Porto and the Douro Valley

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I recently moved to Barcelona to start business school at IESE. In order to give myself enough time to settle in, I moved about two weeks before the program started.

I had some free time and was advised by the school staff to do some traveling. When looking for flight deals online, the best deal I found was to Porto, Portugal. I had never been to Portugal and was eager to add to my country count. Portugal is also one of those newly popular destinations and had the reputation of being lovely. I was very excited.

Thursday August 8, 2019: Sights Surrounding the Old Town

I flew out early in the morning on Thursday. My flight was delayed due to an very rare August rainstorm, but I still managed to arrive in my 57thcountry around 10AM. After taking the nice tram into town. I arrived at the Spot Hostel Porto around 11.

My first stop was the Rue de Santa Catarina, a popular pedestrian walking street full of shops. Even in the morning, the street was packed with tourists. The street had a lively energy and the slight incline gave views of the hundreds of other tourists on the adjacent blocks.

On the street I visited my first church in Porto – there will be many- the Church of Souls. The church is covered in blue mosaics called Azulejos that are all over Portugal. The inside of the church had a huge altar of solid gold.

Azulejos of Porto

Further along Santa Catarina, I reached the Majestic Café. This is one of Porto’s most popular tourist attractions. Not only is the interior stunningly beautiful but JK Rowling apparently wrote the first chapters of Harry Potter here when she lived in Porto.

While the café is beautiful, it has turned into a huge tourist trap. The food is crazy expensive – the widely advertised breakfast is 30 Euros (Portugal is a cheap country!). A coffee is 7 Euros. I ordered the cheapest thing on the menu: a piece of French toast for 6 Euros. It was delicious. If you really want to visit the Majestic Café, the French toast is your best bet.

Porto’s famed historic Mercado do Bolhao is under renovation, but they opened up a temporary Mercado do Bolhao in the basement of a mall. The place feels super modern, but it is a decent placeholder.

For lunch, I stopped at Café Santiago for their famed francesinha sandwich. Francesinha sandwiches originated in Porto and are a real gut buster. In between the bread, you’ll get cured ham, two types of sausage, steak, cheese and beer sauce. It was amazing.

Francesinha sandwich and Super Bock beer. As Porto as it gets.

Closer to the center of town, I visited a few more churches (Clerigos, San Antonio, Trindade).

More blue murals on the churches

I also checked out the Sao Bento train station which is covered in azulejos.

Even more blue murals

Near the Clerigos church and tower (which I did not ascend due to the long line) is the Livaria Lello bookstore. This store is nearly a hundred years old and is famous for its red staircase, which served as the inspiration for the moving staircases in Harry Potter. Due to the Potter association, hundreds of tourists were in line to visit the bookstore which now charges 5 euros to enter. The entrance ticket is technically a credit for a book purchase inside, but all the books were in Portuguese.

The famed “Harry Potter” staircase

The bookstore was beautiful, but certainly not worth waiting an hour in line.

After visiting a most peculiar sardine shop, I ventured over to my favorite spot in all of Porto: the Center for Portuguese Photography. This museum is housed in a former prison. The special exhibit was most appropriate for the space: an Amnesty International-sponsored exhibit of photos depicting human rights abuses and political crises from all over the world. The photos came from jails in Colombia where prisoners are tortured, Syria post-ISIS, Russia which is facing a backlash against the LGBT community, and more. I found the exhibit powerful and insightful.

I then wandered through the narrow alleys down to the Douro riverfront where I reached the old customs house- off the tourist circuit. The building was housing a furniture trade show as well as a few museum-like exhibitions. The most interesting exhibition had every Portuguese presidential car since 1910.

Narrow streets of the Ribeira neighborhood.

At this point, I was dehydrated and tired from the day so I headed back towards the hostel. On the way back, I stopped for a pastel de nata (egg custard pastry). The best spot to grab one is at Manteigaria, a famous shop in Lisbon that just opened a Porto location. They only sold pastel de nata for just 1 Euro a pop. It was quite possibly the best dessert I have ever eaten.

Pastel de nata

Back at the hostel, two French chefs who were also guests, offered to cook a meal for everyone. The whole hostel came together to have an amazing meal of pasta and risotto. It was really delicious and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the other hostel guests. I was surprisingly the only American. After dinner we played jenga and Uno before going to bed early.

The incredible concoction made by the French chefs.

Friday August 9, 2019: The Douro Valley

Today I signed up for a day trip to the famed Douro Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The all-day group tour cost 100 Euros. My guide Guillermo picked me up at 8:30 AM in a 12-passenger van. There were three middle-aged couples on the tour: two from America and one from Australia.

The beautiful Douro River.

