Porto and Coimbra

Well here I am in an empty tapas bar at 9.41pm on a wednesday night, in Porto,  sipping on regional vinho tinto awaiting on my choices of mixed cheese, and a bean dish. Already 3/4 full of francesinha (porto version of an inside out triple cheeseburger with extra cheese, sausage, mortadella, ham and steak) and a cream of heaven (its a cookie batter on the base, followed by a light sweet milky cream in the middle, and then a cover of yolky egg cream on top) i thought i could do with a little more nourishment… Besides why not, food makes me happy, even if it means looking pregnant.

When i think of porto i think of port wine, tapas and streetart. The reasons? Well across the Douro from the old UNESCO city, the port wine makers blatantly display their port labels on large, proud white lit signs. You can see all the warehouses stretching across the southern side of Porto, and as you walk amongst the distilleries, you can smell the process in motion so well, that you can almost envision what’s going on inside the old warehouses. I’ll never forget sitting in the Taylor garden on the south bank, halfway up the hill sipping on several types of port, goats cheese wafting up my nose, watching the house cat stalk the rooster, and the rooster stalk the peacock,  who so happened to give the whole garden a show, flaring his tailfeathers and flashing all his private collection about.

Tapas? Every experience i had in a tapas bar in Porto was insanely good. The dishes are cheap, quality, tasty and with the large wine collections they seem to garner everywhere, you will never run out of choice. Gizzards, prawns, octopus, olives, cheese and pork rolls are in abundance, and of course the bacalhau goes without saying. The atmosphere is lively, not drunkenly or audaciously loud, lively in the happy, warm and friendly sense of the word, across the board of tapas bars i visited. The service is great, accomodating, and might i note, Porto is the only city in the world i have spoken in four different languages. Not that i can fluently speak any of them, just enough to scrape by, half the time it’s portuglish, or spatalian.

Streetart? Take a walk around town. It’s everywhere, it’s a part of the casual, relaxed, happy life and soul that is porto, vibrant and full of colour, out there for all to see. The locals don’t seem to be in a hurry to erase it either. Small murals have been adorned everywhere on building facades, giving the aged authentic houses and cobblestone city streets an extra bite of character. Walk down towards Ponte Luis through old town and again, you are subject to more of the artistic views of porto. Storm the hill behind Sao Bento, or the any part of the old town and you will be exposed to Porto’s colourful soul. The Porto subway holds no secrets, all you have to do is glance at the art adorned on the metro as it pulls up to the station.

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As it seems with all portuguese cities, again it is a battle of the hills in Porto. If you’re stubborn like me, you’ll just walk everywhere and end up on a bender of discovery. Neighbors conversing from one side of the street to the other, cats staring out the window of abandoned houses, the call of the castanhas/chestnut street sellers (whom are in abundance everywhere), long downhill cobblestoned streets, winding like snakes, colourfuly tiled, every facade a different color. Washing lines are the only common denominator in these charming, homely streets. The people break into bouts of kindness and helpfulness as soon as you ask a question in jumbled Portuglish, and as i have figured out, there is an unspoken global language of waving hands and nods and ums and ahs, no matter where you rock up. When in doubt, try. The message will get through.

I spent the first morning down on the douro, right on the water after climbing down some mysterious (and curious smelling) disappearing stairs, and below pavement level i was rewarded with rows of grafitti all along the river. Artists had left their marks all along the riverfront, everything from raging supersized king kongs to lip smacking hot lips. Crunching mussel shells and dried seaweed wrapped in newspaper underfoot left by from fisherman i wandered along to nowhere in particular. I circled back to the old city and then over the Ponte Luis, to serra do pilar, a popular lookout which grants you views over the city of porto, the distelleries, ria douro and ponte luis. I happily spent the afternoon kicking back watching the sunset.

On the second night of my stay in porto, the three musketeers became over copper pots of seafood in a tomato sauce with potato and white wine. Davide, Pablo and me, Dutchie. The italian stallion, spanish toro, and Ned Kelly. Waving about our swords of wine, we swapped stories of our adventures thus far, engaged in our infatuation with pastel di nata, referred to constantly as ‘the best’ and clutched our hearts in despair at the fact they charged for both bread and butter when dining in porto. Full of grapey goodness we made a musketeers pact to meet in the morning for an invasion of Coimbra’s Pastel di Nata and cafe. And so it began.

