Destination: Porto, Portugal

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Sunset in Porto (Feb 2016).

After an extensive, two-weeks of travel all over three countries (France, Spain, and Portugal), I ended my travels in Porto, the second-largest city in Portugal and home to the famous, but very strong, port wine. Situated north of the country along the Douro River, the city’s name is derived from the Portuguese’s “o Porto,” which means “the port,” and due to its location, it’s no wonder that it’s so appropriately-named.

I, along with the assistante with whom I was traveling throughout Portugal, left from our previous destination, Aveiro, to take the train over to Porto, about an hour away by train. It turned out to be quite a packed ride, with tons of people getting on at each stop along the way. Never had I experienced that in Portugal so far, but I suppose that Porto, being a huge city, has plenty of commuters and visitors going over there, anyway.

We arrived into Porto around 17h30. In order to get to our hostel, we had to walk (or rather, hike) up an incredibly-steep street, with our travel bags and everything. It was some serious workout for the calf muscles, but eventually we made it to the top and found our way to the hostel where we checked in and go settled into our room. We would also be seeing another assistante in the city, considering that she’d arrived a day earlier. However, she was out exploring, so we decided to go out to explore, too, before it got dark and to meet up with her later back at the hostel that evening.

Porto is famous for its sunsets (as pictured above), and we wanted to see it that first day, but unfortunately, we were too late when we headed over to the Dom Luís I Bridge, passing by the Porto Cathedral along the way. We ended up just taking a stroll along the bridge, which has both a metro line and a pedestrian walkway, so one has to be careful when crossing over! We also had a *sort of* close call with some locals who tried to mooch money off of us, saying that they were lost and didn’t have money to make their way home. Nice try, crooks.

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Dom Luis I Bridge in the evening.

The assistante and I returned to our hotel, where we met up with the other assistante who came back a bit after us. We caught up, having not seen each other for a while since the last formation (“teacher’s training”), and later decided to go get dinner. Got a recommendation from the hostel staff, then heading over to the restaurant just two blocks away.

The place was packed when we went in at 20h00, but we were fortunate to score a table for the three of us in the corner of the room. Food took forever to come, since I think that they were so busy, they’d forgotten about us. In the end, though, my plate of steak and chips was hearty and tasty. Usually, I’m skeptical of ordering steak, since I normally am not a huge fan of it and it always risks becoming dry and overcooked. However, this one turned out to be perfectly cooked: juicy and tender, with the crispy chips and vinho verde (Portuguese green wine) pairing well together. We returned to our hostel after dinner, and got acquainted with an American traveler who had been studying abroad in Prague. After talking a bit with each other, we all turned in for the night.

After having our hostel’s included breakfast the following morning, we decided to take a free walking tour of the city. Our tour guide, an energetic girl in her early twenties, met us at the Praça da Liberdade, a large square that is the city’s commercial hub, with banks, hotels, and other businesses bustling everywhere. From there, we headed up and over into one of the small, side streets, the incline as steep as those in Lisbon. Nevertheless, we passed by tons of cool, local street art, before finally arriving at one of the miradouros, lovely as always.

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Small streets of Porto.
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Miradouro of Porto.

Next, we headed over to the Clérigos Church, which is known for its bell tower, Torre dos Clérigos, that can be seen from all over the city. Constructed back in the mid-18th century by the Italian architect Nicolau Nasoni, it’s known for its distinctive Baroque architecture, along with 240-step climb up to the top of the tower, which I heard offered great city views. Didn’t get to go up it then, but should I ever decide to return to Porto, I’ll have to do it!

We looped around to check out the exterior of the Livraria Lello & Irmão, one of the oldest, most prestigious bookstores in the world and famous for being a favorite of author J.K. Rowling, who had taught English abroad in Porto and had been inspired by its interior. The assistantes and I ended up returning there later that day, and it’s true that it is elegant and utterly gorgeous.