We drove for two hours through a mountain range on a beautiful highway to reach the town of Peso de Regua. There we checked out a beautiful bridge over the Douro River. From Peso de Regua, we continued another 30 minutes along the river to reach the tiny village of Pinhao.

There, we got on a traditional Portuguese boat and took an hour-long cruise along the Douro River. We saw terraces where the famed grapes are harvested. The whole atmosphere was so perfect and serene.

Cruising the Douro

Afterwards, we headed to our first winery: Croft. Before tasting the wines, we took a tour. The tour guide explained that because of the steep terraced terrain, all the grape harvesting is done by hand. The hills are even too steep for animals.

Croft Winery, Douro Valley

The grapes are then taken into a processing tank where men stomp on the grapes for 4 straight hours.

Then, the grapes are transported to Porto where the rest of the process occurs. This is done because the temperatures in the Douro Valley are too hot in summer, whereas the temperatures in Porto are much more stable. In the old days, the grapes were shipped downriver by boat, but now they are taken in steel barrels by truck.

Port wines are quite different from normal table wines- they are fortified wines. This means that in the middle of the fermentation process, the vintner will add in 70% alcohol firewater. This stops the fermentation of sugars, which makes port wines sweeter than table wines. Due to the firewater, they also have a much higher alcohol content: usually around 20%. While fortified wines can come from anywhere, Port wines must come from Portugal- and more specifically Porto and the Douro Valley.

There is a common misconception that port wines have to be red. At Croft and most port wineries, they make white and rose port wines although they are far less common than red port wines.

Port wines at Croft.

After the winery, we got a traditional Portuguese lunch of fish. Then we headed to a second winery. This winery made table wines in a (gloriously) restored shed from the early 1800’s. This was the chillest tour I have ever taken. The tour guide asked us “what do you want to see and know?” For about an hour, we asked him questions and he would show us the machinery that corresponded to our questions.

Finally, we drove up above the town for a picture perfect view of the Valley before driving back to Porto.

That night, I had a headache (most likely from dehydration) but managed to rally to check out the stunning McDonald’s in the town center.

Saturday August 10, 2019: the Old City

I saved the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old city for my final day. It is here where you can find most of Porto’s most iconic sights.

My first stop was the cathedral, a monstrous stone church with incredible gold altars.

So much gold!

The view from the top of the bell tower was stunning.

View from the top of the cathedral.

For just 2 Euros more, you can also vist the nearby bishop’s palace.

I then visited two other churches (Misericordia and Sao Lourenco) which both have attached museums before heading to the granddaddy of all Porto churches: Sao Francisco.

Sao Francisco might be the most ornate church I have ever seen. Nearly every surface was covered in ornate gold. This church charged 7.50 Euros to enter, but it was worth it for the jaw-dropping experience.

This is a stock photo because pictures were not allowed.

The ticket also includes entrance to the crypt.

Next to the Sao Francisco church is the Palacio da Bolsa. You have to go on a guided tour, which makes sense because the building is still actively used by the local chamber of commerce.

As the tour progressed, the rooms continued to get more and more impressive until the unbelievable Arab Room- clearly inspired by the Muslim Moorish period in Iberia. In any other place, this would have been the most amazing room I have ever seen, but I think the Sao Francisco church beats it out…just barely.

After a perfect lunch of veal risotto, I walked down to the riverfront and the iconic Luis I Bridge.

The riverfront was swarming with tourists. I then walked across the bridge where some local kids were unsuccessfully trying to get tourists to pay them to jump off the bridge’s lower level (probably a 40 ft plunge).

The south bank of the riverfront is actually in Vila Nova de Gaia (Gaia), a different municipality. I noticed this because I had to log onto a different free WiFi network. Gaia is the location of the port wine cellars- I counted at least 20. All offer tours for about 10 Euros which includes a tasting. I went to the Offley winery which had a 25 minute tour then a tasting of two port wines. The tour was interesting and quite different from the winery visits in the Douro Valley- mainly because this tour tells the second half of the story. In Porto, the wines are aged in barrels and it is here that the firewater is added. I did not realize how much a wine’s profile can vary depending on the barrel.

It was now 3pm and I had to head to the airport with a quick stop at the hostel to grab my bag. I walked back along the top level of the Luis I Bridge, snagged a final epic view, and then headed off.

Final Thoughts:

I thought Porto was really fantastic. The people were friendly , the sights are beautiful, the culture is interesting and different from anything I had seen. I also liked that this was not the capital city and had a smaller feel.

Two days in Porto itself was a perfect amount of time and the day trip to the Douro Valley was perfect. I wish I had one more day to explore the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site towns of Braga and Guimaraes (both about an hour north). The trip would have been absolutely perfect had I added in that day trip.

I cannot wait for my next trip back to Portugal!


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