jc travels

When it’s cold outside, drink more Port

In an attempt to run away from the inevitable winter quickly settling its way into Berlin, I planned a small vacation to Portugal for a week. And just my luck – the sun only started to appear in Berlin the day I was leaving, and I arrived in Porto during a very rainy state. It continued to rain the 2 full days I was there, until today – where I’m currently on the train to Lisbon, window seat and shielding my face from the blinding sun pouring in from outside. And Lisbon, if my iPhone’s weather app is to be trusted, is supposedly experiencing a small thunderstorm at the moment. Woohoo.

Despite the rainy weather, my stay in Porto was nothing short of warm and cozy – greatly attributed to the “plentiful” amounts of Port wine and inherently compassionate nature of the Portuguese locals.

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After arriving and dropping off our bags at our Airbnb, we set out in hunt of Portugal’s infamous francesinha. This bad boy is the epitome of sinful, glutinous indulgence. It’s essentially layers of thick toast, bife (steak), mortadela (bologna), linguiça, fresh sausage, and melted cheese snuck in everywhere in between. On top of it all is more melted cheese and an over-easy egg. All of this surrounded by a moat of fries. And to finish it off, the whole plate is drenched in a savory beer gravy. Yes, this really exists. Is it delicious? Well, the first few bites definitely are. Then when you’re halfway through, you start questioning your life decisions.

Should I really finish this whole thing? Am I going to regret this in a couple of hours? Should I have worn elastic pants?

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Then, you sort of black out in the middle of your eating frenzy and before you know it, you realize you’ve finished the whole plate and feel like a total champ.

It really sets up you for the rest of the day, I’ll give it that.

We walked around the area (Bolhão) afterwards, window shopping and just soaking in the fact that we (my boyfriend and I) were finally together after almost five months of separation. We weaved our way through the streets, which were lined with retail stores, small restaurants and cafes – the air thick with a densely sweet smoke coming from the frequent chestnut roasting stands on the many street corners, with a few droplets of misty rain breaking through it.

We eventually found ourselves by the Douro River. And what a beautiful sight it was. The city of Porto on one side, the city of Vila Nova de Gaia on the other, connected magnificently by a giant metal double-decker bridge, Ponte Luís I. On both sides, rocky cliffs descend into the river, with neatly positioned Lego-like buildings perched atop them – standing humbly in shades of sun-bleached reds, yellows, taupes, and hazy blues spotted in between. A view beaming with an undeniable richness in history and culture, exhibiting an air of modesty and down-to-earth realism that is so hard to come by these days. A sight as warm as the people that live in it.

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We crossed the Ponte Luís to Vila Nova de Gaia, which is known for all their wine cellars (or locally known as “wine caves”). After the huge carb spike from our lunch, nothing sounded like a better idea than relaxing over a couple glasses of wine on this overcast day. We went over to the Sandeman winery and tried some of their Tawnies – a strong, and quite sweet, fortified wine. Very enjoyable. Best decision we made all day.

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Later that evening, after an (accidental) nap, we headed to Matosinhos, a city right outside of Porto, known for its seafood restaurants. As we followed the smell of seafood and the sound of traditional Portuguese music ringing through the streets, we stumbled upon an area where some older folks were dancing in the rain and enjoying some fresh, charcoal-grilled fish. We ended up at a restaurant called Restaurante Lage do Senhor do Padrao and ordered grilled sea bass and swordfish. The sea bass was served whole, freshly grilled with an infused olive oil dressing (vinegar, garlic, onion, parsley) on the side. A little smoky, slightly acidic, flake-off-the-bone tender, and totally worth the trip. It also comes with a plate of small roasted potatoes (which my boyfriend raved about for the rest of our stay in Portugal), also sitting in a delicious sauce of olive oil, butter, crushed garlic, and parsley. This meal and a glass of white wine? You’re set.

