Friday, 12th July 2019 – Porto, Day 2
Friday morning saw Lynne creak into action rather late, but in good time for our first activity of the day. I’d already been out to try and purchase some yogurt for her because she insists it’s needed to kick start her digestion. I’d found a lot of lovely buildings, but despite Google Maps insisting there was a supermarket at the destination it had sent me to, there really wasn’t. I’d given up and returned to the Intercontinental where the staff in the restaurant let me have a yogurt for free (we were on a room only booking so breakfast was meant to be €25 per person which was part of the reason I’d gone out to hunt for fermented dairy products – we didn’t actually want breakfast proper because of our plans for the day).
We had always intended to skip breakfast because we were booked on a food tour of Porto, starting at 10:00 and lasting around 3.5 hours. Our experience of food tours so far (in Helsinki and Krakow) had taught us that it’s best to arrive hungry for this sort of endeavour. This one, the Vintage Food Tour, with the lovely and very knowledgeable Maria from Taste Porto would prove to be no exception. First, however, we’d ordered a pair of Porto cards, including the Andante card that gives you access to Porto’s public transport network. The cost was €33 each for four days so it wasn’t exactly expensive even if we didn’t use it in all the places it was valid (which wouldn’t be possible in 4 days unless you rushed in and out of everywhere and I’d rather not do that, unlike some people).
First we walked up to the cathedral where, after a couple of false starts, we finally located the Tourist Information office, and were soon in possession of the cards as well as a very useful city map.
From there we walked back down the hill to get to our rendezvous point. We met over by the Mercado do Bolhão (which apparently means big bubble because it’s on the site of a small creek that’s now underground, and that used to produce lots of bubbles). The neoclassic building that’s on the site now was built in 1914 and provides the main market in town. It’s currently undergoing a full refurbishment, and most of the traders have been moved to a massive all nearby for the duration while the art deco building is restored to its former glory. It had apparently fallen into a bit of a state of disrepair, but a massive grant from the EU coupled with local money means it will stage a come back. When it does I’d like to see it because I’m sure it will be glorious once again. It’s been classified as a Property of Patrimonial Interest since 2006, and a Monument of Public Interest since 2013. They started the work in 2018 and it’s supposed to be complete in 2020. The traders are apparently looking forward to returning because they’ll be back in the open in the courtyard area after 2 years inside. Work does seem to be progressing nicely, at least from the outside…
After the 8 of us on the tour had introduced ourselves to each other Maria walked us to the first destination on the tour, the Mercearia do Bolhão, an utterly wonderful old-style grocery shop selling food and drink, but also with a small household cleaning section. There’s a bakery section as well but that’s been moved to a second building a handful of doors down.
Inside we were presented with a selection of local goodies, including a lovely selection of cheese, crackers, quince paste and a local sausage. We nibbled our way through these (Maria told us she’d be disappointed if we didn’t eat everything and explained that the locals have very big appetites). The cheese was especially good, made with milk from cows, goats and sheep. It was soft, creamy and had a slightly pungent finish where you could clearly detect the goat’s milk flavour. The crackers were slightly sweet with a good crunch, and the quince paste was grainier than the sort I’m used to, but went perfectly with the cheese. Apparently having both together is known as Romeo and Juliet!
From here we walked towards the famous Porto café, the Majestic Café, which is a terrific looking place complete with smartly-uniformed waiters. It’s also a complete tourist trap, and charges around €5 a coffee. The locals don’t go there, and as this was a tour to show us where the locals do go, Maria walked us along to the second café owned by the same people, the Guarany Café, close to our hotel on the Avenida dos Aliados. Here coffee costs around €1, and breakfast is €15 instead of €30. We sat down and had a coffee each, a very strong but smooth blend, preferred by the locals. The café itself is also lovely, but has the advantage of not being rammed with tourists. Apparently there are a number of regulars including a local poet in his 90s know who comes in every morning for a coffee and to read the newspapers. Apparently the original owners made their money in Brazil and then returned in the 1930s to open this café. Its website also provides a good example of something we would continue to experience all the time we were in Porto, with translations into English having quite obviously never been anywhere near a native English speaker before being committed to print/the internet. It was enough to make my inner editor weep!
Fortified by coffee, our next stop was at the magnificent São Bento station, where we had a brief run through the history of Porto and of Portugal and an opportunity to admire the 20,000 tiles that make up the decoration of the main hall. The station is the main starting point for train journeys through the Douro valley, and it is also the terminus of a number of local lines. Like our hotel, it too was once a convent, with the last nun only dying a number of years after the first train service ran! The tiles date from 1905–1916, and depict scenes from Portugal’s history, including the entry into Porto of King John I and Philippa of Lancaster to celebrate their wedding. There are also scenes of local life, including a cattle fair and a pilgrim camp (Porto is on one of the many routes to Santiago de Compostela and thus sees a lot of pilgrims walking the path even now – we saw quite a few walkers with the pilgrim sign of a scallop shell hanging from their rucksacks), along with scenes showing vineyards, the grape harvest, wine shipment down the Douro and work in a watermill. As Maria pointed out, all the work seems to be being done by the women.
