My next destination in Europe was Portugal, the small country located in the Southwest corner of Europe that came to discover the world and establish the first global empire. I don’t think Portugal has been a country high on Australians’ lists to visit in Europe (generally) which is a shame because its two biggest cities are really intriguing to explore and they are much cheaper than other places in Western Europe. I think Portugal suffers from the lack of iconic buildings or scenes.
I had some limited knowledge of the Portuguese’s role in colonial history, but I had no appreciation of how advanced the society was or the countless achievements of the Portuguese explorers. While the Spanish and the British may have established more powerful and prestigious empires, it was the Portuguese who provided the founding steps to globalisation. Portugal discovered and colonised the Azores in the mid-Atlantic in the early 15th century, which began an era that is much celebrated by the Portuguese, “The Age of Discovery”. Portugal was the first European power to round the West African coast and prove that the world does not terminate there (which was commonly believed). Many scholars now contend that by the end of the 15th century, Portugal was aware that the world is round and had calculated an almost accurate estimation of the planets dimensions; which is why Columbus was first rejected by the Portuguese court because they knew that India is thousands of kilometres further than what Columbus had claimed. Portuguese explorers became the first to round the Cape of Good Hope and thus establish a trade route to India. They discovered Brazil, founded trading outposts on Zanzibar, Africa, the Persian Gulf, Goa, Malaysia and even China (Macau) and reached Japan. All this was achieved while the rest of Europe was occupied by the Catholic-Protestant divide and subsequent wars. Eventually other European powers obviously became jealous of the wealth the Portuguese were generating from their monopoly on trade with the Eastern world and thus began the nation’s four century descent into irrelevance. For a while there though, that infinitesimal strip bordering the Atlantic probably consisted of the most advanced society on the planet.
I first visited the stunning city of Porto, aptly named by the Romans as it was a strategic port in their empire. The fact the Porto isn’t the capital of any nation or autonomous region and that it isn’t an economic centre really excited me, I liked the idea of being in a big and interesting city that has no global importance. An unexpected benefit from that lack of status was the absence of package tourists and it consequently felt like the most authentic city in Europe that I’ve been to. Porto quickly became one of my favourite destinations of the trip and I was fortunate enough to enjoy four days of glorious blue skies and (relatively) warm weather.
I was completely gobsmacked when I heard the Portuguese language for the first time in Porto as I had no idea that it sounds just like Russian or Serbian! I always assumed that the language would be similar to Spanish. Even though the writing is similar to Spanish, the pronunciation is completely different as they seem to apply a deep Slavic accent when they speak!
I would probably rank the view of Porto along the Douro River as the most spectacular cityscape that I’ve ever seen, surpassing Sydney Harbour and Hong Kong. The old city of Porto is situated on the Douro River, just upstream of where the river empties into the Atlantic. The city is built on hills that generally descend down toward the waterfront, with a dramatically steep final descent. The river can’t properly be seen until you reach the waterfront as Porto is densely packed with old buildings that are at least three storeys high. When the waterfront is reached, the mesmerising scene suddenly reveals itself. The wide and blue Douro River is lined by buildings clad in a variety of colourful tiles. On one side of the river, buildings of different sizes and styles are tightly clumped together on a hill and all feature the ubiquitous terracotta roofs. Large signs for the city’s famous port wine labels that are located above huge brick cellars overlook the river from the opposite bank. Numerous boats off charismatic design ply the waters and giant seagulls roam the shore and sky. Most captivating though, is the huge iron bridge that is similar in appearance to Sydney’s, only additional thoroughfare above the arch. On both sides of the river, the slopes descend dramatically to form a valley and consequently there are five more monumental bridges located furher upstream and downstream from the main area. This extraordinary scene, along with the combination of perfect weather, made my visitation worthy of another WOW! factor moment.
