When I found out I was going to move to Santiago, I suggested my sister and I went on a last-minute trip somewhere in Europe. We don’t get to see each other that often, and it was certainly not going to improve with me moving to South America. We decided to go to Portugal as a tribute to a cherished memory of a family trip there several years before. After several months apart, on a sunny morning in June, we met up at the Bolhao metro station in Porto.
Instead of staying in a hostel or renting a flat, we got a room at Maus Hábitos (“Bad Habits”), a cultural centre/music venue/veggie café located on the third floor of an art deco car park. This alone made it special, but I truly fell for its tasteful decoration and its leafy terraces. The few nights we spent there were busy, as there was a gig every night. When we weren’t out for drinks around Porto, we just enjoyed a beers and music there. I should also add that the pizzas served at the café were ah-mazing.
Porto is undeniably one of the most charming cities I have been to – perhaps I am falling into the trap of a romantic vision of urban decay. Look up and you’ll see crumbling facades covered with azulejos, and abandoned buildings with outgrown vegetation. Most walls were covered by graffiti, from simple sentences scribbled by passers-by to full murals by internationally renowned graffiti artists. It is smaller than Lisbon, and quieter, but there is plenty to do, see, and of course, eat. We were there for five days, which gave us time to do the essentials, relax, and even hop on a train to Lisbon, where a friend of mine from Manchester was.
One of my favourite places in Porto was, as you would expect, the Mercado do Bolhão – a covered food market close to where we were staying. While the ground floor was full of tourists, the first floor was much less busy, and slightly cheaper. You would mainly find fruits and vegetables, but one section of the ground floor was dedicated to live poultry. At the back of the market, a couple of restaurants sell local dishes like the francesinha. The francesinha, (the little French girl haha) would deserve a whole paragraph for itself. This specialty from Porto is a sandwich that contains no less than 4 types of meat: beef tongue, sausage, ham, and more beef, between two slices of bread, topped with cheese, an egg, and a spicy sauce, with a side of chips. We had one francesinha between the two of us at the cafeteria Santiago, which is known for serving some of the best ones. We did not dare to go anywhere else for a second try, as although we enjoyed it, we were not ready for another francesinha-induced food coma.
Another Portuguese classic we very much enjoyed was the infamous pasteis de nata, or egg-custard tart, with a healthy rate of a three or four a day. You can find them at every corner, but we liked the one from Confeitaria do Bolhão, a bakery located just across the market. One evening, we wound up in the lovely Mercearia das Flores on Rua das Flores, a wonderful little deli offering cheese and meat boards, salads with fish, and delicious wine. You can also buy high-quality canned sardines, tuna and mackerel to take home.
Now, I must admit, part of this trip was successful thanks to Spotted by Locals, for which I worked when I still lived in Manchester. The Spotters’ network gave me the opportunity to meet fellow spotters Tiago and Marta, who took us to some of their favourite places. We spent an afternoon with Tiago and his friends at the Jardim das Virtudes, a hidden gem of a park with a view on the Douro River, and then having beers on the steps of cathedral . A couple of days later, we met up with Marta, who took us to what I think is the best restaurant I have been to in my life. Miss’ Opo is a stylish yet non-pretentious restaurant in the city centre, which also happens to be a guest house. I cannot begin to describe how good the food was. Everything was fresh, locally-sourced, a mix of traditional Portuguese ingredients with a modern take. We ordered dishes to share and although I cannot remember everything we had (it’s been two years!!), I do remember the alheira (a traditional Portuguese sausage), the sweet pear salad, and the banana and carob frozen pie. We went back on our last night in Porto, and I remember the interesting experience of making my own salad: you choose a can of fish out of a basket, which you accommodate with a fresh tomato, and season with herbs, olive oil and vinegar to your own taste. The menu changes almost daily and is seasonal.
Although we admittedly spent a good amount of time eating, we also explored Porto’s cultural attractions, and I fondly remember the Serralves Museum. It is a bit out of the way and we ended up having to take a taxi there, but it was well worth the trek. The museum is located in Foz de Douro. It is surrounded by a huge park, shared with the Casa de Serralves. This villa was designed in the mid-1920s and was finished in the 1940s, offering a setting that reminded us of vintage James Bond films. Apart from its interesting architecture, the museum boasts a large collection of contemporary art pieces across 14 galleries by Portuguese and other international artists.