Day 1 • Friday
A week or so before going to Andalusia, I found a really cheap flight to Portugal (Viva RyanAir!). Though I initially only talked to a few people about going to Porto, somehow, the group ended up being 12 people in total. This made me a bit nervous, as I had somewhat ended up planning the trip and had not travelled with this many people outside of an organized trip before. The final count consisted of: 6 Americans, 3 Germans, 2 Austrians, and 1 Italian (walk into a bar and you’ve got the start of a bad joke…). We came up with the term “Porto Party” because at this point, we brought the party with us! Anyways, apart from booking two rooms in an adorable hostel (called Wine Hostel, in tribute to the city’s famed Port wine), I did no other research regarding the city until the morning of our trip. This was also my first time traveling with RyanAir and had heard a lot of mixed things about it, but ended up getting through the airport and on the plane without a hitch, though the landing was a bit harsh and accented with a cheese trumpet sound on the speakers.
As we found our way to the hostel to check-in, the city already seemed very different from Spain. The city center, at least, seemed more Western European, and the way the streets lazily sloped up and down was reminiscent of San Francisco. We were enamored pretty much immediately. We checked in, 6 and 6 in two rooms, to the Wine Hostel and settled in a bit before venturing out to see the Cafe Majestic (historical point, but way overpriced), then stopping at a nice bakery and stuffing our faces with an assortment of delicious sandwiches and pastries. As the sun was setting, we walked over to the river, reaching the famed Dom Luis bridge around dusk. We spent some time taking pictures of the gorgeous vista and enjoying the tranquil beauty of the river at night. Slightly chilly, we warmed ourselves at a riverside bar that clung to the edge of the bridge, where we had our first taste of Port Wine (sweet and delicious!). Our waiter ended up being a young guy from New Jersey – Americans everywhere! Upon asking him what he was doing in Porto, aside from citing the view, he poignantly stated, “In America, I made money; In Portugal, I live my life.” This pretty much aligned with our perspective of treating study abroad as a period of “cultural education,” so we took a liking to him.
We walked back towards the hostel and grabbed dinner at the Cafe Duro nearby. A few of us tried the traditional franceshina: sauce on cheese on bread on meat on meat on meat on cheese on bread on sauce. Though it wasn’t terribly delicious, I was still glad to have the chance to try it. The desserts (caramel and ice cream), however, war earthier delicious. Later, we grabbed Caipirinhas from one of the lively streets near the hostel. Our first day in the city was great, even though there was a bit of a language barrier; we just spoke in Spanish to the locals and tried to make sense of the Portuguese we got in return – not totally efficient, but effective enough!
Day 2 • Saturday
The next day was touristy day – a city tour and sightseeing, yay! But first, we grabbed breakfast at a delicious (and cheap!) bakery; this was a frequent stop for us within the next few days. After that, off to be tourists! Though the Europeans all left us a one point, the American Porto tour, led by Madeline and I, took us to the following locations:
– Mercado de Bulhao: This was a bit of a let-down, considering Madeline and I were particularly excited about it. But especially after Les Halles at Nimes, it wasn’t particularly impressive. We did have fun looking at dead fish, though, and one of the highlights of the day was stopping to buy fruit as we left and finding the most delicious non-Indian mango I have ever had. My hands and face were all covered in mango juice by the time I finished, but it was totally worth it.
– Sao Bento Station: This train station was a quick stop, to see the large murals that decked the hall when you entered.
– Se Cathedral: The cathedral has been around since about 1110 and offered lovely views of the city from the outside. The inside was rather ornate, but not the most elaborate church we’d see that day. Still, an important historical landmark.
– Ribiera district: We lazily wandered the crisscrossing alleyways down to the riverfront and the Ribiera district, where an assortment of colorful houses peered over the riverside, creating the perfect setting for cafes and boat tours. We ate a light lunch at one such establishment and tried a dry, white wine special to Portugal called Vinho Verde (literally, green wine). It was very light and refreshing – perfect for a warm afternoon.
– Iglesia Sao Francisco: Remember when I said Se Cathedral wasn’t the most ornate church? That’s because this one took the cake. After walking around a few creepy catacombs, we were floored by the grandeur of the church. Most of it was covered in super ornate, gilded woodwork, which reminded me of the Iglesia de La Compania de Jesus church I saw in Quito, Ecuador last year. It was easy to see why people of the past would be so devout upon seeing such buildings. There was also some sort of monk chant playing throughout the church, lending it a certain gravitas that heightened our sense of reverence. It was interesting how the style of embellishment progressed from baroque to more rococo as you moved through the church, and through time.
– La Bolsa: Me, Madeline, and Michael went on a tour in Spanish (and understood pretty much everything!) of this building used for commerce law. It’s still in use and filled with gorgeous rooms with illusionary floors that looked 3D from certain angles, stucco painted to look like wood and metal, and stained glass that looked like plastic (odd.). Most impressive was the Arabic room, filled with intricate white, light blue, red, and gold work. At the end of the tour, we chipped in an extra euro (biiiig spenders!) for a wine tasting. This took place in a sleek, modern lounge with pristine white walls broken up by striking, colorful info graphics. Wine was dispensed from a machine with a clear glass front that allowed you to see the bottles inside. As we sat in smooth, white, plastic barstools, we giggled and pretended to be super knowledgable and felt rather classy.
