The rain started last night while the city slept. Waking up to wet streets, rain coming down, and cooler temperatures can definitely put a damper on things, but there’s always a plus side. Porto is a very medieval city…. buildings are tightly packed, the city sprawls up a steep hill, the streets twist and turn in every direction. There’s countless staircases and alleyways. Gothic, Romanesque, Manueline, and Baroque architecture are all seen throughout. The buildings are weathered… VERY weathered. While Lisbon is bright and colorful, time has drastically toned down Porto’s colours, to give it a much more grey-ish look, making it look older overall. The rain just seemed to fit in this scene. I could imagine, as if in a movie, the old medieval, rainy, grey streets, people of the 1200s walking along the wet, cobblestone roads. Horses pulling buggies, carrying freshly baked bread, or supplies for the newest building project. The rebelo boats carrying barrels of port along the waterfront (even though this part wouldn’t make any sense in the scene I was imagining, since it was about 500 years off.)
Originally, we had planned in a day trip out of Porto today, but the rainy weather changed our plans. We’d hoped to visit the cities of Braga, and Guimarães, in the neighbouring Minho region, which is known as the birthplace of Portugal, as Dom Afonso Henrique, Portugal’s first king, was born in Guimarães. When you travel, you really need to keep and open mind, not only to be able to properly receive all the new information your brain will take in, but also to be able to deal with unexpected changes and still have a great time. Instead of our planned road trip, we decided to have a rainy day in Porto and walk around a bit, visiting indoor locations. Of course, this turned out to reveal some real gems in Porto.
On Sunday’s in Porto, almost the entire city shuts down. Luckily for us, a bakery near our apartment was open, so I ran out in the rain to grab some bolos do arrroz and pasteis de natas. Those paired well with the coffee we made at home and we spent most of the morning inside enjoying our treats in our charming, historic apartment with the sound of the rain hitting the ancient street below us.
Once cabin fever started to kick in, we out in our rain jackets and ventured out into the streets. After stopping at a local find for a quick and yummy lunch, we walked to the bottom of the city, west of the Ribeira district where we were staying. Without any expectations, we were completely open to whatever Porto was offering… and she definitely provided. We stumbled upon an old storehouse that had been gentrified and turned into a really hip retail space. Inside, the look of an old barn or storehouse was kept, but cleaned up. You could imagine grains, and animals being held in there. It was an open concept area, with each storeroom holding different retail spaces offering the kitschy to antique to the modern. In the middle, there was also a bar/bistro area. The entire space had lots of wood and the overall impression that you’d find in a hipster coffeehouse or market. It was a great little find to check, by the lack of people in there, obviously something not many knew about.
Not too far past the armazem (shopping space we stumbled on), is the World of Discoveries attraction. Inside this unassuming old building, is a multi-level theme park built to showcase Portugal’s age of discoveries, when they sailed around the world making contacts with many cultures and establishing themselves as the international trade powerhouse. We learned a lot of history, including Portugal’s conquering of Cueta in 1415, which is in Northern Africa, across from Gibraltar, under Moorish rule at the time (who took it from the Vandals). Cueta was Portugal’s first colony off the mainland, and it’s taking launched the beginning of the golden age of discovery for the Portuguese. During the next few centuries, they sailed further south to Africa, finding the route around the Cape of Good Hope (Pedro Cabral), and onto India (Vasco da Gamma)… which was the goal of every explorer at the time, and what Columbus was attempting to do when he landed in the Bahamas. The Portuguese also sailed west across the Atlantic, establishing their colony in the Açores (where Susete is from), and even had reached Labrador and Nova Scotia in Canada, long before Columbus ever “discovered” the New World. if you don’t already know that western history as fought in North America is pretty inaccurate, this is one thing that can show you that (although, our historical inaccuracies and insensitivities is a while other conversation better saved for another time.) The Spanish are best known for their “discoveries”, but in fact many that sailed under their patronage were actually Portuguese sailors funded by the Spanish crown. Ferdinand Magellan, who’s real name was Ferdinão Magalães, was one of them, and is best known for being the first person to completely circumnavigate the globe. In fact, there’s even a school of thought that Columbus himself was from the southern Alentejo town of Cuba, in Portugal (and also where the name was borrowed to give to the Caribbean island of Cuba). Italians, go ahead and yell at me for this one, but there’s no absolute definitive proof for either argument, and in the context of what was happening in world navigation and exploration at the time, the Portuguese argument would make a lot of sense.
Just when we though my we had learned a lot by walking through a pretty cool museum, we turned the corner, and a look of shock and surprise took over Susete’s face, while I (of course) turned into a happy little kid. Knowing how I am, Susete burst out laughing, because she knew that I’d already know about this next part of the tour, but just kept it secret from her. We were guided into a little boat that was slowly floating by on a lazy river, hopped in, plugged in the supplied ear phones, and were whisked away down the river, and into a world of discovery. Sailing past modeled scenes of Moorish and sub-Sarahan Africa, to India, Indonesia, China, Japan… we learned about the explorations that the sailors went on, how they loved, what and who they found, and how it all changed the world as it was known. Sometimes a fun little boat ride can be more than just for kids, and this was a great activity for us on this gloomy, rainy day in Porto.