We invaded Coimbra’s famous university first, after a few Pastel di Nata and espressos. Conveniently enough, the university was located at the top of the hill in Coimbra city. So we climbed up, at a good pace, following the well worn, well graffitied path to the university itself. Meeting our friend Massimiliano, we then began our little wandering tour through the university itself, which was full of parents, and many more friends of the seemingly most famous Massimiliano. It was like walking around with the pope. The dominant buildings, statues and roads around the university area reminded me of a minituare version of EUR in Rome, one of the old Mussolini suburbs (although there is no comparison, EUR is the better of the two). There’s even a little harry potter library there, which they filmed in, and so I am told, around Coimbra university too. There is also a 2.65 euro lunch to be had. Pork, rice, frites, salad, bread roll, rice pudding or fruit and a drink. And they do not charge for the butter. Come at me.

The three amigos spent the afternoon wandering around the streets and sweet stores of Coimbra, exploring a monastery, and sneaking through a construction site to climb a hill on the other side of the river. It was like being 10 again. After almost falling through a manhole built into an old dormant water room on the side of said hill, we sat down and admired the view, our amatuer cameras clicking away. On our return to town, we went to battle with more Pastel di Nata, served almost hot, and came out well and truly victorious. We could have beaten Napolean with just a click of our fingers if we wanted. Guns? Cannons? Warships? Bro, we have fucking Pastel di Nata, bring it. Heading back to the metro station, we lost our friend the toro to the woes of young love. Offering our best wishes to him, the stallion and i, amicably chatting away, headed back to porto via the metro.

Minus a musketeer, the party of two thirds ventured out for some portuguese tapas. Wandering about in lots of nice comforting rain and slopping through the streets, we located the tapas bar via recommendation, and comforted ourselves with a bottle of vinho tinto, and dishes of calamari rings, gizzards (we didn’t ask from where), porco preto and olives, amongst others. Costing less then a couple of meals from maccas, we were much satisfied. Following up with some more port tasting at a bottle shop, turned coffee / bar at night, we tasting like the experts, well, i thought we did anyway. After knocking down an lbv and a Reserva, i can’t remember which because i was bit smashed, we went our separate ways, me to my comfortable bed, and the stallion to rescue the toro from the marvelously decorated Sao Bento station.

The following day the musketeers ended the short adventure with… you guessed it, more pastel di nata and cafes. We were kings of that lovely, custardy, eggy, portuguese triumph, if only just for the minute we enjoyed them. I forget the name of the bakery we went to but it was oversized, almost like a ‘market’ as Davide put it. Super duper sized cakes with gelatinous covered fruits tanning on the top layer, ridiculously ginormous merengues, trays upon trays of fresh pastel di nata, mini pizzas, cinnamon and sugar adorned pastries, which i’m sure were full of tasty fillings. You get the drift right? Eyeing off the fried bacalhau and frites from the tables across from us, we jumped ship before we ate the the place out of food. The boys went one way, and i another, but not before a musketeer salute and a coffee to boot. Travelling is an experience in itself, but the people you meet and get to know is what makes it a world of fun. Until we meet again my musketeering friends, adios!

Like a good little pilgrim, i took the train out to Braga, to visit the ‘Rome’ (so nicknamed because of the churches everywhere) of the north. After missing the 2nd leg bus, i looked woefully at yet again, another hill, a biggie this time, reminding me of heartbreak hill in sydney somewhat, topped by Bom Jesus do Monte. I could’ve caught the bus up the steep winding road for the next few kms i suppose, but why bother when I can smash a walk, uphill, in the wind, with absolutely no idea where the road disappears to, or where to start. Don’t think i tell myself, trust in legs. ‘In legs thou shall trust, and only then may thou enter thy heavenly gates of walking, and gain superlegdom’. Thor is on my side. Don’t get me wrong, i’m not unfit and i don’t walk like a chode, i generally stride long and well, and enjoy it once i get started. My biggest challenge is laziness. This doesn’t affect my working life, but lazy mode al l’carte comes into full boot as soon as i’m in Dutchie time. Time for change eh?

