Eurotrip Day 39-42: Porto, Portugal

I LOVE Portugal.

Yeah I know, I liked Spain, but I think I may like Portugal even more :)

Arrived in Porto, Portugal’s 2nd largest city, at 5am in the morning after taking an overnight bus from Madrid. Walked around dazed and cold for a bit before finding the house of my couchsurfing host.

Lucas is an Erasmus (some acronym that means exchange programme, usually only for EU students) student from Brazil studying in Porto for a semester, and he lives with two other guys and two girls in a charmingly well-furnished apartment. Despite my arriving at 6am, we talked a lot, and I never did go back to sleep until that afternoon.

I went to the supermarket to buy some groceries, and immediately noticed a significant difference in prices between Spain and Portugal. Portugal’s cheaper by about 30%, I’d say, and although it still works out to being expensive by Singaporean standards, it isn’t that bad for an EU country. Then I cooked some pasta and Lucas made some rice and beans, which is apparently a staple of Brazilian food. I had some, but it was too salty for me – Brazilians definitely have salty tastebuds because his housemates pronounced the rice and beans just nice, and not too salty, even though the taste of salt was very strong to me.

Had a nice afternoon nap and woke up at 6pm eager to see the city. Porto is very, very beautiful. Its one of my favourite cities so far. The baroque architecture is so different from the Spanish style, and the buildings aren’t painted in artificial hues (think Clarke Quay) and restored to the extent that they look almost new. In contrast, they are positively run-down, dirty and needing a new coat of paint, with some windows even broken, their glass smashed and still waiting to be repaired. Young kids and old people wander in and out of the doors on houses lining the streets, retro-looking signboards from the earlier part of the century hang off shophouses, and colourful clothes flutter in laundry lines on the balconies. Its even more pleasant to wander the streets here than in Spain. Everything looks more authentic, and there’s a noticeable lack of souveniour shops. Even in the riverside area, where tourists congregate in expensive waterfront bars, its amazingly easy to get back into the true soul of the city. Just a few steps away and I was transported into a maze of old and narrow winding streets, filled with the laughter and chatter of the locals.

Best of all, Portugal (or at least Porto), is so cheap. Everything is cheaper than Spain, except chocolate and processed breads from supermarkets. But then, I don’t need such budget food anymore when I can have an espresso and a couple of buns or pastries in a lovely cafe for less than 2 euros. That was how I spent my time when my feet were tired, poking into the most ramshackled and cheapest-looking cafes I could find, being surprised by the retro-looking tiled walls and marble-top tables, pointing at some appetising-looking pastries and ordering a cafe in my terrible Portugese, enjoying the quintessential Western European past-time of people-watching, coffee-drinking and pastry-eating, and not feeling like I just bankrupted my tiny budget.

Porto is hilly and has a very pretty river, the Duoro, that runs through its southern end. Several bridges span the river, but the definite highlight is the Ponte D. Luis, a wonderful metal arch bridge that was designed by one of the guys who worked on the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I walked across the bridge at sunset on the first evening, and was awestruck by the beauty of it all. Porto is not a grand city, but it is extremely, extremely beautiful. I nearly cried when I looked at the view – baroque architecture fronting the Porto side of the silt-filled green river and distinctive large Port wine cellars on the other side, people strolling about having a good time, church spires rising in the distance… here I am, so far away from Singapore, in what felt like an undiscovered corner of Europe, and I’ve just found the most beautiful city I’ve ever seen in my life.

The weather wasn’t excellent throughout the four days I was here. Cloudy and rainy weather alternated with clear and sunny skies. Still, to me, Porto took on a magical look under the heavy cloud-laden skies, the very type of weather that would cause London to look gloomy and dreary. A city has to be very captivating to be able to look good in the rain, and Porto pulls off that look perfectly.

On the second day, I went to the beach. It isn’t the best beach I’ve seen, but still a great beach nonetheless. Locals were out having a good time on the boardwalk (its still too cold to swim or tan), drinking an espresso to the sound of the waves, and older people were engaged in a game of poker on plastic tables and chairs brought out and placed on the boardwalk.

Porto is a well-maintained city. The municipal facilities aren’t lacking, and are sometimes quite well thought-of. Benches at the plazas (okay, one thing Spain does better is that it has many more plazas and benches around), nice boardwalk at the beach that hugged the coast, modern tourist information centres, an excellent bus service, relatively clean streets for European standards, and the gem of it all, the most advanced and best metro system I’ve ever seen.

Porto’s metro, which I used to get around when walking would be too far, is new, clean, modern, fast and efficient. I didn’t expect to find such a good system in a city as small as Porto (less than a million people in the city proper, 1.5 million in the metropolitan area). The trains ran on the ground, like trams, for the most part, only disappearing underground into tunnels in the city area. Its hard to describe just how high-tech and modern it is, and I enjoyed riding it a lot. Its affordable as well, at just 0.95 euros for one hour of trips. So technically you could take it, stop and sightsee for a while, and then ride it again, using the same credit hour. This is a system that relies heavily on honesty – there are no ticket barriers in place and nothing to stop one from entering the train without paying, just the occasional conductor conducting random checks. How it works is that one is supposed to validate one’s card on readers placed around the station.