The next stop was at the São Benton train station, in which was where the assistante and I had arrived when we came into Porto the previous day. Our tour guide showed us the interior of the entrance way, which was covered, all the way to the ceiling, artistic depictions of the history of Porto, with dramatic events filling each colorful tile. Never thought that train stations could be places for art, but when in Portugal!

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Inside the Sao Bento train station.

The Porto Cathedral was up next, even though we just admired the outside of it. After descending tons of flights of stairs through a quiet, residential neighborhood, we finally reached the Praça da Ribeira, which was located right along the Douro River and had plenty of touristy shops and restaurants to entertain visitors. Across the water, we could see Gaia, which is actually a different city and is home to some of most well-known port wine cellars in the area, which is where many people go for port wine-tasting tours.

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Praça da Ribeira.

At 13h00, the free walking tour ended, after spending almost three hours walking all over Porto. We were exhausted, not only from all of the walking, but also from the warm sun beating down on us. At the same time, we weren’t complaining about the lovely weather, since it was February! Absolutely starving, our tour guide offered suggestions on places to get local food, one of them being the francesinha, which is essentially the French croque monsieur…on steroids.

Story has it that a Portuguese man fell in love with a French girl and decided to create a dish to commemorate her. He took the standard ham, egg, and cheese sandwich and basically stuffed it with tons of other meats (steak, sausage, etc.), drenched it in vats of hearty tomato soup, melted slices (not shredded, but sliced) cheese, and topped with a fried egg. If that weren’t enough to give you a heart attack, it’s served with fries. Really, this Portuguese man must have loved this French girl a lot to have made something so crazy. Then again, you do crazy things when you’re in love with someone, right?

We found a restaurant that served the francesinha, ordered it, and our life was made. Despite the overwhelming amount of ingredients, it held up very well: even though it was drenched in tomato soup, the bread remained crusty and the cuts of meat thick and hearty. Our money, along with our stomachs, were certainly well-spent.

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Francesinha.

Once lunch was over, the assistantes and I headed back to Livraria Lello & Irmão, where you actually have to pay (3 euros) to enter the bookstore, since it’s so highly-protected to make sure that visitors don’t dirty it up inside. We paid the admission fee and went inside to enjoy the winding staircase, along with bookshelves stacked to the ceiling that really did make me feel as if I was in Dumbledore’s office in Harry Potter. Good job, J.K. Rowling!

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Outside the bookstore.
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Inside the bookstore.

I ended up buying a book inside Livraria Lello & Irmão as a souvenir (and as something to read whenever) and we exited the bookstore, popping into a small bar to try some port wine. Originally, I’d been meaning to cross over to Gaia to visit one of the port wine cellars, but unfortunately, we didn’t have the time. It still worked out, though, as we were able to have a nice glass at the bar while waiting for the afternoon to pass on. Since we hadn’t been able to see the sunset the day before, we had to check it out this time, for it was our last night in Porto.

We headed over to the viewpoint close to 18h00, just about when the sun was about to set. There were a ton of locals hanging out there, too, drinking, smoking, and otherwise relaxing with company while admiring the natural decline of the daylight right in front of their eyes. It was worth the photo opportunity, for sure!

Afterwards, we decided to head back to our hostel. We didn’t feel hungry for dinner, especially after that francesinha for lunch and later some pastel da natas and even ice cream on our way back. We just turned in for the night, and the next morning, I woke up early to head to the airport to take the 9h00 flight back to Paris, where from there I caught the train back to Normandy, arriving back at my flat in the early evening.

…and there you have it! My vacances d’hiver during my first year as an assistante turned out to be one of my favorite travels to date in Europe! I think it was the right decision for me to head to warmer climates, especially when I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed being in cold weather since Normandy was still in full winter mode! Portugal turned out to be a wonderful surprise, and I’m not exaggerating when I write that it’s probably my favorite country to have visited so far in Europe. Warm weather, warm people, and excellent food- what more do you need?

With last year’s vacances already written up, it’s time to post the ones from this time around! Look out for them in the following week or so. Until then, à bientôt!

 

— Rebecca

 

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