Feliz Natal (Merry Christmas) from Porto!
A local mother playing with her children in a church square
I was struggling to stay awake last night and finish the blog. I read it again when I woke up this morning and corrected all the errors. I have a little bit of a chest thing going on and I hope it’s not like last year. While I know what the inside of a French hospital looks like, I don’t want to find out what a Portuguese one looks like. I’m pretty sure I picked it up on the plane from Germany to Portugal. I hope this is just a minor thing, and I’ve been able to tough it out today.
It’s Christmas Day and we have low expectations. We expect nothing open and plan on just wandering around and taking in the views. When I booked the hotel, I opted for the optional breakfast. I figured that way we would at least have breakfast, which was served in the restaurant on the top floor of the hotel.
The restaurant at our hotel, where we have breakfast
We arrive at breakfast and the restaurant has a great view of the city. It is a pretty good breakfast with both hot and cold foods, lots of local baked goods, breads, and lots of fresh fruits. We enjoy our breakfast and wind up chatting with 3 women from Rhode Island (we assumed it was mother/daughter/granddaughter) who were traveling over the holidays. Nice folks and we had a nice chat.
We headed out to wander after breakfast. We quickly found that while many things were closed, not all things were closed. A few restaurants and cafes were open and quite a few souvenir places were open. The trams and busses were running as well. While not like a regular day, we were able to get along fine.
We headed towards the river and took photos. The river in Porto is the major landmark, which is crossed by probably the best known landmark, Luis I bridge. It is a large metal bridge, and was once the longest of its kind. It was designed by Gustave Eifel…..yeah….that one. It’s a big deal around here and I have to admit, it makes a good photo.
The bridge is a double decker, and pedestrians and trams use the top span while cars and pedestrians cross the bottom one. We went one direction on the top span, and the opposite direction on the bottom one. After crossing the top span we had great views of the north bank of the river.
Hand laid stone sidewalks with patterns are all over Porto. They are very difficult to repair and only a few people know how.
I have to say, if you like walking uphill everywhere you go, climbing stairs, anything that has to do with going up, Porto is your city. It’s like living on a stairmaster. You’ll burn some calories here for sure. Due to this, we decide to stop in a small cafe not far from the bridge for a snack.
We have two savory pastries, with Laurie having one that is spinach and cheese while I have one that is meat and cheese. They’re a little smaller than a sandwich and make a nice, filling snack. We have these, a Coke, and a water. This costs 5 euros, a bargain compared to other parts of Europe.
The tram that runs all over Porto, on the bridge
We’ve been told that Portugal is inexpensive and this is correct. A cab ride the previous evening was 4 euros, our dinner last night was 20. Pay toilets that cost anywhere from 50 euro cents to one euro are 15 cents in Porto. Things are all half or less than where we came from in Austria, and Austria isn’t one of the more expensive places in Europe. Portugal is downright cheap. Consequently, I’ve read about many Americans retiring to Portugal. They could certainly do worse. It’s pretty nice here.
We wander the riverfront on the south bank. This area is actually another town called Gaia, with Porto being on the north bank. The entire metro area has 12 municipalities totaling 2.4 million people. It is a lot larger than it seems in the guide books, but most of the “stuff to see” is in the old town area where we are staying.
Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau
The south bank (Gaia) is where all of the port wine cellars are. They call them caves, but I’m not sure if they’re really caves or not. The wine used to come down river in casks on boats (I think it comes by truck now) and was aged in the “caves”. While walking this area, we wind up in a place called “Casa Portuguesa do Pastel de Bacalhau”.
We realize that it is a tourist place but it’s open Christmas day and it seems everyone is going there. Laurie got a glass of port for ten euros, but it’s a souvenir dated Christmas glass. Do remember a glass of port away from the tourist areas runs around 3 euros. But technically we are tourists and it is an interesting place.
The view from Gaia
I have a Portuguese food called Bacalhau. A large part of the Portuguese diet consists of salted and dried cod, a fish not even native to this area. They import massive amounts of it from Scandinavia, and have hundreds if not thousands of dishes made from it. They take the dried, salted cod and soak it until it can be used to cook. Bacalhau is made from salted cod, mashed potatoes, cheese, a bit of oil, and then it is pattied into an egg shape and deep fried. I thought it was pretty good and Laurie didn’t.