From the station we headed up the hill back towards the cathedral where we stopped off at a shop selling canned fish. This was not the madly touristic version either, but rather somewhere very civilised that is run by the associated of tinned fish producers with intent to promote their products. There was a table waiting for us in Loja das Conservas (other branches are available, including in Macau, which I wish I’d known sooner), with a bottle of wine, crackers and two different types of tinned fish to try, one the obvious sardines, the other needlefish. Both were very tasty indeed, once I’d recovered from trying a drop or two of the chilli sauce known as “the bastard” and my tongue stopped throbbing! In addition to hundreds of different types of fish in tins, with all sorts of sauces, they also sell some purely fun things including these dangly sardines, and I’d really recommend a visit. We were all given a 5% discount voucher to use in the shop, and Lynne and I decided we’d come back later and collect some supplies. The vinho verde served alongside the fish was also very good.
From here we went to Ö Tascö, a very modern looking restaurant in what we were now beginning to realise was the standard Porto building with a very narrow facade at the front but that go back for forever, very much like Belgian buildings. I asked if it was for the same reason (the wider the building the more tax you paid) and was told that yes, that was indeed the case. Here we were offered more wine along with some petischos, salt cod fritters and some Alheira sausages, apparently also known as Jewish sausages. These are sausages made of meat (veal, duck, chicken quail or rabbit) and bread, usually along with alho (garlic) which is where the name comes from. Apparently they were invented by the Jews of Portugal in 1497 when they were given a choice between being expelled from the country or converting to Christianity. The conversos who secretly retained their beliefs avoided eating pork but where at risk because they didn’t have sausages (containing pork) hanging up in their smokehouses and so, to avoid the Inquisition noticing, they started making sausages from other meats. They are tasty, with a texture that’s very mushy, and are very filling. The cod fritters were a model of lightness in comparison!
After a second glass of wine the conversation was very animated, and we all seemed to be getting on very well. We were in even better form by the time we reached Taxca, a pub rather than a restaurant, where we drank an espadal wine, a sparkling, light rose, kept in a cask and served from a pump and produced in the vinho verde region. With it we had a typical snack, a hefty serving of presunto ham in a bread roll. Maria reckoned this was the sort of place she and her friends would come to at the start of a night out to get things off to a good start. The hams are hanging up above the bar, and the menu is a pair of metal plaques with the words cut out of them, fastened to the wall. Presumably it doesn’t change very often!
Now we were full of food we were ready for the final stage of the tour. Stopping off at a bakery for some sweet treats, we headed on to a port and wine shop, Touriga (named after one of the many grapes used to make port), where we would have a short session on port, and a tasting of three different ports along with the treats. We had the good fortune to try a 10-year old white, a 2013 late bottled vintage, and a 10-year old tawny.
The went perfectly with the sweets, a tiny almond tart, and a sticky brigadeiro (a Brazilian ball of chocolate and condensed milk and butter formed into a ball and coated in chocolate sprinkles). And half an hour later we realised that a) we were going to have to buy some port and b) we weren’t going to make it to our scheduled tasting at Graham’s port house by 14:15 because it was 14:15 and we’d gone way over the scheduled time. We didn’t care; we’d been having fun. We cared even less when Maria called Graham’s and rescheduled it for us for the following day. She apologised for the overrun, but we’d really enjoyed it and really, really wouldn’t have wanted to rush off.
Before we left the shop we ordered a case of the wines we’d tried (6 of the white, 6 of the tawny) and arranged to have them shipped home for a very reasonable extra €37. The American on the tour were disappointed to find they’d have to pay €173 to ship 12 bottles and instead planned to bury them in their suitcases. I do hope it all survives the trip back to Michigan. Ours arrived 6 days later, safely packed, and with a lovely note thanking us for supporting small wine producers. I suggest the pleasure will be all ours! We’d had a fabulous food tour, and I could see why the Guardian ranked Taste Porto’s tours as among the best anywhere.
It was now around 3pm. We dropped some things off at the hotel, and then decided it was too stick to do anything productive so we’d join a bus tour to take a look at the Atlantic coast. It was a hop on hop off tour but we couldn’t raise the energy to hop off so we stayed put on the top level, letting the breeze cool us off, and watching the world go by. I do have to say that I’ve been on better tours with the same company. The commentary was almost inaudible even with the volume turned up full blast, and had clearly been read by someone with only a passing familiarity with English. It was, however, also considerably cheaper than in most European countries at €15 for 2 days. And we got to sit down for an hour or so, which was by now very welcome!
At the end of the tour we hopped off and went and peered into the MacDonalds, to see if we’d been told the truth. We most certainly had!
I’m pretty sure there are no MacDonalds anywhere else that are quite so spectacular on the inside…
Or the outside! We didn’t need any prompting not to stay though. Maria had recommended a gelateria close by, and as it was a sticky day we figured what the hell, we’d have one and then go back to the hotel to get cleaned up before dinner. The 1927 Gelateria Portuense is brilliant. It’s a tiny place, tucked away down a sidestreet, and it serves the most fabulous gelato. By the time we got there, they’d started to run out of several flavours, but they still had the pistachio left, enough for a single portion, so Lynne had that and I had the mango, and we swapped spoonfuls. It was definitely among the best ice cream or gelato I’ve ever eaten. They also do a tasting selecton where you can have 6 small tubs of different flavours for €7 which seemed like a bargain for that quality level.
Now decidedly sticky as well as sweaty we retreated back to the hotel for a pre-dinner shower and a drink before going out for dinner at DOP Restaurante (we had a bottle of the white port from the tour to hand and intended to enjoy it).