Portugal, Part 2: Porto (& back to Lisbon)

We return, now, to the second and final leg of my trip to Portugal, which involved two days in the northern city of Porto, and a return to Lisbon.

First, though, a brief aside:

Ryanair

There are worse airlines than Ryanair. So I’ve been told. Ryanair’s reputation has been trash for so long that it was inevitable they would make some minor improvements and allow one of the other discount airlines to slip below them. But, being the second or third biggest turd in the pile doesn’t make you a Snickers bar.

Look, discount airlines exist to sell cheap tickets for the bare minimum of luxuries (i.e. none), and that’s fine. Greyhound buses can be excruciating means of transportation, but I know what I’m paying for when I buy the ticket. With Ryanair, though, on top of offering no amenities, they find every possible way to charge you more once you’re in the airport.

RyanairOne of their sliest, sleaziest techniques is charging a printing fee if a ticket isn’t pre-printed before the gate. No, it’s not a massive ordeal to print a ticket, but a) it is inconvenient when literally every other airline has adapted to 21st century digital tickets, and b) people of modest means (i.e. their customer base) likely don’t own a printer. It’s essentially a “poor tax” and like all such fees, it can seem like a minor quibble, but it penalizes the least well-off.

Another one of their less than reputable techniques is making their maximum sized carry-on luggage slightly smaller than the industry standard (55 centimeters instead of 56). Again, a seemingly insignificant difference, but one with a massive 53€ fee for owning luggage that almost every other airline accepts. And as my travel partner, Calla, and I learned, quite unhappily, they don’t make exceptions.

In summary, screw Ryanair.

From the Banks of the Douro

Porto

Other than that aggravation, visiting Porto (Oporto) was quite possibly the highlight of the trip for me. Two weeks ago, I posted some of my first impression photos of the city; check them out to get a sense of the grandeur. When people – or, at least, I – imagine charming European cities, it’s places like Porto we are conjuring.

Mixing vibrant, classical architecture with intoxicating riverside views and, of course, excellent wine, Porto charms effortlessly; even the city’s dilapidated areas still exude a historic dignity. Like many European cities, Porto has known better economic times, and perhaps that is why it felt so welcoming to visitors.

As was our routine throughout the trip, Calla and I were guided by the recommendations of others, and the one culinary must-have everyone was in agreement on was the Francesinha.

Francesinha
A decidedly not vegan-friendly meal.

Ostensibly a sandwich, this Porto original stuffs various hams and sausages between two pieces of white bread covered by melted cheese and gravy; often (but not always) an over-easy egg rests on top. This is a fork and knife affair, to be sure. To reiterate, it’s meat, cheese, bread and gravy: how hasn’t this become a standard in every American diner?

There are many places you can get a Francesinha in Porto, but just as there are only a few places to get an “authentic” Pastel de Nata in Lisbon, we were told to seek out the Café Santiago for the real deal.

Our waitress, like most of the people we interacted with in Portugal, spoke English well, which was good since the only word of Portuguese I know (that isn’t the same as Spanish) is “obrigado” (thank you). She was very excited to learn my surname as it was hers as well, and she took to calling us “cousins” (though, she was perhaps disappointed when I admitted I knew very little of my family’s Portuguese roots).

Guindalense Pana

After lunch, Calla and I explored Porto by foot, eventually coming to the Dom Luís I Bridge, which spans the Douro River. Heavily trafficked by pedestrians, this two-level bridge connecting the city center of Porto to the more suburban Vila Nova de Gaia provides mesmerizing views of the city. 

From the Bridge

At night, we reconnected with our friends from Madrid for drinks and dinner. It was a Saturday night and the city was abuzz with tourists and revelers. We patronized a few bars and even a Jazz Club on only its second night of business, but for me, the most diverting aspects of Porto at night were its gently lit streets and, at times, almost ghostly pathways inhabited by stray cats.

To The Light

Our second day in Porto was Easter Sunday, which seriously hampered our ability to find lunch. Calla and I wandered for upwards of an hour and a half before we finally settled on a restaurant directly across the street from Café Santiago (itself closed for the holiday).