We walk back across the river on the lower span of the bridge and walk along the “Riberia”, one of the more frequented areas of Porto. While much of it was closed it looked like Porto’s answer to Pigeon Forge. Laurie is quick to point out that “it’s not that bad!”, but it is touristy. Whatever you find on Riberia, you can find for half or less a block away.
I jacked somebody else's sticker to advertise our European tour!
We wander this section of the city as the day ticks away. While Christmas, there are a few things open and we visit a store that sells souvenir sardines. Yep. They have them with the year of your birth on the can, cartoon characters, all kinds of odd stuff.
We wander a bit more and Laurie has to go to the bathroom. We have found none with lots being closed today and decide to have a drink in the bar at a VERY nice hotel (meaning expensive) so Laurie can use the restroom. This hotel would be something around 500 a night in Nashville and was over $200 a night in Porto. I had a Coke and Laurie had a beer. Cost was 7 euros total.
Nothing commemorates the year of your birth like sardines
We come across a church called “Clerigos” (Clerics). They have a museum and you can climb the bell tower for 5 euros. The money they make helps with upkeep of the church, which was built in the mid 1700’s. Like most European churches, it is quite ornate, everything is old, and it needs a lot of upkeep.
We climb the tower which has a great view of the city. It’s right at dusk and I think I got several good photos. After this we find a fallback always open on Christmas day Europe restaurant and have Doner Kebap (discussed in a previous post) for dinner. It was good and the place was quite crowded. There were other restaurants open but most had a reservations only/fixed menu policy for Christmas.
The interior at Clerigos Church
It starts raining and we decide to grab a cab back to our hotel. We’ve found cabs to be a real bargain here and take them when we need to. We walk as much as possible as you see more that way, but rain…..well….we passed on walking home in the rain.
We hope everyone had a great Christmas day. I’m gonna turn in now and hope I don’t wake up with my cold being worse instead of better. Laurie has a bit she would like to add tonight and this is below. Goodnight everyone!
We climbed this tower!
Portugal is vastly different than Austria, at least where we were in the alps. The alpine towns rely on tourist money all year round. They are very clean, well kept up and most people, especially service workers, speak excellent English. Portugal, not so much.
Porto is a much bigger city than I had thought. It is in a different climate so the whole feel of the place is completely different. It is an old city, dating centuries. Before the crusades, ths city was home to Moors, Jews and Christians. After the crusades there were only Conversos (forced converts) and Christians. If you weren’t to their liking, you were burned or otherwise eliminated.
We are surprised at the number of homeless here
The Crusades lasted for several hundred years so there is not really any evidence of Jewish life here. There is a church, chapel or Cathedral everywhere. Some are very ornate and reflect the ‘glory days’ of the Catholic church. The Clericos was the only one open today so we went in. There were interesting exhibits about the influences from Iberia and then other places on the churches, the architecture and practices, including different styles of crucifixes. It is a huge church and we climbed many stairs to enjoy the windy view from the top of the tower.
The city is pretty gritty, especially compared to Austria. There are many abandoned buildings that are obviously very old. Homeless people sleep in doorways and beggars approach us frequently. Finding a place to pee is always a challenge traveling, and apparently even the nice establishments don’t spend much time on cleaning the bathrooms. I tried very hard not to touch anything, and waited until I got back to the hotel at the end of the day.
A pay toilet in Porto. Cost is 15 cents. We have seen the same in other cities and it costs considerably more.
That being said, there is also a feeling of a city that is lived in, and local people seem to have been the majority in the small dives we have found to eat in. There are families with children playing in the squares, and just generally an ambiance of daily life. Laundry hangs from balconies, old men sit around the fountains and smoke and chat.
People here are pleasant, but not as outgoing towards tourists as in Austria. Not as many speak English and I can sort of get by with my Spanish, especially reading menus and such. Nobody has been unfriendly, but they seem to prefer to serve those that speak Portuguese. It hasn’t been unpleasant at all, just different.
The city at night
I look forward to tomorrow, our last day here. Not sure where we will end up but the weather is supposed to be nice again. We lucked out with the rain moving in tonight just as we were getting ready to come ‘home’. Good night and Merry Christmas to all - and Happy Hanukkah.