Monday, May 23, 2011

Day 196: Ross' Top 10 Places to See in Porto

Before I share the secret of my 10 favorite places to see in Porto, I would like to mention that I miss the city dearly. Liverpool is fascinating and I'm enjoying myself here, but I already miss Portugal's warm weather, delicious pastries, and beautiful women. Departing the plane, watching the Portuguese shiver and whine about the cold was priceless. Let's reminisce together...

My host, Cati and her chihuahuas, Chapo and Nacha.

As finely nuanced as its wines, Porto is a curious bouquet of small town culture flourishing in a big city atmosphere. Walking through its bustling shopping streets, smelling the pastries from the numerous cafes, exploring historic landmarks, and savoring the sun set with a glass of Porto are some of my favorite experiences. Geographically Porto is a gem, benefitting from the river's calm energy and 20 minutes from the beach by metro. It has hills, but unlike Lisboa there only two. On the CS forums a CouchSurfer asked people's opinions as to whether they would rather live in Lisboa or Porto. Having just come from Lisboa I thought it a great comparison. Essentially, Porto feels more like a cozy home town, while Lisboa feels like a bustling city. Lisboa has more to see in terms of museums, landmarks, and nightlife, but Porto has a subtle mellow flavor that I came to cherish. It's difficult to describe, but while drinking wine overlooking the river with the old ships and red roofs, you will understand.

A romantic collection of buildings along the Douro River.

The people in Porto are also warm and friendly and generally speak decent English. In fact, I had the easiest time communicating in Portugal out of all the countries I've visited. Spanish isn't as widely spoken as I thought it would be, but if English fails it's a good back-up.

I clogged up my host's hallway in Porto for 11 days, 6 days longer than I planned. The delay was due to a plane ticket I bought on a whim, but I was lucky to stay an additional few days because I had a number of remarkable experiences. Since I spent so long in Porto I did a lot, thusly I'm excited to share my 10 favorite experiences in Porto.

A hugely significant landmark that I nearly missed! I knew about Casa de Musica before I came to Porto because Stephen Sagmeister designed a brilliant identity system for it. When I discovered it was in Porto I freaked out a little bit. Immediately I went and took the guided tour (€3) and felt like I was somewhere in between a posh concert hall and Willy Wonka's Chocolate factory. Later that night I returned for the Balkan Brass Battle (€13) in which I experienced the hall's supreme acoustics I learned about during the tour and danced like a nut for two hours.

The Casa was built to give Porto an architectural identity.
Being inside is like walking through a spaceship.
Ingenious double glass walls allow light in but insulate from outside noise.
The 'orange ramp room' is the favorite of children.
Next door, the 'purple room' serves as a daycare during performances.
The purple room has an awesome view of the auditorium.

I've already gone into great detail about my obsession with Portuguese pastries and it's worth mentioning again. Never had I been to cafés as often as when I was in Porto (and I'm at cafés leeching WIFI a lot!). Nearly every morning my host and I would get a morning coffee before she went to school, and we would cap off every night with a café. Going out for just a coffee may seem silly because it's an unnecessary expense, but the experience of getting out, sitting on the street, being social, and enjoying the weather is well worth the €1 for a café. Plus, it's a good excuse to order a few pastries.

Yes, of course I ate them all in one day.
Blaos de Mel is made from yesterday's pastries and was my favorite!

A short ride on the metro, Porto doesn't have the nicest beach, but it sure beats the Jersey Shore. Whether you're going to work on your tan or brave enough to go for a swim, it's nice to have a beach so close. My host brought her two chihuahuas when we went and they ran around like crazy little dogs they are. I went for a swim and after my body went numb, the water wasn't so cold.

Super Chapo.
He only had one thing on his doggy mind.

An excellent contemporary art museum surrounded by a lush garden makes for a great place to spend a day off. Although they only had one exhibit I enjoyed the experience because it gave me a lot of inspiration for a show that I'll be having when I return. The modern architecture of the building is worth seeing alone, but walking around the gardens is a real treat. Offering a wide variety of landscapes, from sheep pastures to splendidly tended gardens, there are no lack of places to sneak a nap in the sun.

