The Ocean Was Angry That Day- Porto Diary Part Two

Since we needed to get to the centre by metro, our second day in Porto also began in the proximity of the São Bento station, and we naturally tried to land some breakfast. All the hip places along Rua das Flores had queues: there is a growing traveler’s fetish for fancy brunch spots, which end up serving the same ham and eggs from Dublin to Tbilisi, so we went for a local option instead and for something that we assumed was Porto’s famed francesinha, only to discover it wasn’t quite the real thing, but rather a sort of low cost, quick consumption version of it. The francesinha, while presented by many a local as Porto’s food throughout the ages, is actually a recent invention, a Portuguese take on the croque monsieur introduced in the 50s by a Portuguese cook who had returned from France. The full version is a bit of a handful, containing ham, sausages, roast meat and cheese, all swimming in a tomato and beer sauce, occasionally with an egg on top. The version we tried came minus the sauce and was very heavy on the dough. While I can’t say that it became my favourite food, it’s definitely a great choice to keep you going for most of the day.

Convinced that I would never need food again, I made my way to the Cathedral, succinctly named Sé in Portuguese, the equivalent of the English see, as in Holy See. A great deal of work has been put into the cathedral, as it was built and rebuilt from the middle of the 12th Century until the 18th. As such, it is a dizzying collection of several different architectural styles, mainly Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque. My favourite of these is definitely the Gothic cloister, which comes complete with azulejos depicting the life of the Virgin and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In 1397 the cathedral was the site of the marriage between John I of Portugal and English princess Philippa of Lancaster. The resulting Treaty of Windsor signed between the two countries is considered to be the world’s oldest recorded military alliance. Incidentally, if you have a suspicion that there might be a connection between the name of Porto and that of Portugal itself, you are on to something: the country’s current name can be traced back to the Celtic name of what is now, roughly, the area of Vila Nova de Gaia: Cale, referred to in Latin as Portus Cale.

Lovely as the views from the cathedral were, it was now time to venture further west, and check out the ocean. We descended the narrow streets below the Sé to the tram stop at Infante, the terminus of tram line 1. The 1 is Porto’s version of the ‘cute Portuguese tram’, and it rattles its way from the old town to Jardim do Passeio Allegre in the Foz district, a short walking distance away from the beaches at Praia do Carneiro and Praia das Pastoras. As the number 1 is a historic tram, the infamous Andante Azul card is not valid, a ticket needs to be purchased from the driver, and it costs 3.5 euros. A hot tip we got from a local guide, jobless at the time of our trip, and only ‘fluidifying’ traffic for the general good of humanity and occasional financial contributions from lost souls, like us, was that you should always wait for a tram on which you can find empty seats. The trip is pretty long and rattly, but the sights are lovely, so standing on the packed middle aisle without a good view outside somewhat dampens the experience.

Before exploring the beaches, we felt it was time for a restorative pit stop, and we identified the Chalé Suiço (Swiss Chalet) as the perfect location for this. It’s at the edge of the Jardim do Passeio Allegre, surrounded by tall trees, so it is wonderfully cool even on a hot summer’s afternoon. The patrons were mostly local, with many an elderly gentleman dropping in for a quick espresso before moving on to the next arduous task of the day. At a table nearby, shots were being had with the coffee (a sort of corretto but coming in two separate doses), and as the blog’s industrious co-photographer will never miss an opportunity to explore local tipples, we were informed that the nectar being consumed was Licor Beirão. Akin to many herbal liqueurs, Beirão also began its career as medicine for stomach ailments, on the shelves of a pharmacy, in the 19th Century, in Lousã, a town in the province of Beira. It then slowly transitioned to being ‘just’ an alcoholic beverage, with touches of mint, cardamon, cinnamon and lavender and has been known as Beirão since 1929, currently being the most popular alcoholic spirit in the country. On another terrace we’d also discovered that the local of interpretation of panaché (which would be the French for a beer and lemonade mix, similar to the German Radler) is often beer with either 7UP or Sprite, depending on which soda brand sponsors the place. The beer is almost invariably Super Bock- its headquarters are in the Porto metropolitan area and, while partly owned by the Carlsberg group, it is still locally controlled. As such, it is one of the shirt sponsors of the city’s pride and joy, FC Porto. While there are other clubs in the city, FC Porto is by far the most popular. Flags, scarves and shirts are dangling from windows and balconies across the city. Even if you’re not a fan there is something uplifting in a city wearing its team’s colours with such obvious delight. Rightly so, one would say, inspecting their trophy cabinet. It includes 30 Portuguese league titles, two UEFA Cup/Europa League titles and two European Cup/Champions League titles (who could ever forget José Mourinho’s trench joyously twirling about as unexpected victory followed unexpected victory in the 2003-4 season). I sadly missed out on physically inspecting the cabinet, as we had no time for a visit to the dragon’s den, the Estádio do Dragão, which I only glimpsed from the Campanhã station as we were already heading to Lisbon. Perhaps another time.

To finish off with the ‘spirited intermezzo’, let’s talk about cocktails, namely the ones we had at The Royal Cocktail Club. The name itself is very promising, but the quality of the cocktails turns out to be varying. They are pretty good at their own concoctions but can get a bit wonky with the classics. On a busy night, they seemed to struggle with the flow of patrons. While once you got the waiter’s attention, they were friendly enough, we did see people leave out of a feeling of being completely ignored. There was also the young man who could not enter the evidently open bathroom, and got very frustrated, but that may have been a problem all of his own.

Back at the ocean, people were enjoying the sun, but generally keeping out of the water, for the sea was angry that day. Possibly not very angry, though, given footage of Portuguese wave action I’ve seen. The town of Nazaré, known for its giant waves loved by surfers, lies about two thirds of the way from Porto to Lisbon. This was business for a confident swimmer, then, who doesn’t mind the chill: average water temperatures around Porto are a very refreshing 17 degrees Celsius in June, the yearly peak being a measly 18 in August and September. As such, we focused our visit on inspecting the two walkways which lead to the lighthouses guarding the entrance to the river on the northern shore. There is a matching lighthouse on the south shore, and behind it, another beach, Cabedelo do Douro, recommended by the locals as possibly less wavy than the ones we visited.

One of Porto’s main attractions, for me, was Livraria Lello, purported to be the most beautiful bookstore in the world. I should have been warned. Too much hype often damages function. For the bookstore is indeed very pleasing to the eye: the building itself looks like a miniature Gothic-Moorish castle, and the insides have lovely wooden panels and a spectacular circular staircase. It is, however guarded by a hoard of barbarians trying to get in. Not for the books, mind you, they are planning to loot instagrammable shots. On the spiral staircase, possibly, so that no one can go up or down, to perhaps look at the books. Of which there aren’t all that many- compared with other famed bookstores, both the local language and the international book offer is a bit thin. They do have a collection of classics in several languages in a special, well designed, Livraria Lello edition, which make a perfect souvenir, that is why I now have yet another edition of 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, in the French, which I absolutely did not need, but it sparked joy, so I bought it. They also charge admission, though that is not a problem in itself, as you can spend the six euros on books once inside. I call this episode the Lello Letdown- but take that with a pinch of salt. We were there in high season, and I am generally very irritated by people who visit something only for the pictures. The bookstore itself is therefore innocent, and esthetically very pleasing. Empty, in the half light of an evening shining through its stained glass panels, with the Jules Verne in my lap, it might very well be the earthly embodiment of paradise.

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