– Palacio Cristal: After joining up with Maddie and Alyssa after La Bolsa, we somehow meandered up to this huge crystal dome structure and peacock-filled gardens, where a camellia exposition was being held. This gorgeous flower is an emblem of the city. Ironically, we couldn’t figure out the function of the Palacio itself, nor could we figure a way to get inside.
– Torre de Clergicos: As we walked back to our hostel area, we climbed up the tower’s narrow spiraling staircase for a fantastic panorama of the city. Our timing was impeccable, and we got to see the sky bathed in pastel hues as the sun began to creep west. The only other people at the top of the tower were a few girls our age; they happened to be from IU and Madison. One was from the same high school as Michael and had heard of our other friend Colter… small world!
– Livereria Lello: We stumbled into this old, sweet-ass bookshop and chilled for a bit before getting gelato and baked goods and coffee prior to meeting back up with the guys at the hostel. The bookstore was oddly sassy about photographs, but I played dumb tourist and took one anyways, before they yelled at me.
After joyful reunion, our little gaggle ambled around, swapping stories from our day apart, finally settling on a small restaurant with several fish options for dinner. Though the sea bass was delicious, we did learn not to blindly eat what the waiters put on the table, assuming it’s free; we ended up paying almost 40 euro in random appetizers we easily could have foregone. Oh well, live and learn. We went back to the hostel and played Circle of Death for a while before heading back to the trendy bar area for the night.
Day 3 • Sunday
A few of us got up early, grabbed a muffin and tea from Costa Coffee (everything aside from chains close on Sunday, boo), then took a bus to Serralves Park and Museum, a modern art museum and garden estate. Most of the art we just “didn’t get,” but did prove amusing to our japes. Meanwhile, I did quite enjoy an installation of drawings of people’s hands while reading books. Francesco, Madeline, Michael, and I then wandered the park for quite some time; it was massive and took over an hour in and of itself. The walk, however, was picturesque and relaxing, spotted with bodies of water, fountains, and pastures. One of these housed several fluffy donkeys that seemed charming, until one decided my fingers looked rather tasty (Ouch, Charlie! That really hurt!)
When we were ready to head back, we overcame a quick panic attack from thinking the bus back didn’t exist, and then grabbed lunch at a cafe. We rushed back to the hostel a bit later than we had planned, and found that the rest of the group had already headed out and had left us a note to meet them half an hour ago. Whoops. Luckily, we used our phones to find the rest of the group, incredible ralking (that’s right, running + walking) skills to buy tickets for the day’s last boat tour, and then full out RAN to to the river to meet the others in time for the boat. We realized Sarah still wasn’t there (she’d headed back to the hostel in search of us), but she finally made it on time and… BOATS! BOATS! BOOAAATS!, also known as an hour long tour of the river and the six bridges that give Porto the epithet “the City of Bridges.” It was a bit breezy, but the view was great.
Part two of our tour was on the other side of the river, in Villa Nova de Gaia (technically a different town). Full of winding sets of stairs, we wove our way to Quevedo, a winery where we tasted white, rose, ruby, and tawny ports – yummy. I grabbed a few tiny bottles for my parents on the way out. As we exited Quevedo, we realized we were missing Laurin – surprisingly, it had taken us a whole two and a half days to actually lose someone from our massive pack. Despite repeatedly reviewing the logistical impossibility of losing him in the short time that we walked down the stairs and out the door of the building, our numerous searches were to no avail and after about half an hour we gave up and figured he would go back to the hostel eventually. Of all the people to lose, however, Laurin would easily be my top choice – he definitely can handle himself alone.
Clearly Laurin was the only thing holding our group together; we soon split up for dinner. Valentine, Philippe, Chris and I lingered near the river longer, taking pictures of the gorgeous city. Lacking tripods, Philippe and I sprawled on the rocks to tried to hold our cameras steady for a few seconds at a time. As the four of us walked back to drop off our gear before dinner, I got a call from our missing compadre. We grabbed him for dinner and learned how he just missed us by seconds as we walked back and forth looking for each other.
By this point, we were starving and most places were closed, it being a Sunday and all. We happened to see a man emerge from a storefront that looked like a bakery, carrying a pizza box. Done. We devoured several family-style pizzas, but were still rather hungry, so grabbed ice cream (me) and burgers (the guys) at the surprisingly classy-looking McDonalds across the plaza. Side note: Apparently, McDonalds in Europe generally markets itself with a more upscale image; it’s apparently more successful/necessary there than it is in the States… depressing, eh?
Heading back to the hostel, the twelve of us chilled and talked. The hostel was right next to a university so as we talked, we saw several students in big black capes leading some sort of initiation involving a giant wooden spoon, odd dancing, and lots of chanting. One of the hostel staff tried explaining to us the tradition and installation of hierarchy this strange ritual involved. It looked to us Americans like a frat or hazing and led to an interesting discussion regarding the existence (or lack thereof) of these in the German school system.
The next morning, we woke up early, grabbed pastries, then trucked to the metro station to get to the airport on time for our flight. Overall, the trip went with nary a hitch and was one of my most memorable weekends since I’ve been abroad.
– from May 7