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(O)Porto! August 19, 2008

Posted by Emily in photography, things that make me smile, Travel.
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Apparently Oporto is the English name for the Portugese city known as Porto within the country…I saw it written both ways, so I am just going to go with the shorter version.

After hip, happening, rough, fascinating, largely English speaking Lisbon, Porto was sort of a strange shock. Porto is the second largest city, but felt entirely different—traditional, shabby, a bit of a timewarp, completely dead on Sundays. The hostel screwed up my reservation, which meant I had the choice of two rooms full of Spanish guys—both groups there for bachelor parties. Wonderful. On my first evening, I wandered around for a long time trying to find an open restaurant, preferably one where I could watch the Portugese Eurocup match. In the time it took me to find one, I didn’t pass a single person. Eventually, I went to a kind of run-down bar/café where the game was playing and I was clearly the only outsider. In Lisbon, most Portugese menus were easy to understand, if not to pronounce, but this bore no resemblance to any language I know and no one working spoke any English or Spanish. Having read about the Porto love for tripe, I double checked that the special WASN’T that and then ordered it, along with a Portugese version of Sprite known as Snappy. What came looked somewhat intenstine-like and was covered in cheese and a spicy-looking sauce. After a few moments of hesitant sizing up on my part, the man next to me leaned over and said (in English), “It’s a hot dog.” He didn’t understand much of my relieved thanks, and I got the idea he was coming up with that sentence while I was coming up with some courage to eat the strange thing set in front of me. I’m not a big hot dog fan, but this was sort of like a currywurst (+serious cheese). It was sort of an adventure, it could have been worse, and Portugal won the match.

When menus in Porto (rarely) included English, the translations were a little questionable...

When menus in Porto included English (rarely), the translations were a little questionable...

In the morning, I wandered around some of the city center, bought three beautiful peaches for 40some cents, and stopped into the well-equipped tourist office on my way down to the water. The big thing to see in Porto is Da Bolsa, the Stock Exchange. It was built between 1842 and 1910 to showcase Portugal’s wealth and artistic abilities to possible business partners. Despite their stylish tourist office, Porto doesn’t really know how to handle tourists. The schedule at the Stock Exchange was strange and I had to go back a couple of times to catch an English tour (it ended up being bilingual in French, which was fine) but it was really quite fascinating, though smaller than I expected. The amazing inlaid wood floors were different in every room, made of exotic woods from former Portugese colonies. Ironically, the Bolsa was built not long after these colonies (most from Brazil, but some African locales as well) had gained independence, so the government had to pay for what had just recently been theirs for the plundering. Too bad, Portugal. Score one for the colonies. Although the most talked about highlight was the Salão Árabe (Arabian Hall), which was made entirely of plaster, gold—about 40 pounds’ worth—and a bit of wood and made to echo Spain’s Alhambra (it’s also available today for wedding receptions), I was most amazed by one specific table. Beautifully inlaid with an unbelievably intricate pattern, it was built by one man over the course of three years using nothing more than a pocket knife! Check it out in the middle of the Sala dos Retratos 360 degree tour here and then check out the Arabian Hall (and those floors!).

After the gold and the paneling and the pocket knife wonder, Porto itself was starting to feel like a bit of a let down. I went on a tasting tour of the Sandeman port wine factory, figuring if you’re going to try port for the first time, it might as well be in Porto, and walked along the shores of Vila Nova de Gaia, the town across the bridge that’s entirely dominated by British and American middle aged port wine aficionados wandering from tasting to tasting.

As I was sitting, eating a mediocre sandwich and feeling sort of blah, the sea of polo shirt wearers separated and along came a parade of people singing in Portugese and dancing in traditional costumes. Apparently, they were part of a Northern Portugese folk culture dance group, which meant I was treated to almost two hours of singing and dancing that was one part do-si-do, one part clogging, lots of swishing of skirts and clapping of hands. And then Porto opened up for me again.

In a lot of ways, it was what I expected Portugal to be—lots of azulejo-fronted buildings, working class, great old signs, CHEAP Portugese food and not the international fare I was drawn to in Lisbon. The food improved after the mystery hot dog but mostly involved lots of meat, some soups and a fair amount of rice. A multi-course meal for two, with wine, cost me and a travel buddy I picked up along the way 11 euros. It may be the only place left in Europe where a cup of coffee is still calculated in cents. It felt sort of Old World in a way I can’t seem to describe accurately. Young boys were kicking soccer balls in the streets under canopies of Portugese flags, using language that was similar enough to Spanish for me to know their mothers wouldn’t approve, while others were testing their not-yet masculinity by jumping off the town’s main bridge into the water far below. Walking across the bridge, I got close enough to one kid with steps shaved into the side of his head, maybe about eleven, to see just how much his fingers were shaking, struggling to hold him up. It took him a while to work up the courage, but he jumped in the end. It seemed an important Porto coming of age ritual.

There was something really sad but also mysterious about Porto’s crumbling buildings, especially those that look like they are about to fall into the water. Like being in Pisa, one is aware that this isn’t going to be like this forever. Porto has a brand new metro line leading to a brand new airport, meaning people are going to start coming for more than the wine and the residents are going to have to pick up some English, some of the old buildings will get facelifts and signs will be replaced. Yes, Porto was looking a bit worse for the wear, sort of abandoned fifty years ago, but in that grunginess and that sense of being forgotten lay its charm. In a continent as well-trodden as Europe, finding a place that feels unexplored can sometimes be rewarding in its own right.

Inside the Porto train station

Inside the Porto train station

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