Suitably fed, we allowed ourselves to get a little lost, crossing the Douro not on the Dom Luís, but by the Ponte Infante Dom Henrique, the less pedestrian-friendly bridge. Our aimless wanderings eventually brought us to a seaside cliff and to a series of stairways and passages that led to a row of burnt out and decimated buildings that once must have boasted the best views in the entire area.

 

 

After our detour, we returned to the waterfront to drink port wine at a riverside café. That was the plan, at least, but the server seemed to have a hard time remembering two drinks. After 20 minutes, we vacated our table having received 50% of our order.

That evening, back at the Yes! Porto hostel, we dined on a purportedly authentic Portuguese fish-based dinner with a group of fellow travelers from the U.S., Canada, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. Hostel living has its downsides (snorers, louder talkers, people humping each other three feet from your head), but it also helps you feel connected to the world of travelers, like a slight stream feeding into a roaring river.

Before leaving Porto, we had one other recommendation to track down: the Prego. Not, in fact, a pregnant lady, the Prego is another Porto must-have sandwich, this one consisting simply of succinctly steak and melting cheese on a roll. The cheese is optional, and like the Francesinha, an egg is a not uncommon part of the recipe, but we were told that the best Prego was found at Venham Mais 5, and after tasting a little bit of heaven there, I’d consider their steak-and-cheese only version the standard.

Inside the Arco

Lisbon (Again)

We returned to Lisbon with two days before our flight back to Madrid and a few more items on our to-do list. First up was finding one of the best views in the city at Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte. We were informed by both our walking guide, Luis, and the manager of the Travellers House where we were staying, that even though Castelo de Sao Jorge draws the most tourists, the view from “Our Lady of the Hill” was just as good, and free (plus, it includes a view of the castle).

We made the trek through the winding roads and up the hill to be greeted by spectacular views, as advertised, but also by gusting winds that could have likely carried us out over the city if we had skipped breakfast.

Lisbon View (Our Lady)Before we could leave Lisbon, I had one final stop on my list: Restaurante Ponto Final.

Located on the banks of the Tagus River, reaching the restaurant and idyllic viewing spot requires a short ferry ride to Almada, across the river from Lisbon. After exiting the ferry, head west along the water by the pop culture-infused street art that decorates the cement pathway. At first it’ll seem like you’re walking to nowhere, but eventually you’ll come around a corner and see your destination.

 

Resaurante Ponto Final

At this point, I wasn’t hungry, I simply wanted to enjoy a glass of wine along the water while looking out over the city I would be leaving in less than 12 hours.

Self Ponto Final 2

With the day fading, we walked back to the ferry. We had just a few hours until we needed to head to the airport for an uneventful (albeit, a tad delayed) return flight on Iberian.

It was just after midnight, Thursday morning, when we landed in Madrid, having left the previous Tuesday night. In the course of our travels, we drank our respective weights in wine and beer, enjoyed a smorgasbord of Portuguese cuisine, and stood in quiet appreciation of some of Portugal’s most inspiring views. We also didn’t kill each other; a successful trip by all standards.

Porto Sepia

I look forward to going back someday soon.

Portugal, Part 1: Lisbon & Sintra

Semana Santa – Holy Week – is the week from “Palm Sunday” to “Easter.” During this week in Spain, you will find essentially all academies and numerous other businesses closed. Many people either head back to their hometowns or take a trip. For myself and the various expats I know here, the latter was the preferred option.

Rua Augusta (Arco)

Portugal

Flight Ry

My good friend (and former roommate), Calla, and I booked eight days in Spain’s neighbor on the Iberian peninsula, Portugal. Part of booking a Semana Santa trip – especially when booking a little late – is scrounging for what deals can still be found and adapting your travel schedule to the cheapest flights and hostel rates.

We found our flights to Portugal through Iberian (always a good choice) and for hopping around within Portugal, we booked Ryanair (do not do this; avoid, avoid). Our four (!) different hostels were found through Booking.com which resulted in some mixed results. Pro tip: Make sure you’ve scrolled past the front-loaded positive reviews to get a fuller picture of your accommodations.

