I’m sitting on the patio of our apartment in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, drinking a 10-year-old tawny port I just bought yesterday in Porto, Portugal. How cool is that and when will I ever get to write that sentence again in my life?
My father-in-law always refers to the summer solstice as the saddest day of the year because it starts the long day’s journey into the dark Minnesota winter, but we took advantage of that long day yesterday to do Porto. Porto is Portugal’s second city, and folks like to say that it put the “port” in Portugal for several reasons. It was on one of the earliest settlements, and its name dates from the Roman period and is the reason the area was called something close to Portugal way back then. It is also the capital of the port wine industry if it is not exactly where port wine was first distilled.
Porto is smaller and grittier than Lisbon with more empty storefronts and ragged residential
neighborhoods. Nevertheless, for some reason, it appealed to both Chris and me more than Lisbon. Perhaps we were just hitting our Portuguese groove by the time we arrived in Porto, but we found the city more accessible and easier to enjoy. It could be that some people are just meant for the provinces rather than the capitals. We are, after all, from fly-over country in the U.S. and we like it that way.
The Douro River runs through Porto and joins the Atlantic at one corner of the city. There are beaches there, and though it was sunny, it was not sunny enough and hot enough to tempt us to spend a day on the sand. Instead we explored the city, mostly on foot and by the three historic tram lines (think trolley– like straight out of
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood trolley) that run through the old city. We were on the ball with public transportation in Porto and even managed to squeeze in a ferry ride across the mouth of the Douro, which reminded me of my university days in New Orleans when the cheapest “riverboat ride” was the ferry across the Mississippi to the West Bank and back.
We exercised our carnivorous gene in Porto as well. We discovered the beauty of a Portuguese churrasqueiria, a restaurant that specializes in grilled meats. The “mixed barbecue” included sausage, chicken, flank steak, ribs, thick-cut bacon, and pork loin, all grilled to perfection, nothing dried-out, and it was even delectable the next day because we were so gauche we took the leftovers home. With fries, rice, and a salad, there was really no way to go wrong.
This was only outdone by our grilled fish extravaganza the next day in the Afurada neighborhood out by the sea. The grilling at Taberna Sao Pedro was happening in big 50-gallon-drum grills out in the street next to the restaurant. Rather than suffer through the Spanish-English-Portuguese game, the waiter just dragged me over to the grills, and I pointed to what we wanted: fresh dorado (a wonderful, flaky white fish) butterflied and grilled and grilled skewers of langostinos (giant prawns that taste like lobster), squid, sweet peppers, and onions. The squid was the most tender and flavorful I have ever put in my mouth. With salad, boiled potatoes in olive oil, and Portuguese green wine, this was another meal that was hard to stop eating. Perhaps I’m starting to make it clear why Porto was easy to like.
And, though we are not necessarily proud of it, nor are we too proud to admit, we did use the iPad to put the kids on pause long enough to enjoy one port wine tasting since we were in the capital of production for said beverage. We were not disappointed, and we were even given note cards to take home so we can share our new-found knowledge of port with friends and family. The brief summary: 20-year-old tawny is the way to go, but who can afford it.
In between stuffing our faces we visited the cathedral, an impressive Gothic pile coated in blue and white tile pictures inside, and walked the old parts of the town and the riverside, including a stroll across the Ponte de Luis I (Luis 1 Bridge), a great iron structure with two levels crossing the Douro.
I suspect that’s enough breathless rhapsodizing about Porto– and I haven’t even started on the pastries and breads– but if you ever find yourself in Portugal, it’s worth a stop.