Porto Journal: Arriving to grilled meats wine and (erp!) 21% alcohol

Torre do Clerigos with 225-step spiral staircase.
Torre do Clerigos with 225-step spiral staircase.
The courtyard at my Castelo Santa Catarina in Porto.
The courtyard at my Castelo Santa Catarina in Porto.

The bells from the church seemingly in the next room have chimed nine times, 10 times, 11 times. It’s probably time to get up. The combination of 18 hours travel time and a wild Friday night in Porto hit me like a giant sand bag. I’m partially hung over, completely underestimating the power of port wine. I’m also so dehydrated the six glasses of milk and four glasses of ice cold orange juice in my hotel’s spectacular continental breakfast has worn off like last night’s Bayer. But Portugal’s second largest city – and arguably its most romantic – looms outside my balcony.

Porto has a fascinating location. It sits on the Atlantic at the mouth of the Dauro River. Flying in I could see the river snaking its way through rich farm land with small settlements hugging both banks. The river and ocean meet at a giant harbor where small tankers and pleasure boats share space. The neighborhoods seem like an endless entanglement of narrow streets and alleys. Some neighborhoods look like Rome with more water.

My hotel, the Castelo di Santa Catarina, is like an old palace that has seen better days yet still has the character of a 19th century villa. It’s a stately four-story Gothic castle with a tree-covered patio surrounded by gardens. You feel like you shouldn’t sit there without a top hat. My room is small but seems bigger when I open the doors to two balconies looking out over a pretty residential area. The dining room has a chandelier that would be suitable in Versailles and elaborate 19th century floors and walls. I felt more than a little crude standing at the buffet table and chug-a-lugging milk like a freeloader off the streets.

Everything in Porto funnels downhill toward the harbor. I can roll down to the water in 15 minutes. I didn’t venture far last night. I went to what sounded like the most classic Portuguese restaurant in the city. Casa Paraiso II is a carnivore’s paradise. Its menu could be printed on a business card. There are basically two selections: meat and fish. I ordered the churasquinhode carne, which sounded like the churasscos I feasted on in Brazil. This matched it.

My plate was a king’s collection of grilled meats: sausage, pork chops, beef steaks, chicken. Each piece had different herbs roasted into the meat. They absolutely melted in my mouth. They were topped with a mess of greeny vegetables, rounded fried potatoes spilling off the plate and a big pile of rice in a brown bowl. I washed it all down with a half bottle of local Favaios wine for only 1.8 euro and watched a Portuguese soccer game on the crude TV above me.

Young waiters were very attentative, trying to appease me with virtually no English at all. My Portuguese, long forgotten since my last visit to Brazil in 1998, doesn’t go beyond asking for ice.
Halfway through the meal, though, I wished I’d ordered the half meal that was offered. My stomach grumbled and I struggled to get out of my chair. Then they sent me the bill. That WAS the half portion. They only charged me 7 euro. Mark down Portugal as the best culinary bargain in Europe.

Also need the warning of the pretty waitress at Twin’s Baixa: “Careful, It’s 18-21 percent alcohol.”

Porto is the birthplace of Port wine. It put the Port in Portugal. The foothills outside town are lined with port wineries that will have me all over them if I don’t go into rehab first. Port wine is super sweet and super strong and here, super cheap. For 3 euros a glass I got some of the sweetest wine I’ve ever had. It’s so sweet, it’s almost syrupy. It’s like a dessert wine or an icewein from Austria. And it’s the perfect dessert after gorging on meat all night.

Porto’s nightlife is pretty famous in Portugal. The city is among the most romantic in Europe with its narrow, windy streets, cozy cafes and dark restaurants. Twin’s Baixa is one of those places. It has a very long back-lit bar underneath a gargantuan glass sculpture that made everyone in the bar look like characters in a Picasso painting. Candlelit tables with white tablecloths filled an adjacent room.

Behind the bar stood a stunning blonde goddess with a tiny green mini-skirt and a low-cut black sweater that did a lousy job of hiding giant natural breasts. Tipping isn’t big in Europe. Too bad. The girl could retire tomorrow.

The bar staff was super friendly. They get plenty of tourists in here but treated me as if I was the first of the season. They gave me samples of the local Burmester port. The red could pour over pancakes. The white would be perfect on coconut ice cream. I was absolutely shitfaced after three glasses.

I found my way into another tiny bar where one more glass of port only made me feel as if I fit into the growingly younger crowd but I’m sure made me look much older. My conversation skills in English rapidly failing and unable to see my Portuguese cheat sheet, I poured myself home at 1:30 a.m.