I make it to base camp in Tenoes (which is where the furnicular car is to make it up to everest) and choose the serpentine stairs to climb to the top. Do as the pilgrims do i say. Each turn of the serpentine stair there is a little gondola like hut, and inside are life size depictions of the stations of the cross. I’m not a religious bloke, i’m of pagan beliefs if anything, i mean, i invent gods half the time in my head, but you can see here why it’s such a popular pilgrimage site during Semana Santa (holy week in portugal). The stairway leading up from basecamp is serene, green, calm and bushland quiet, the only sound is the singing of the birds to one another, the green tree canopy hosting the acoustics nicely. Finally, i make it onto the first of the upper platforms, and am granted a grand sweeping view over braga city and surrounds. In front of me are the baroque zigzag stairs (pictured), leading up to the church, adorned with statues at every point on the walls on the staircase. It’s quite an impressive sight, and i just stood there staring at it for a while.

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Making it the top, i note how few people there is wandering around. Again, i’m happy with the choice of travelling europe in winter. No crowds or camera slinging group tours to get in your way, making enough noise to wake up Snorlax the pokemon, block the access and generally annoy the pants off you. (I am well aware that i may be one of these, but i feel there is a difference between a summer tourist and a winter backpacker, and usually prefer to do everything minus being surrounded by an oversized chattering bunch of banana flinging punters) Grande! The views from the top garden lookouts are nice, and although the gardens on these balconies, or plateaus if you want, are now being replanted again for next season, you get the general idea of what they would look like – green, viney and rich. The church itself is… well it’s a church. There’s a never ending supply of them, and although it is a nice looking church, it’s not a wow factor. I definetly feel the build up and the walk to the top is wickedly awesome, but the top of everest is nothing spectacular, aside from a few nice looking statues, and one of Sao Longuinhos overlooking braga. I found the stray kittens more interesting. Evading the history student wanting to take my photo and charge me for it, i seek out a small grotto built on rock with stalagmites hanging down dripping water into my balding head of curly hair. I hide inside for a few minutes before my stomach starts rumbling. Time to go mangiare!

Some people will likely say things to me like “doesn’t porto remind you of francesinha” or “the river douro”, and they are probably right to do so. However, every place that you visit is experienced differently, purely for the fact we are all individuals – at least i hope we all are. Who wants to be sheep baaaaaaing in the field with the other 1000 white fluffballs, wondering where the sheperd or herders will take us next to eat, shit, sleep and repeat. I experienced francesinha, and for me it, it was just an inside out cheeseburger. That was about the glory of it. The river douro is beautiful, sweeping and long, but the boats taking people up and down were packed like a tin of sardines. The best experiences I had were with the people I met, the things we did and what i learnt from them. I’ll walk around town at odd hours like 4 in morning, middle of winter or no, to get a feel or a vibe from the city as an individual, so i can connect with the soul. European cities especially have the ‘soul’, and me coming from a country that is only just over a hundred years old, you can feel the vibes and soul off these cities that have been around for a millenia or more. For example, standing in front of the colliseum with a million other box tickers, and then standing in front of the colliseum when no one is around at 5am is a different experience altogether. For me anyway.

The people you meet make the city great, the warmth and casual niceties, or perhaps the portuguese creators of the great pastel di nata, bacalau, steak and frites, porco preto… Soul food. It is the people that make your journey about a billion times more interesting, the stories you share, the unspoken language you all share of food and drink. The people you come across give you much more perspective, and open your mind up to things you had never opted to consider and think about. We might speak a hundred different languages, but we all have the same emotions, we are all the same but different. We laugh, we cry, we remember, we create memories, we eat the same. However, it’s now 4am and i am on the way to Madrid in a mini bus full of attractive birds. Loki is watching over me for sure. Ciao for now ✌

One Comment

  • Drew

    December 17, 2015 at 11:18 am

    I’m gonna take umbrage with calling Australia 100 years old. We’re 230 years since the first fleet and the natives have been rocking around since 50,000 b.c. I think our cultures in the bush hidden in plain sight.

    Ola Porta looks majestic. It’s on a must-see list now.