Porto

We went to Portugal in part because it felt less discovered than Spain, although when I mentioned our trip, many people seemed to have taken a similar trip to the two countries. “I liked Spain,” my friend at the SF farmers market told me. “But I loved Portugal.”

We were inspired to go to Porto and the Douro valley in particular because of Frank Bruni’s Discovering the Douro which ran in the New York Times travel section back in May 2010. When I later read that Porto is home to what some consider the world’s most beautiful bookstore, I was sold on the place.

Like Bruni, I was charmed by Porto. It was especially welcome after Madrid, a city that seemed desperate to convince you that it had something new and exciting to offer you (and then couldn’t deliver). Porto, on the other hand, hardly seemed to realize all that it had going for it.

It’s a small city, half beautiful and half ruined. There were lovely old tiled buildings that appeared to perfectly kept up, right next door to dilapidated buildings with pigeons flying in and out of the broken windows, buildings that didn’t look like they’d been inhabited for many years.

We didn’t have any specific sites or museums we wanted to see in Porto, there was just so much to look at in the city itself: the Sao Bento train station with its tiled murals, the old Art Deco and Beaux Arts buildings, San Francisco-style streetcars, the incredible variety in tile patterns, the little staircases almost like those in the Cinque Terre that led down to the river, offering this view of the Dom Luís Bridge.

In Porto, we also finally started to have some luck with food. We bought a hunk of heavy, dark bread at the decrepit Mercado do Bolhão and it was unbelievably good. Given its heft, I expected it to be dry, but it was perfectly moist.

Across the street from the mercado, we went into a bakery that had heaps of pastries in its windows, none of which we recognized. We had no idea how to order (language was definitely a challenge in Portugal) but I pointed to something that looked like a frilly croissant called pastel de chaves. To my surprise, it was full of ground meat but it was extremely delicious (so delicious that I went back the next day to get two more of them for our train trip).

I don’t normally follow a travel writer’s food suggestions, but given Bruni’s stint as the Times‘ restaurant critic, we went to dinner at a restaurant he mentioned in his article: Casa Aleixo. The food was excellent and it turned out to be one of the most memorable meals of our whole trip. The portions were almost comically huge: we each ordered half portions and Mr. WholeHog’s roast pork came out in a terra cotta casserole dish and my fried octopus arrived on a large platter.

We were only in Porto overnight, but in that short time period, we’d eaten ridiculously well and we’d found so much to see in this little city that it left me with the impression that with more time, there’s probably even more to discover.

If you’re going to Porto, we stayed at 6 Only, a guesthouse with ‘only 6’ rooms. It’s a grand old house on a relatively busy street (though the rooms are quiet).

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