April 14, 2016

When I was younger, my family would call me Ceefax or TomTom because I was particularly efficient with my directions and general knowledge. Having left that nickname far behind, it seemed to surface again during my recent journey to Portugal when I had to help direct Martín, our wonderful DD, through the beautiful streets of our neighbouring country. Years of helping direct my Dad through European mazes meant I became the human satellite navigation on this trip and, whilst getting lost could’ve been viewed as a burden, I saw it as an opportunity to see more of the charming byways of Portugal during our five day sojourn.

The first detour on the road trip saw us lose ourselves in the spectacularly religious city of Braga, home of the Bom Jesus do Monte (Good Jesus of the Mount). With a population of around 137,000 and over 200 religious monuments, buildings and structures, a visit here during Semana Santa only seemed fitting. Choir song filled the streets through speakers as we explored the city, adding an extra dimension to our visit. Whilst I don’t consider myself religious, I can at least appreciate a kick ass fucking structure- much like the Bom Jesus. Standing proudly above a white Baroque staircase of 381 feet, the Sanctuary looks like it should be occupied by Lord Farquaard, or at least guard a sleeping Princess. Compromising of six chapels, the first dates right back to 1373 and the newest was completed in 1834. Walking around the gardens, I half expected to see three bears chasing Goldilocks- it is simply unbelievably breath-taking and straight from a Brothers Grimm story.

Our next stop off was Porto itself. Also known as O Porto, it’ll perhaps come as no surprise that ‘Porto’ means ‘port’ in English. I know what you’re thinking- this girl is worth her salt. Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, behind Lisbon and has a population of 1,4 million. Located in North Portugal and sitting on the Douro river, it’s one of the oldest European centres. In fact, the core centre itself was actually recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. Originally an outpost of the Roman Empire, the city is deliciously fat with brilliant culture, juicy history and mind-blowing architecture. Of my two favourite parts of the city, the first is the Ponte Maria Pia (a bridge constructed by Gustave Eiffel in 1876), in which we crossed the very first evening in order to watch the sun set over the river Douro. With ironwork not too dissimilar to that of the Eiffel Tower, it’s easy to see the two were both ideas born from the same architect. It’s hard to imagine the world could be so beautiful and despite Martín’s superb photography, I’m not sure the complimenting photos truly capture the extraordinary beauty that I witnessed that night.

My other favourite part of the city was the Lello bookshop. Bookshops are normally of interest to me anyway, however this one particularly stood out; legend has it that whilst teaching English in Porto during the early nineties, this is the very building that inspired J.K. Rowling’s description of Hogwarts. With spiralling staircases and gothic mouldings, one could easily imagine Harry and co haunting here on a regular basis. Built in 1869 and situated just across the plaza from the city’s unmistakable Clérigos bell tower, the bookshop has a gorgeous cream façade designed in Gothic Revival style. Whilst you have to pay three euros to enter the library and take photos, you can use the entrance fee against the price of a book- thus it remains a functioning book shop and not just tourist attraction. I personally bought a book of poetry from the shop, seeing it as a more practical option to that of the Portuguese edition Prisoner of Azkaban.

What did we eat during our stay, I hear you ask? Personally, I ate anything and everything I could- soaking up as much traditional Portuguese food as possible. Perhaps my favourite- surprisingly- was the Francesinha. Meaning ‘Little Frankie in Portuguese’, this calorie saturated sandwich traditionally consists of ham, chipolata, linguiça and steak which is then covered in melted cheese and a hot, spicy sauce. There’s also the option of an egg on top, in case your cholesterol isn’t already high enough. Needless to say, this meat mountain was absolutely delicious. Other delicacies we tried were Pasteles de Nata- cream custard tarts, topped with cinnamon that are frankly far too moreish and Ovos Moles- raw egg yolk and sugar wrap in wheat shells- an experience that I'd rather not repeat. My companions did manage to try Bacalhau- a speciality consisting of dried salted cod and a creamy sauce- when I was souvenir shopping. (Missing out on this experience just means I absolutely have to return.)

One of the most beautiful aspects of the Portuguese culture were the azulejos, the painted tiles that adorn the city’s building. Traditionally blue, these tiles decorate the otherwise decaying structures of the old centre, and are ubiquitous in the religious buildings. Interestingly, they are not only used for decoration but also function as temperature control in houses- a pretty beautiful method of insulation, in my opinion. The vestibule of the São Bento railway station is home to the most beautiful panel of azulejos, making it by the far the most handsome station I’ve seen so far. The sight of these tiles made the hikes around the city bearable- be aware before visiting that Porto is incredibly craggy, and therefore, flat shoes are a must. (I was particularly grateful to the workout, however, because they sell Maltesers in Porto and needless to say, I took full advantage of this.)

Our final location on our road trip was Guimarães. Untill 1128, Guimarães was capital of Portugal and is often considered as the “birthplace of the Portuguese nationality”. Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city is absolutely stunning. The most notable attraction of the city is the Palace of the Dukes of Braganza. Constructed in 1422, the palace looks like it should be located in Far Far Away rather than a lonely city in northern Portugal. As we visited on one of the three days a year that the palace closes, we were unable to see the interior, however I only imagine it to be as impressive as the exterior. Having spent a fair amount of time in the Loire valley in France exploring chateaus, it’s clear to see that this palace was heavily influenced by the medieval French architecture. (I did just double check this- I am no architectural expert… I was right. Banging.) In 2011, the New York Times described Guimarães as one of the top 41 places to visit- this is definitely something I’d agree with.

Apart from being aesthetically pleasing, Portugal was also incredibly cheap; almost everywhere charged one euro for coffee and a cake and meals came to no more than ten euros. And, whilst Porto is the go to city for most Galicians due to its close proximity, I definitely would recommend it as a weekend trip to anybody back home. Being one of those people who can’t stand being surrounded by thousands of other Brits when away, Porto really appealed to me. One thing I did struggle to get my head around was the language- my Duolingo learnings only took me so far- but most people spoke English and I was lucky enough to have the company of my lovely Gallegan friends who could translate. In all, I had an absolute blast in Portugal, from the company to the culture- a big obrigada to Porto!

--- Also, a massive thanks to Martín for being our DD, personal photographer and tour-guide during our trip. Without this guy, we wouldn't have known about half of the places we visited nor food we ate. We are truly grateful!
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