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Slept in the next morning and was pleasantly surprised with some fresh bread, butter, and gooseberry jam that our host had left at our door. It made for a simple yet lovely breakfast (but really, nothing beats butter and jam on toast). We sat outside at a small wooden table, positioned underneath an overhang that just barely sheltered us from the rain. It was warm outside – and the overcast, opal-hued skies and slight drizzle made for a really relaxing Sunday morning, actually. Only thing that would have made it more perfect is a maybe a steamy pot of tea.

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The weather cleared up a bit as we set out to Leitaria da Quinta do Paço, a small restaurant known for their eclairs. I’m usually not a fan of eclairs because they remind me a maple bar donut but less satisfying. But it was not until this day that I realized I was just eating really bad eclairs all my life. The filling was surprisingly light and cloud-like (not thick and custardy like the ones I’ve had in the past). The pastry itself was light as well, and pleasantly enough, the icing wasn’t the kind that congeals if you leave it out for too long. We tried the O Doce do Porto (the original), Creme de Cafe, and a savory one with ham. As always, the original was the best one.

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There’s this amazing thing in Portugal called a bifana. A friend of mine recommended Restaurante Conga (thanks Filipe!) And man, I have to say, street food is just the best – wherever you go. Fatty cuts of pork stewed until they’re melt-in-your-mouth tender, a little bit of chili oil, sandwiched inside a soft and slightly flaky bread roll. And that’s it. Simple, but perfect in every way. The pork packs a ton of flavor, and the roll just soaks up all the juices that go into it. A couple of these guys and a glass of chilled pilsner = perfection. The workers here come off rather coarse when you meet them, but they’re actually quite warm (and good salesman). Once you’re at the last bite of your bifana, they come up to you and demand, “One more?” And you can’t help but say yes. 1) Because it’s so delicious and affordable, 2) they’re a little intimidating. We ended up coming here for lunch the day after, too. Restaurante Conga, you’re doing something right.

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Of course, we couldn’t go a day in Porto without wine! We headed over the Calem Winery for a wine tour and tasting. I learned more about wine in this tour than any of the ones I’ve done in Napa Valley back home (granted, I know very little about it). But it was really educational and surprisingly intriguing – which is rare for me as I usually try to avoid all tours if I can help it.

It’s a beautiful wine cellar, too – the most visited one in all of Europe for good reason. At the end of the tour, there’s a wine tasting in a large wine hall, with rows of beautiful oak tables and benches, walls lined with shelves and shelves of vintage wines on one side, and pyramids of wine casks on the other.

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Just across the river is Café do Cais. A beautiful indoor/outdoor restaurant bar located right at the edge of the river bank. The skies had cleared up, so we took a seat on one of the communal tables outside. It’s a dazzling spot – lit warmly by lights strung along the overhang, a gentle warm breeze floating in from the valleys, and soft music and chatter from nearby tables in the background. As we waited for our sangria and truffle fries, the sun began to set and one by one, the buildings and lamps bordering the river began to light up. Watching the day fall to night over the Douro River is one of the most romantic and charming sights I’ve seen. What a way to end the evening.

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This morning, before we left Porto for Lisbon, we squeezed in a visit to the two spots where J.K. Rowling was known for writing the Harry Potter series – Livraria Lello & Irmão (bookstore) and Café Majestic. Although the amount of tourists swarming around these places made the experience less than underwhelming. I’d be remiss if I didn’t check them out though, and would feel a bit guilty for calling myself a Harry Potter fan. I can definitely see the allure and otherworldly enchantment of these places – definitely places that nurture those searching for a creative outlet. (And the staircases in the Lello Bookstore did look mysteriously similar to the moving Grand Staircase described in the books.)

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Porto – a gracious, rustic, and humble city. As I write this on the train, looking out to the once-sunny-turned-overcast skies heading towards rainy Lisbon, I can’t help but miss Porto already. The old cement buildings, the sapphire blues of azulejo tiles, the smell of aged oak barrels, the sounds of fish crackling over the charcoal grills, and the quiet beauty of the Douro River and all that surrounds it. I’ll be back soon enough.

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