The Brazilians took me to a Brazilian dinner gathering on Thursday night at their friends’ house and it was fantastic. They made some creamy fish-and-potato dish, served with rice and salad, which I enjoyed a lot. Though I was lost in translation most of the time, the atmosphere was convivial and joyful, and everyone was having a great time. The Brazilians were very bonded, and it reminded me of Singaporean students banding together when studying overseas. Its inevitable, I guess, though one should definitely be as open-minded as possible and make friends from all over the world.

I probably learnt more about Brazil these few days than Portugal, as a result of staying with the Brazilians. They told me so much about Brazil, and made me really want to go there. Apparently, Brazil is terribly diverse – the people there came from all parts of the world, and there is no “typical” Brazilian. Really, the more I travel, the more I think Singaporeans can’t really call Singapore diverse. London and New York were way more cosmopolitan and international in its mix of peoples, and now that I’ve heard about Brazil, I am even more amazed. People came to Brazil from all parts of the world, Europe, the Middle East, Asia… and after decades of intermarriage and assimilation they have a proud unique national identity to call their own. All the Brazilians I’ve met have such interesting heritage – for example, Lucas is part-Italian, part-Portuguese and part-African.

There is a source of noticeable pride amongst the Brazilian students that Brazil is emerging as one of the great economies of the 21st century, and that they are going to host the Olympic Games soon. Portugal, their former colonial master, is noticeably dwarfed, being so much smaller. They told me that they don’t get any news about Portugal in Brazil, but everyday, there is some news about Brazil in the Portugese media. Brazilian music is rather popular in Portugal as well, them sharing the same language and all.

How many cities do you know in Brazil? Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paolo, and maybe the capital, Brasilia. That’s all I knew about Brazil, but I found out so much more these few days. Brazil has many old cities with baroque architecture and old churches, as well as amazing beaches and natural scenery. The only caveat is that its expensive to travel around Brazil – although the cost of living is low, transportation is expensive because there are no low cost carriers or an extensive train system, only long-distance buses and conventional airlines.

They also tried to dispel the myth of crime and violence in Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro, a few days after the successful Olympics bid was announced, mafia in the favaela shot down a police helicopter. But apparently violence is mostly confined to Rio de Janeiro, and in the other cities and towns you can get around without much problem as long as you aren't stupid and constantly hang your expensive camera from your wrist as you walk. But also be careful of taking overnight highway buses – on some remote and deserted stretches of road, the mafia might stop the bus and rob everyone onboard.

Despite this, Brazilians are one of the most passionate and happiest people around. What really defines Brazil, based on my impression during the few days interacting with these bunch of people, is their happiness and zest for life. They seem to spend all their waking hours laughing, drinking and partying. They talk very fast, very loudly, and seem to be making jokes and laughing about everything all the time. They listen to decidedly upbeat music that just makes you want to dance, and have little capacity for nostalgia and introspection. This is an extremely outgoing people, always curious about foreigners, eager to make new friends, and also, very, very, very friendly. I had a great time getting to know this bunch of people and am glad that I stayed with them!

On my third day in Porto, I went to the nearby town of Braga, the “religious capital” of Portugal. The usual wonderful baroque architecture. I stayed for the Semanta Santa parade at night, to commemorate Good Friday. It was solemn and silent, and actually I didn’t really like it that much. Pretty boring procession of figures and people, without music most of the time. Felt almost like a funeral, but it didn’t put me in a sad, sombre mood, which I suppose was the intention. The whole town was out to see this procession – there were people crowded on the balconies above street level, and the entire length of the parade was lined with people, both locals and tourists. It was kind of cute seeing parents along the streets waving to their kids walking in the parade.

After the ceremony, I got back to Porto past midnight, and went to join Lucas and friends for an Erasmus rock party in a tiny shopping arcade that had closed for the day and was converted into a party venue by night. Not as exciting as the squat party in London, but still pretty cool, and Europe seems to have lots of great party venues, held in unconventional places. You’d never have something like that in Singapore. It was, as usual, smoke-filled with people dancing, talking and drinking. Met the Italian guy who was supposed to host me in Lisboa – we had already arranged to meet a couple of times before, but always ended up missing each other so this time we finally met.

Last day in Porto, and I went to the Port wine cellars. The free tour and cellars were unremarkable, and just as you’d expect it to be. But the best part was tasting the wine – it was really good! I wish I could have more of it!

Left the cellars and strolled along the riverfront and up to the old town. Had tripas a la moda (or something like that, can’t remember, its a famous Porto dish of tripe, beans and rice) at a family restaurant. Grandmother was helping to tend to the place, father and mother were cooking and serving, and the young boy was watching TV. The food was nice and hearty, but I still preferred Singaporean cuisine :) They served wine in a clay jug that was reminiscent of the kind used in the past, like during The Last Supper or something. Was a bargain for only 4 euros for the tripe dish, 2.5 for the wine and 1 for the bread.

Porto is my favourite city so far in all of Europe! I don’t know if its because of the architecture, the prices, the company, or a combination of all :)