world but the US) is the only sport the Portuguese follow or care about.

  2. Robert A Sanders says:

    Well, you did it again: A masterful job! Thank you for sharing your adventures with me. You make parts of the world come alive and do so with such clarity of style. Trust you and PJ are doing well. I shall always remember you, Donna Fay and Windy and the day you brought me a handmade printed copy of the poem: Good Better Best never let it rest until the Good is the Better and the Better is the Best. (I was principal of Union School at that time) We started each day at Neal Shool repeating it. Believe it or not, I still have it among my personal keepsakes. Again you make an old seventh grade teacher proud! You have truly made your life the BEST!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Bob! You can take partial credit for my clarity of style. I was thinking just the other day about the football games we used to play in your class and how we moved the ball by answering questions correctly. Pure genius.

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