 

Lisbon Rooftops

LISBON

Our initial destination was national capital, Lisbon (Lisboa). We arrived without any specific itinerary, instead opting for my preferred method of traveling: making it up as I go. On our first morning, after making it to our hostel after midnight, we met up with my current Madrid roommate, Casey, for a free walking tour. I would highly recommend, if only because after the tour I had a much firmer grasp on the layout of the city.

 

Tour Guide
Luis’ 10 Min History of Portugal

The tour, led by Luis, lasted three hours, and followed a circuitous, slithering path that stayed contained to the city center and the most heavily trafficked tourists spots. Luis helpfully explained that, since Portugal had decriminalized all drugs, we could expect to be propositioned quite openly for weed and other narcotics (we were).

 

Bertrand

The tour took us by a number of the important sights and literary monuments of the ancient city, including Livraria Bertrand, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest bookstore in the world still in operation. 

 

Calla and Casey Fountain
Calla and Casey

I’m generally not one for tours or group activities (or groups, for that matter), but as a way of getting my bearings on the first day in a new city while also getting a succinct history of Portugal, I’m glad we decided to participate. Plus, it was free – with a heavily suggested tip for Luis (I’d recommend 5€). When the tour ended around 2 in the afternoon, we had arrived at the waterfront, in view of the spectacular Arco da Rua Augusta.

 

Arco da Rua Augusta

Meeting more Madrid-based expats later, our first night in Lisbon was spent exploring Alfama, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Lisbon, famous for its confounding winding streets and the numerous restaurants that offer Fado performances during dinner. Fado is a traditional Portuguese form of musical performance heavy on sad tales of lost love and heartbreak. Though we could hear the strands of Fado streaming through the streets of Lisbon, we unfortunately never got around to stopping for a proper performance. We did, however, try Ginja, a sweet liqueur that’s been a Portuguese mainstay for over two centuries (of course we made time for an alcoholic tradition).

Quinta da Regaleira

SINTRA

There are countless Sintra day tours offering any variety of sightseeing packages, but despite Luis’ halfhearted effort to sell us on one, Casey, Calla, and I opted to make the journey on our own (for better and worse). For five euros, we bought tickets for an hour train ride to the city famous for its numerous castles and spectacular views.

Sintra, a village overflowing with charm, is planted in the midst of mountains and history. No descriptions would do as much justice as a few pictures, so enjoy:

After wandering around aimlessly for some time, we paid for a bus ticket to take us up the mountain roads so we could explore some of the castles. We should have been paying better attention, though, because after riding the bus for an hour, we found that we had done a full loop and were back where we started. Sheepishly, we stayed in our seats and went back up again. Worth it.

Moorish Views

Each castle has its own price for viewing, and we weren’t trying to blow all our funds, so we picked one; a good one: Castelo dos Mouros (The Moors Castle). Built of stones and towering high into the sky, it can be a bit vertigo-inducing, but just grip the wall tightly and take the climb. You’ll appreciate the views.

Sintra Pana

Despite storm clouds threatening us most of the day, the rain held off for us, only falling once we had returned to the city square for a late lunch. In fact, I’d say our whole trip was characterized by lucky weather. Rain was in the forecast for essentially all eight days, but it rarely interfered with our activities (other than making for some gray photo backdrops).

Pastéis de Belém

Before Casey could leave Lisbon the next day, we had one last stop we had to make: Belém. Located on the western edge of Lisbon as the city inches towards the Atlantic Ocean, this district is known for having the one, true Pastel de Nata – an egg tart pastry (a description that doesn’t do it justice). Supposedly only three people know the original recipe.

The place to get them is at Pastéis de Belém, located on the Rua da Belém. Upon entering, the renowned restaurant gave me flashbacks to the famous Café du Monde in New Orleans. Just as that shop is known for its beignets, Belém is where you go if you want authentic Pastel de Nata. You can get similar tarts throughout Portugal, but like Highlanders, there can be only one.

When we arrived, there was a long line out the door (another similarity to Café du Monde), but Casey had been clued in by the manager at her hostel that we could slip through the line and go straight inside for a table. We still waited in a short line, but it only took us ten minutes to be sat. Unlike du Monde, there is a full menu of food and pastry options to choose from, but if you’re not getting the Nata, why did you even get out of bed?