Big stupid shovels for big stupid goons.
José Barrias had a fascinating show of objects and ideas. 
When I have my show I'd like to use mainly projectors.
There were eerie sounds to compliment this weirdo hallway.
The roses smelled lovely.

I'm a sucker for panoramic views, so I was more than willing to pay the €2 entry fee and climb the 225 steps to reach the top of Porto's Torre dos Clérigos. Made from cut stone, the Tower of the Clergy was built in the mid 18th century and, being the highest tower in Porto, offers a stellar view of the city. From the top I could see all the way across the river to Gaia. I enjoyed myself by taking pictures and watching ants mill about the streets.

Look who's European now?
The Douro River and Gaia.
Too bad they didn't serve Port wine up here.

My arteries and taste buds are waging war over Francesinha. Slightly similar to a reuben sandwich, this classic dish from Porto is turkey, sausage, and bread with melted cheese with a fried egg crown, smothered in gravy. It's one of the heaviest meals I've ever eaten and one of my new favorite. Nearly all restaurants and cafes sell them so try one because they're plaque-a-licious.

The last meal...

After another failed day trip to Guimerães I ventured down to the water in search of a palace but found a linotype machine suspended from a tripod. Intrigued and somewhat informed by my studies in graphic design, I wandered inside the accompanying museum. There a field trip enjoying a printing demonstration, of which I saw a few. I marveled at the linotype behemoths with their keyboards connected to lead melting crucibles and an array of old printing presses.

Their collection and variety of presses was astounding.
Old metal ornaments and wood type!
They had models of seemingly every press ever made.
part of a Linotype's control panel.
Lead melting pot. Don't breathe this.

It's hardly necessary to recommend the Douro River as one of the places to visit in Porto. The river's energy provides a continual source of energy. Specifically I recommend watching the sun sink below the buildings over a dinner and taking a ride on the cable car. The cafes on the Gaia side are much cheaper than Porto, plus have a better view (of Porto). A quick ride up on the funicular is fun also.

Porto has three bridges and two are steel masterpieces.
The third bridge is around the bend.
I imagine going for a boat ride would be pleasant.
Itty bitty boats. Looks like a train set.
I met this dude named Check from Ethiopia.

Produce is cheap in Portugal, especially if you purchase it from a fruitaria or the large daily market (worth a visit). There was one store near the Bolhao bus stop that I bought an entire bag full of fruits for €3.50. Not only are prices cheap but quality is fresh. I recommend trying nespras (similar to an apricot) and these big green melons. When I was there the cherries, strawberries, and everything else were flavorful and amazing.

The fruits in the upper right are nespras.
The super cheap fruitaria by Bolhao bus stop.
The main Porto market is right by where I lived in Bolhao.

"The birthplace of Portugal." A small but historically important city, Guimarães is a cozy place with a castle and cool churches. Although I was only there for a few hours, my favorite experience in Guimarães was walking up the big hill towards the church. I didn't make it all the way because I wanted to be down before dark but the walk was beautiful with lots of nature and interesting architecture.

Guimerães' castle. Built for the first kings.
The hill I climbed. See the tiny church on top?
One of the most intense flowers I've seen. Reminds me of Jumanji.
People were using these big rocks as garages and balconies.
I wouldn't mind living here.

Here's number eleven, I lied. Porto's awesomeness cannot be compressed into ten measly blurbs (however well written). Possibly more so than the river, Port wine needs no introduction. However, I met a traveler who was not familiar with this world famous wine and it was my pleasure to introduce him. This was the first time I experienced Port, and I did so through an excellent tour of Croft and Taylor port houses. After four free samples the tour persuaded me to buy a glass of Taylor's 40 year old Tawny.

Taylor's is the longest family owned winery in Porto.
Their vintage port from 1850 was €100 a taste. 
Enjoy Porto!

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