The place is packed, squeezing in about only 20 people, all packed in like sardines. In fact, it’s such a popular spot, we couldn’t even get a table inside… the only spot they could offer us is the lone table attached to the outside wall, with the legs of the stools custom cut so customers can actually sit here on the steeply sloped lane way that the restaurant is on. The resourcefulness of the Europeans, to be able to make use of every inch, never ceases to amaze me.
Our server approaches, carrying a large roasting pan with a giant flame coming off it. Right in the table it goes… he pats the salt crust with a spoon, strategically stamp out the fire, then brushes the salt away to reveal the whole robalo (sea bass). With the meticulousness of a true pro, he uses a spoon and fork combo to peel the skin of the fish back, and dishes out the flesh onto our plates, all the while carefully avoiding the bones. A hot cast iron pan with roasted potatoes and broccoli joins the party to round off our meal. This was the food that seemed to define Porto. Ultra fresh, local ingredients, cooked in the most simple manner to allows the quality of the food to shine through and speak for itself. No smoke and mirrors, just great products treated with respect and cooked to perfection. This was a dinner to put a smile on anyone’s face.
On Tuesday, Phil, my travel partner for southern Portugal and Lisboa, left to return back to life on the kitchen line. Wednesday, Susete arrived to join me to explore the north of Portugal, which neither of us had been to before. When we were trying to decide which leg of the trip Susete would come for, I suggested it might be nicer for her to come to the north, since Portugal is her home country, and northern Portugal is the foundation of the country… where it all began.
The train from Lisboa to Porto was an unexpectedly easy ride. That is, until it died. Half an hour left into a 3 hour ride on the rails, and the train’s battery just dies out leaving us stranded in the middle of nowhere. No warning, no ‘clug clug’ sounds or anything like that… just sudden silence and the train stops. With no time expectation of when things would be fixed, the train staff unlocked the doors and windows. At first, just one or two people could be seen wandering outside along the tracks, then the rest of us emptied out, realizing that there’s really no rules here. We could pretty much just do what we wanted. When our train is dead on the tracks, what else is there to do but have fun! Some German guys started playing soccer, others had poured drinks and made social hangouts, some of us went wandering into the bush (really, just to take a pee). There were the select few that were in a panic, as they had a schedule to stick to, so they either started walking towards the closest town, or even called a taxi to come get them. Eventually, another engine car came and hooked onto our train, and we got going again just fine, albeit with a 2 hour delay in arrival time. At home, this would’ve been a nightmare scenario… the long delay stuffed inside the train cars, people getting anxious and annoying…. but here in Portugal, they just set us free… free to walk outside, get fresh air, and make the most of our delay. To enjoy it instead of fear it. Oh the joys of the European mindset… on to Portugal’s northern capital- Porto.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Porto, but it’s a really beautiful city. I knew, from photo, that it looked nice, but seeing how I love Lisbon so much, I really didn’t have too high expectations for the north. I thought that sure it would be nice, but just a lesser version of the city I loved so much. I was totally wrong about that. Porto is truly unique city, with a character all its own. The entire city is one big hill, everything is built on a slant. As much as I thought walking around Lisbon was a hike, walking around Porto is a full day workout just to get up the street. It’s such an old city. Porto is part of what used to be the County of Portucale (of the Kingdom of Castile & Léon), which was the beginnings of the Kingdom of Portugal, so while everything further south was under Moorish rule, Porto was part of Portugal’s history right from the start. Unlike Lisbon, it wasn’t destroyed by the monumental 1755 earthquake, so much if its layout remains unaltered, with the winding streets, steep hills and stone stairways… a truly confusing medieval city. This historical preservation of the old town, along with its location along the banks of the winding Douro river, and the landmark bridge (Ponte Dom Luis I) designed by Gustave Eiffel, makes Porto staggeringly picturesque.
The apartment that Susete and I have rented, is in a tiny pathway, that is actually labeled as a road, but can barely fit 3 people wide. it’s in the old historic Ribeira district, located along the water, and much loved by all visitors to this beautiful city. Porto’s Ribeira is a waterfront for any other city to be jealous of. It keeps its old traditions of the fisherman and port trade, while also including more modern touches of restaurants and market vendors. Strolling this strip day or night, is both relaxing and invigorating, regardless of the fact that it can be a tourist magnet. The calm, glistening waters of the Rio Douro are right within reach. The Ponte Dom Luis I frames the scene. The bridge has two levels that you can cross on, one right at the bottom which attaches the waterfront Ribeira area, with the waterfront of Vila Nova da Gaia across the way, which is where you’d go to explore all the infamous port cellars. The top of the bridge runs from Porto’s high ground at the top of the massive hill that it sits on, running down from the Sé cathedral (building began in 1110), across the river to Gaia’s high ground, which is dominated by over by the Mosteiro da Serra Pilar, a 16th century convent with a uniquely round architecture. The top of the bridge is definitely one of the best vantage points in Porto, as it offers you a great view of Porto itself, with the romantic waterfront Ribeira, and the city climbing up the steep slope that it sits on, with the cathedral crowning the top. On the south bank of the river, are the cellars of the old port houses, with several rebelos on the water…. the traditional small wooden boats that were used to transport barrels of port from the quintas (vineyards) deep in the valley, to the port cellars sitting in Gaia. Now days, these boats are just used for tourist river cruises, as well as for waterfront decor. With spectacular views on both sides of the river, and then the river itself, meandering through the hills, it’s safe to say that Porto is one of Portugal’s truly romantic cities.