Friday, March 14, 2008
Just days ago Portugal was one of the few countries in Europe I had yet to visit. Yesterday I set out to change that. I sleepwalked over to Stansted airport at 4am for a 0.01GBP Ryanair flight to Porto. I arrived in the city at 9am, excited to start exploring.
I started my tour of Porto at the Trindade metro station, from which I walked to the old iron Mercado do Bolhao. Having visited my fair share of markets, I have to say I was a bit disappointed in this one. The building was decaying and the dark, sparsely populated stalls felt cramped beneath the overhangs. I quickly left and bought a pastry at the nearby Confetaria do Bolhao, which I ate on my way to the beautiful Capela das Almas. The Capela’s striking azulejo tile facade was a preview of the many painted tiles I was to see throughout the city.
From the Capela I walked down Rua Catarina to Praca da Batalha, musing at how the buildings, which were somewhat in need of a facelift, reminded me of the ones in Vieux Nice. The Praca da Batalha was home to another azulejo smothered church, this one by the name of Igreja de Santo Ildfonso. I took some pictures before heading west to the Praca da Liberdade and the Aliados, where I finally began to understand why everyone says that Porto resembles Paris. The buildings were all sparkling Baroque behemoths, and the wide avenue had the charm of a Parisian grand boulevard.
From the Praca I walked down to the Igreja de Sao Francisco and splurged on the 3EUR admission fee (around 3,000USD at today’s all-time high EUR/USD exchange rate). The exterior of the church was made of dark stone in a forbidding Gothic style, but the interior was pure gold. Literally. The Portuguese penchant for Rococo insanity really took things to a new level in this igreja, with gold cherubs flying in every direction, leafy columns growing from floor to ceiling, and gilded saints sprouting from tree branches. After all of the understated English churches I’ve seen lately, the pure opulence of this one was truly shocking.
From the church I walked down to the river Douro and across the Eiffel-inspired bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia, home of the myriad Port wine cellars and their tasting room counterparts. I bounded up the hill to Taylor’s, where I was lucky enough to arrive just in time for a tour and wine tasting. The guide took us through the cellars, educating us on production and varietals before we headed back to the main hall for some samples. I’m not a huge fan of Port, but I have to admit that I enjoyed the ones I tried there.
After admiring the views of Porto and walking through the cellar gardens (complete with Peacocks and Japanese chickens), I went down to the waterfront to have some lunch. I ordered what I thought was a light charcuterie plate and was surprised when the server brought a giant pie-type creation. I cut it open and found a layer of steak, a layer of ham, a layer of chorizo, and a few layers of bread. It was all topped with a cheese-like shell and a fried egg. A pool of sauce at the bottom rounded out the dish. The meal came with a healthy dose of fries on the side. I was a bit skeptical at first, but it turned out to be the best pre-heart attack meal I’ve had in a long time.
After lunch I re-crossed the river, took the funicular up the hill, and walked by the cathedral before checking into my hotel. That finished, I trekked out to the Casa da Musica, Rem Koolhaas’ trapezoidal hulk of a theater in the western part of the city. I wandered through its labyrinthine halls until I felt a little dizzy from the lack of right angles, then walked to the Jardim do Palacio de Cristal. Except for the giant dome in the middle, the park was beautiful. I spent some time walking around and soaking up the sun before huffing up the long hill to the Jardim da Cordoaria.
By the time I arrived at the Corodoaria my feet were killing me. I walked around the area for a few minutes, then went back to my hotel to rest for awhile before dinner and bed. My overall impressions of Porto were positive, although a lot of the city could benefit from improved street cleaning, fresh paint, and a “pick up after your dog” policy. The hilly streets made me a bit homesick for San Francisco, and also reminded me how out of shape I am.
This morning I woke up at 6am to catch the train to Lisbon, where I was to meet up with my boyfriend. The train left Porto just as the sun was rising, and as I progressed farther south, the landscape became brighter and greener. The three-hour train ride took me through beautiful farmland, small towns and villages, and some picturesque beaches. I passed pastures with old barns and sunken roofs, and reposing cows watching snow-white egrets walking through the grasses. I saw still-life snapshots of sheep grazing in the fields, and bunches of mustard flowers peaking up between rows of twisted grape vines. By the time I arrived in Lisbon I felt like I had seen the whole of the heartland.
Like Porto, Lisbon is a gritty city full of charming streets, Baroque churches, and a long waterfront. That said, Lisbon is a massive city compared to its northern neighbor. I stared today’s adventures at a train station in the southeastern part of the city and climbed up some impressive hills to see the castle and great views of the other neighborhoods. I walked down tiny cobbled streets to the metro and met my boyfriend at our hotel around noon. From there we went for a leisurely lunch at an outdoor cafe, then walked through a park and the Jardim Botanico, visited the Igreja de Sao Roque, and treated ourselves to some gelato.
Like Porto, Lisbon’s many hills remind me a lot of San Francisco and its waterfront plaza reminded me so much of Nice’s Place Massena that for a moment I forgot where I was. For having never traveled to Portugal before, I feel like I’ve seen a lot in the two short days I’ve been here. I still have four more days to explore, and I’m excited for all of the new treasures the country will reveal.