Portugal was supposed to be our sunny and warm winter retreat from cold and gloomy Zurich. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different idea and we were treated to 9 days of rain, punctuated by a few minutes of sun here and there. And no warmth. But we donned our rain coats and warm shoes, covered our backpacks and used umbrellas to block the wind. And Riki still managed to take a couple thousand pictures. I spent a lot of time holding two umbrellas up so he could snap the perfect pic.
Being a pretty well-seasoned budget traveller, this trip was no exception. I snagged $50 round trip flights a few weeks before and booked the cheapest shared accommodation I could find in the neighborhoods I wanted. This kind of budget travel has its downsides, as one of our flights left from Basel (an $8 hour train trip from Zurich) and didn’t include a checked bag. But we travel light anyway so this only affected us in that we couldn’t bring home the bottle of port we would have liked. And the shared accommodation, well that could have been better, and warmer. But the price was right and we don’t travel to see the inside of someone else’s apartment anyway.
We arrived in Porto to a leaky airport roof, an omen for the remainder of our trip. Determined to explore despite the heavy downpour, we dropped off our bags and bee-lined for some food. Our first meal exposed us to the hearty potato or bean and kale soup that we would be served at almost every meal to come. We found the food to be cheap ($5 three course meal) and plentiful, especially at the places the Portuguese were eating. And very good.
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is situated on the Douro River. Its historic area is a UNESCO site with parts dating back to the Celtics, Romans and Moors. One side of the river is populated with narrow streets and tall skinny buildings. Across an amazing two story bridge, though technically in a different town, are much lower buildings, and the wine cellars where you can try all types of port wine. And since it was raining, we did a lot of tastings.
Day 2 had a little better weather forecast in Guimarães than in Porto so we hopped on a suburban train for the one hour trip. And this is where we discovered the madness that is Portugal’s public transportation. The metro, bus and trains are all operated by different organizations. So despite buying the reusable paper card for 50 cents, loading it up for 8 zones of use, paying the amount we had seen quoted online and validating the ticket at the TRAIN station, we still had the wrong ticket. Which we discovered halfway through when the conductor came around. We had a metro card and had to buy a whole new ticket.
Guimarães is a UNESCO site for its medieval settlement and it is believed Portugal’s first king was born here. We wandered the old town until a miraculous break in the clouds occurred and we high-tailed it up a hill to see the remains of a medieval castle and any views it may offer, which were mostly of the incoming rain storm.
We wandered the streets some more in the gloom, but soon realized we had over an hour until the next train left, which resulted in the discovery of some old waterways that go under buildings, and some cats.
Back in Porto, we caught a brief moment of the sunset from across the bridge.
That evening we walked into a near empty restaurant and were told they were probably full. But somehow they managed to squeeze us into our own 6 person table and serve us amazing pork cheek and Bacalhao (cod) cheesy omelet-like concoction.
The next day we walked to the Crystal Palace, a giant dome we had seen from afar. Expecting more from the walk than the destination, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a free book fair inside the dome and a nice garden. And since we have a history of wandering into random gardens and seeing peacocks, Riki said, “I wonder if they have peacocks.” Not 10 seconds later, we saw the most beautiful peacocks, with their feathers up and everything. And roosters.
Walking back, we stumbled upon the interesting Mercado do Bolhão, which was a mix of tourist crap and plentiful produce.
The gloom continued and we were forced to cross the river to Vila Nova de Gaia to do some port tastings. First, we did a tour/tasting at Cálem where we were told the history of port and given a look at the caves. Many people coming to Porto opt for a Douro River cruise. As it was January and the weather was rough, we decided to stay in town.
On our last full day, it was raining harder than ever. After the unnecessarily difficult task of finding the right bus (lack of maps and information), which never showed up anyway, we made it to the Foz do Douro, right on the Atlantic Ocean.
We took the historic tourist tram back rather than figure out the bus.
Back in Porto and completely drenched, we continued back to our favorite spot, Ramos Pinto cellars to taste some more port. They had the most casual set up and reasonable prices – 2 Euro and up per tasting. We even splurged and tried a 6 Euro port. Since they closed at 6 and we were still wet, we continued to another spot, Quevedo, where we tried a few more ports. Disaster ensued as we were leaving though, as we discovered someone had traded umbrellas with Riki at the door, and left him with a rather floppy replacement. And it continued to pour.
I’m not proud of our last meal in Porto, as we came across a Steak & Shake on our way home. But considering that its been years since we ate a meal of burgers, fries and chocolate milkshakes – its ok.
Next up: First class train trip to Lisbon