Porto doesn’t feature many specific attractions; the main appeal is just to wander around its old town, waterfront and beaches. Consequently, you don’t feel compelled and almost stressed to “tick-off” sites as in other cities and yet the city is still interesting enough to prevent boredom, so I happily spent a relaxed three days just exploring Porto. I obviously ventured along the waterfront, across the iron bridge and enjoyed a cruise of the Douro to appreciate the river scene from all angles. I also spent many hours ambling through the gritty old town where many buildings are showing signs of decay and thus exude plenty of character. Porto is brimming with cool little churches that are covered in blue and white tiles on the facades and feature theatrical Baroque interiors. I went to a bookstore with a quirky art nouveau interior and was apparently a location where JK Rowling wrote some of Harry Potter as she used the architecture as inspiration. One of the city’s large churches located the peak of a hill featured a tall tower that offers panoramic views of Porto. This was definitely worth the climb as the views were amazing, although I can see why people may become squeamish at the top because there are open gaps at feet level that a child could easily fit through. I also walked to the mouth of the river and further to the city beaches, although these areas were not quite so interesting in the winter time.
I think I owe McDonalds an apology for all the denigrating abuse I have aimed at the restaurants over the years. They are an integral part of our society for the simple reason of kindly providing the world with a network of free public toilets. Of course, they may occasionally point out that toilets are for customers only, however the never specify when one must be a customer. Since most of us have been unfortunate victims of McDonalds’ trap of luring people in against their own will to purchase and consume their insipid products multiple times, that makes us all “regular customers” and rightful users of the lavatories anywhere, anytime in the world. Knowing that you can rely on McDonalds’ presence in every city in the West is such a comforting thought, especially in Europe where they seem to be militantly opposed to public bathrooms. Day 17 in Europe was a colossal occasion because I spotted public bathrooms on the continent for the first time (contrary to popular belief, Western civilisation did not originate in Europe, it still hasn’t arrived); only to incorrectly assume that “Senhoras” must mean men’s in Portuguese and “Homens” women’s. “Men’s” and “women’s” have now been added to the list of must-know words in foreign languages.
I enjoyed some fantastic food in Porto and payed much cheaper prices for food than in my previous destinations in Europe. The surely undisputable highlight of Portuguese cuisine is their pastries. There were patisseries and bakeries on every block in Porto, selling the same delicious and often custard filled pastries. On the savoury side, most places also sold minced cod fritters (which were yum) and slices of an oven-baked “log” (for want of a better word) of dense bread with ham, chorizo, cheese and sauce. All these items barely contacted the 1 euro threshold! Porto’s signature dish is the artery-clogging Francesinha special (see photos), which is a grilled sandwich with fried bacon, chorizo and thin steak as the filling, melted cheese and a fried egg on top and served with a lashing of port-wine based spicy sauce. It was so delicious I had to have it twice. I had two excellent restaurant meals in Porto. The first was unfortunately an expensive tourist trap, although the food was still good. I ate this damper-like bread that was stuffed with strips of sausage (decent), sliced grilled spicy sausage (excellent), feta (yay), port wine (nay) and Bacalhau (salted cod, the Portuguese’s staple protein) which was served in a hotpot with a breadcrumb crust, boiled potatoes and some vegetables (nice, but too oily and salty). The second restaurant I went to was a tavern frequented by locals and I had a much healthier and cheaper meal of vegetable soup and a rice dish with duck which is apparently the Portuguese equivalent to the Sunday roast (and quite nice).
On my final day in Porto, I went to the nearby World-Heritage listed medieval town of Guimaraes, which is promoted as the cradle of the Portuguese nation. Guimaraes is quite a small town and can be easily appreciated in an afternoon. The quaint and small old town is composed of a series of narrow lanes and tiny squares and is filled with buildings that feature tiled facades, which seems to be a quintessential Portuguese architectural motif. The main attraction is the 10th century Guimaraes Castle that overlooks the town and the adjacent 15th century palace that was the seat of the Dukes of Braganza (who would form the last royal dynasty in Portugal). Both of these were nowhere near as big as I was expecting, although it was cool to see a medieval castle in real life and some of the rooms of the palace (especially the dining room) looked just like the sets for medieval-themed productions.
Since I have an unhealthy obsession with lists and statistics, I’ve decided to introduce a ranking system for the cities that I visit in Europe, so here is the first addition!
Note: there is a big gap between 3 and 4!
I really enjoyed my time in Porto and strongly recommend the city to visit!
That’s all for now,