Porto Journal: Cheap wine with high alcohol, a deadly combination

The distinctive blue tile azulejos design in Porto's train station.
The distinctive blue tile azulejos design in Porto’s train station.

It’s 11:07 a.m. and I’m just now getting out of bed. Whether it’s Brazil or Portugal, these people know how to party. I’m drinking myself blind over here. Last night is a haze. All the bars melted into one long slog. I blame this port wine, a new addiction on the level of crack, heroin and baseball movies. After one glass, you forget you’re drinking 20 percent alcohol and think you’re drinking the sweetest grape juice you’ve ever had. And at 3 euros at even the toniest bars, you complete lose track of money, not to mention time and pride.

I didn’t meet anyone. The tripeiros, as the locals are called for their love of tripe, don’t speak much English. I get all my questions answered by bartenders who’ve worked the tourist bars the longest. I met a German visiting with his girlfriend and we talked about Bayern Munich’s chances in the Champions League final. That was about it. The cute, very stacked blonde at Twin’s recognized me and smiled. That’s as far as I got with any woman.

They’re not that attractive, to be honest. The only thing they share with Brazilians is a language. They dress more bohemian than bodacious. Lots of baggy jeans and dark, earthy tops. They aren’t even all that pretty. But they’re awfully nice. I stopped into Contra Corrente for a pre-dinner drink and watched the Porto-Maritimo soccer game and the cute 20ish waitress couldn’t stop smiling as she served me. She even tapped me on the shoulder as I left, like, it was an honor serving you.

But if you drink one too many glasses of port, you’re screwed. I got so lost coming out of that neighborhood, I had to hail a cab. If not, I’d still be wandering. But I must remember the neighborhood. There are three parallel streets right next to the Igreja e Torre dos Clerigos: Rua da Galeria de Paris,Rua de Candido dos Reis and Rua do Conde de Vizela. Those three streets are among the wildest in Europe.

My day was fairly civilized. I played shameless tourist and did a walking tour of the city. Porto is immensely walkable. Being a port city – duh! – all the main points of interest are right by the water. It’s easy to reach from my hotel. Just get on Rua Santa Catarina and pour yourself downhill. Turns out, this quiet residential road turns into a tourist trap the closer you get to the water. It’s lined with high-end clothes stores, outdoor cafes and souvenir shops. Of course, there were the consummate annoying street musicians. This guy with an elf-like haircut was blowing on a pipe connected to what looked like a cow gourd. It didn’t sound like bagpipes, more like five children blowing into trumpets.

I cut through the crowd and started my tour at Torre dos Clerigos. I climbed the 225 steps up to the top of the 78-meter tower where I got a spectacular panoramic view of Porto. It truly is a beautiful city. Lots of red-tiled roofs on a giant hill that pours into a wide river with bridges and cafes on both sides. Little windy streets snake through the neighborhoods. And the day was perfect for sightseeing: bright blue sky in the high 50s.

I picked the right day to go, too. Right outside the tower, in front of my favorite bar, Twin’s, was a crafts market where Porto’s most bohemian come selling wares. It wasn’t junk. It was all unique. Scarves with pendants, handmade costume jewelry, paintings. I found a beautiful necklace made of grenada, crystal and some other stone on a metal shaped like Portugal’s symbol. I also found two of those odd wine bottle holders in which you stick the bottle in the hole, lean it sideways and it somehow stays up. I’d like to see how long that stays on my counter without breaking. And finally the same woman talked me into a cheeseboard, which wasn’t easy since she spoke virtually no English. But she crushes old wine bottles, flattens them and they make perfect little cheese plates. I think I’m now done with Christmas shopping.

Porto is shockingly cheap. I found a little outdoor café off Avenida dos Aliados, the most touristy part of town. The massive, magestic city hall sits at the top of the wide avenue with Porto tour booths on each corner. Lots of sidewalk cafes with tourists drinking beer while reading their travel guides. I never eat at these places. The food’s normally as awful as the prices. But at Baixa Café I got this whole roast dorado for only 6 euro and a big tall beer for three more. You haven’t been able to get lunch in Rome for 9 euro since Mussolini ran things.

The tour was just getting started and it was wonderful. I stopped at the gorgeous Porto train station and it looked more like an art museum. The entryway is a giant mural of Portugal’s history all in traditional blue azulejos tile, introduced by the Moors and popularized in the 18th century. The Portuguese used it to decorate everything from churches to homes as it’s colorful and cheap. In Porto’s train station, it takes on a whole other realm. The entry hall is one giant blue and white history lesson. It makes me want to take a train ride just so I can return.

From there I went into the Igreja da Misericordia and its 750 kilograms of gold leaf, the Palacio da Bolsa where Porto had its stock exchange. It also has one of the coolest displays I’ve ever seen in a museum. There’s a scaled down model of Porto in the 19th century with 60 buttons each representing a different part of town: customs house, port, fires, prison. Push the button and an infrared dot appears on the site complete with a 30-60 second explanation – in Portuguese, unfortunately.

Then it was to the Igreja de Sao Francisco and its 750 kilograms of gold leaf. It looks like a crown melted all over the interior.
Then I toured the Casa de Infante, birthplace of Henry the Navigator, one of Portugal’s most famous explorers from the 14th century. This kid was spoiled rotten. It’s in the customs house now and it’s massive with huge hallways, elaborate rooms and about four stories. But he grew up a block up from the sea so I could see where he got his ambition.

Then I finally made it to the Rio Douro. The Ribeira, which is the neighborhood, really explodes here. The river is lined with huge outdoor cafes and plied with cruise boats and sailboats. They even had restaurants surrounded by glass to protect patrons from the wind. I walked across the Ponte de Dom Luis I, inspired by the Eiffel Tower, and passed the port houses to one of the little sidewalk cafes. I had two glasses of Cruz 10 for four euro (one was, no doubt, for the view) and stared across the Douro to one of the prettiest towns in Europe.

I saved the most disgusting for last. The walk back to the hotel – straight up for about two miles – worked up an appetite. After a couple pre-dinner ports and a couple of full restaurants I came across this rough and tumble place that looked like a factory cafeteria. Salao de Cha Aviz was a sprawling, no-frills restaurant with crowded tables and barely enough aisle space for the crazed waiters to maneuver. This is home to the francesinhas, the king of the meat sandwich. It’s beef, thinly sliced ham and sausage between two slices of white bread in a big pile of French fries. It’s normally covered in a secret firecracker-hot sauce that my waiter warned me about. He spoke good English and thankfully put it off to the side. I dipped a couple forkfuls and while he guarded the recipe like a Marine, it tasted pretty much like pepper mixed with a little tomato sauce. But the sandwich was great, as my growing belly will attest. Fortunately, it soaked up some of the port that no doubt is eating away at my lifespan. Well, it’s time to get rolling. It’s past noon. Time to explore the port houses. Good thing I woke up with a thirst.