O, Porto

We’ve been in the lovely country of Portugal for about a week. Getting used to the timezone has been the hardest part, so the quality of our problems is pretty good!

Here’s the shortlist of what we’ve learned so far:

  1. The people are about the nicest, most chill, most helpful you’ll ever meet.
  2. They have a lot of gold. (Seriously. A lot.)
  3. They do not like it when you speak Spanish to them.

That last point is one we probably should have anticipated. Alas, we didn’t. Being from the U.S., we learned Spanish in school. We figured we could get by in Portugal. And we sort of can, but it’s no way to make friends.

It turns out English is a better choice here. The Portuguese have a longstanding alliance with the British – it’s the oldest alliance in the world still intact having lasted 620 years. Meanwhile, the relationship with Spain is, shall we say, complicated. Portugal has been around for a lot longer than Spain, yet Spain gets all the recognition.

Anyway, we’ve learned to say Obrigada/o (Thank you) and Bom Dia (Good Day), and we ask everyone we meet if English is ok. Of course, not everyone here speaks English, but they’re less offended about speaking Spanish if we offer to speak English first.

Traveling is an education on so many levels. And it is sometimes humbling.


Our first stop was the city of Porto. It’s a beautiful, old city, with lots of charm. It’s the city that gives Portugal its name!

We were immediately taken in by the azulejos – the painted tiles – that grace most of the churches and major buildings here.

Azulejo tiles on the Capela de Santa Catarina. They are exquisite. Photo by T.

The painted tiles are everywhere, both inside and outside of buildings. The art form is specific to Portugal and Spain, but its roots are Arabic. The root word – zellige – is Arabic and means “polished stone.” It’s meant to imitate the old Roman mosaics.

While most of the painted tiles depict scenes from Catholicism (on/in churces) or battles (on/in public buildings), I most enjoyed the simple repeating patterns of some of the tile work.

Repeating pattern of azulejo. Interior of a church I no longer remember the name of. Photo by T.

While the exteriors of the churches are lined with beautiful blue tile, the insides are gilded with gold. The Portuguese were expansionists, remember. They had colonies everywhere, just like the English, Spanish, and French did. But the Portuguese colonized Brazil. And Brazil had gold. Brazil had a lot of gold.

Interior of the Church of Sao Francisco in Porto. I was a bad tourist and took a picture even though there was a sign saying “no pictures,” hence the awkwardness of the photo. This is woodwork covered in nearly 100 kg (220 lbs) of gold leaf. It’s gobsmacking. Photo by T.
Another golden interior, this time from the Church of Santa Clara. They don’t allow photos here either, and they watch you more closely here, so I had to pilfer this one from the Internet. They’re currently restoring it. Photo via.

It’s not all churches and tiles in Porto, though. There are plenty of other activities to keep a tourist busy.

We stopped in at the Livaria Lello bookstore (1906), which you may recall from one of the Harry Potter movies. Be forewarned, you need to buy €3 ticket voucher across the street to get in, which you can redeem if you purchase a book. It’s worth it just to get a close up view of this staircase:

The staircase at the Lello & Irmao bookstore. Photo by T.
View from the second floor of the bookstore. Photo by T.
An aerial view of the staircase. It’s really remarkable. Photo via.

There’s also quite a bit of port to be had if you’re into that sort of thing. And I am. Oh, I am. There are different stories about how this wine came to be. In one telling, the British added brandy to the wine produced by their old ally in order to take some of the bite off and to help preserve it for shipping to England. Another story, and this one probably more likely, is that the Portuguese had been making the stuff for quite sometime, the British took to it after being cut off from French wines during a war.

Walk across the bridge to the gondola, which will take you to the base of the wineries. Photo by T.
The view from the terrace at Graham’s. There is a wonderful, if pricey, restaurant inside. You’ll need to walk up a hill to get there, but it’s worth it. Photo by T.
A port flight at Taylor Fladgate. All the wineries are within walking distance of each other. Photo by T.

Overall we loved Porto. It’s a sweet city, very walkable, with lots of things to keep us busy.

Afternoon light on the Cathedral (Se) of Porto. Photo by T.

Pro tip: Don’t eat anywhere near the tourist stops, or even on the waterfront. This is true anywhere you go, but especially in Porto.

On a recommendation, we ate at a restaurant called Porta 4. It’s a tiny place with only four tables, but the food is wonderful. It was in this restaurant that we had our first conversation about the American election. We spoke with the two restaurant owners, who are Portuguese, and a couple from New Zealand. The Portuguese are worried. The New Zealanders were all laughs and jokes about us becoming Russians soon.

When it came to giving us advice, the Portuguese threw up their hands. “How much damage can he do in just four years?” said Ricardo, the restaurateur. “And you have a Constitution, no?” he went on. “There is a line that he cannot cross?” I realized then that this is a country with such a long history of bad leadership that four years seems like a pittance. I mean, these folks lived through the Inquisition and through the Salazar years.

So we’re going to have to keep those civil rights lawyers well paid, because the Constitution is our saving grace here. Don’t get lazy, either. Four years is plenty of time for this guy to do damage.

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