Pastel de NataPasteis De Belem

Now, what everyone wants to know: are these pastries worth the hype? Well, put quite simply, they are delicious, unquestionably. Are they the greatest things I’ve ever tasted? I wouldn’t go that far, but I would definitely make it a point of going back to Pastéis de Belém the next time I’m in Lisbon.

Of course, some will wonder if getting a Nata in Belém is really necessary if other shops sell them, too. To that, I’d say: unequivocally, yes. I had actually tried a similar tart earlier that very morning at a café just outside my hostel and it wasn’t even in the same category.

If you’re a pastry devotee, there’s no reason to settle, Pastéis de Belém is a 30 minute detour outside of the city center. Make the effort. (Also, if you’re a pastry devotee, you’ve made some weird choices in life, but you do you.) 

Street Car.jpg

After we parted ways with Casey, Calla and I returned to our hostel. This was our second hostel (the reason for the change is a long, uninteresting story), and a definite upgrade, even though it was further outside the city center.

Our first hostel was a mistake. Overbooked and poorly designed, it had only two single-occupancy bathrooms for some 30 guests. Sure, the loud-whispering, drunk bunkmates who were a few steps short of reaching third base in a room of eight people were annoying, but that’s just part and parcel of hostel life; the bathroom situation, though, that was unacceptable.

Following our night’s stay in the less crowded and far less grunt-filled hostel, Calla and I had to catch a flight to Porto for the second leg of our trip. But that’s a full post in itself, so you’ll have to come back next week if you want to meet this cool dude:

Bird's Eye View

Until next week, Adeus!

Porto Panorama

I’m in the midst of an eight day trip through Portugal right now (writing this in the Travellers House in Lisbon), so I’ll be keeping this brief and simply posting some of my favorite images from Porto, an absolutely beautiful and enchanting city that I wish I had spent more time in.

Enjoy, and I’ll return next week with more photos and details about the trip.

~L

Calem PanaInfante Douro PanaGuindalense PanaPorto from the Docks PanaDouro PanaStreet Art PanaPorto Douro PanaDouro Banks PanaPonte Suis BW Pana

Take a Walk

This will be short today. My laptop which I bought when I was living in New Orleans six years ago (damn, that seems ages ago), is officially on its last legs, and could very well die before I even have a chance to

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, it’s still alive, but not for much longer. I’m currently in the midst of shopping for a new laptop here in Spain which is not the easiest of processes since specific computer spec vocabulary is not exactly first level Spanish.

Electronics are also more expensive here in Spain than they would be in the States. As much as I’d love to be able to hold off, though, it’s just not going to happen. Without a computer, most of my income would disappear and I don’t think the gigalo industry is what it once was out here.

On top of that tech purchase, I’m expecting some hefty dental fees in my immediate future, and possibly some travel expenses. Needless to say, I’m in that old familiar place of stressing about money again.

This is my life. Something’s got to give.

Since the firsts days of 10×10, my go to method for dealing with stress, financial and otherwise, was to get outside and just walk until my feet hurt. I’ve worn through the heels of enough pair of shoes to know that I’ve probably matched Jesus in the number of miles I’ve trekked, first across America, and now Europe.

Madrid is an extremely walkable city, and a lot smaller than it seems upon initial impressions. Some days or nights, I pick a direction and just walk until I’ve listened to a full album or a couple Spanish podcasts. I’m not far from Retiro Park, so when I’ve got no other destinations in mind, I usually head there.

Fuente de la Alcachofa 3

Even on a cold day, you’ll always finds some people lounging about in Retiro, though when the sun is shining and the temperatures start to inch up above 14 C, that’s when the park comes to life.

Since I need to get out and find a laptop that a) functions at least as well as my six-year-old model yet b) doesn’t require selling a kidney, I think I’ll leave you all with some idyllic photos from one of my recent walks, and hopefully next week I’ll be back up to full speed.

Cheers,

~L

Figuras de guerraEstanque Grande remeros 2

La VigilantePalacio de Cristal (Sunbeam)