Water and Wine a Fine Mix in Porto

You can’t escape Porto without taking a boat tour and visiting a port wine “cave,” another word for honkin’ big wine cellar. And we did both on the same day last week.

But first, we took time to actually visit the São Bento Train Station, a short walk up the hill from our flat and the station where we arrived in Porto. The entrance hall is filled with azulejos (painted tiles) of scenes from Portuguese history, dating to at least Henry the Navigator. According to my handy Portugal guide, it was completed in 1903. Some 20,000 tiles representing the scenes were added later.

A tour and a tipple (or two)

Porto is the port wine capital of the universe, so Declan had placed a wine cave tour on our itinerary. Our Airbnb hostess recommended a winery, so we crossed the Douro River to the Vila Nova de Gaia and started up the steep hills in search of a tour. But they were way more expensive than the guidebooks (and our hostess) said they were be. We visited several but didn’t want to spent 18 euros for a tour.

We had about given up when someone approached us and asked if we wanted a tour in English that started immediately for only five euro apiece. Well, of course, we replied, so off we went to Porto Augusto. It’s a third-generation, family-owned operation that doesn’t sell its product outside of Portugal.

The same guy who offered us a tour was in the video we watched, stomping grapes with his co-workers. It was a quaint operation, with the visitor center, tasting room and restroom area constructed of finished particleboard, a decorating motif we saw several times during our visit. We were surprised to learn that grappa, a strong Italian brandy, is used during the production of port and that there is white and red port, just like other wines.

The tour included tastings, after which we were encouraged to purchase some port. However, it’s not to my taste, although Marilynn does drink the occasional glass when it’s offered, so we weren’t their ideal customers. Nonetheless, the tour was enjoyable.

Ride across the river

We then stayed on the Gaia side for a boat tour. Marilynn and Declan had scoped out the boat touring options the day before and decided that boats on this side (across the Douro River from where we were staying) were better because kids were free. OK, I admit it–while we have done more serious vacationing in the past seven months than we have in the past several years, we’re still cheap

It was your basic boat tour, up and down the river for 50 minutes while an inaudible narrator sets the scene. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I did notice how many buildings close to the river had apparently been abandoned. One of the largest and nicest developments sat next to several buildings whose roofs were caving in. It reminded me of Florida, where McMansions sit next to single-wide trailers from the ‘50s.

But tours of wine caves and riverfronts are part of visiting Porto, and we didn’t want to miss out.

Bling Abounds in Porto

The statue of Henry the Navigator in the Ribeira district points to the sea. But he easily could be pointing to the significant buildings and sites of Porto, including what Declan and I call the “bling church.”

OK, it’s actually Igreja de São Francisco, a church dedicated to the humble St. Francis. This Gothic church, which dates from the early 1400s, looks plain on the outside. But that exterior hides 100 kilograms of gold leaf plundered from Brazil that adorns altars, ceilings and just about everything in between. To be honest, the audacious display toes the line of gaudy, depending on your tastes.

I was more impressed with what can be found underneath the Church of St. Francis, expansive catacombs that served as a full-blown cemetery. The well-heeled of Porto were buried here for about 100 years, until authorities decided that burying people under a church might not be healthy. Many were disinterred and reburied elsewhere, but the disarticulated remains of others can be seen through plexiglass portals on a level lower than even the catacombs.

The church property formerly included cloisters that were destroyed in a fire during the siege of Porto in 1832. In its place rose a cathedral to commerce, the Palácio de Bolsa, or Stock Exchange Palace. Built principally between 1840 and 1850, work on the interior of the Neoclassic building continued for another 60 years.

Built to impress

And once you see the expansive Hall of Nations with its intricate octagonal glass ceiling, the grand staircase that took decades to build and Arabian Hall, you’ll see what took so long. It’s no wonder this building has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tours occur frequently, but bear in mind that you may need to wait until there’s a tour in your language. A guided tour gives you a sense of the building’s history, financed by Porto businessmen to help showcase the city’s importance in global commerce. The stock exchange operated in the Hall of Nations (Pátio das Nações), where the tour opens. Most are mesmerized by the glass ceiling and coats of arms of the two dozen or so countries that the businessmen considered important. However, Declan and I were taken by the mosaic tile in the room, especially the representations of the elements (earth, air, fire and water) as indicated by a lion, eagle, dragon and fish.

Other rooms, which contain mostly original woodwork and furnishings, showcase the ingenuity and craftsmanship of Portuguese artisans. Although one room appears to be nearly all wood, the guide explained that everything above the chair rail was plaster painted to resemble wood. When an especially curious visitor asked why that was the case, the paraphrased answer was pretty much “because they could.”

It was appropriate that the highlight of the tour, the Arabian Hall (Salão Árabe), was also the last room we visited. We knew from the colorful, painted-to-look-like stained glass windows from the adjoining room we were in for a treat. The ballroom didn’t disappoint.

The room features intricate Moorish designs with 18 kilograms of gold leaf. During its heyday, the hall would accommodate large business gatherings, with smaller salons upstairs for private meetings. Arabic writing on the walls was thought to be gibberish, but our guide said her research revealed phrases such as “glory to the sultan” and “Allah above all.”

Believe me, between the church and the Stock Exchange Palace, we saw more gilt in one day than you’d see in the hog farrowing barn. And if you didn’t grow up on a farm, just look that one up.

Something’s Fishy about Portugal Repasts

When in Portugal, eat like the natives—except when there are grilled sardines involved.

Suppers provided the main avenue for trying the local cuisine, since we generally grab-and-go for lunch and like simple breakfast fare. In general, food in Portugal is extremely affordable. Two dishes were generally enough for the three of us, and with drinks, water and appetizers, bills were routinely in the 25-35 euro range, although you easily can spend more.

Meaty in Coimbra

Our first night in Coimbra, we dined at Restaurante Giro Churrasqueira, a restaurant Declan found on TripAdvisor. Marilynn enjoyed a plateful of tasty steak served on a decorated roof tile and Declan and I split a mixed-meat platter, with two types of pork and chicken. We all share dishes, so I can attest to the tastiness of the steak and one of the types of pork, but it was all good.

The following night, we dined at Adega Paço des Condes, with its large dining room reminiscent of the old Little Five Points La Fonda. You walk past a deli counter and an open grill, where an older man stands grilling skewers of goodness. We shared a huge salmon steak and a pork skewer, while also enjoying olives, bread and assorted spreads.

Grilled sardines. Why, oh why?

Moving on to Porto, we ate the first night at Restaurante Douro, recommended by our Airbnb hostess and right down the street from the flat. Live fado music provided the background for a fried hake dish that Marilynn and I agree was the best meal we had on this trip. It was so good, we ordered another one. Fried foods can be hit or miss due to the coating, the quality of the frying oil and the amount of doneness. But both servings were identically superb. The TripAdvisor reviews of this restaurant aren’t good overall, but we had a great experience.

The following night, we had grilled sardines and pork at Brasa dos Leoes, near Lavrario Lello, where we saw the Harry Potter stairs. It wasn’t the restaurant’s fault we didn’t have a good meal. No, the blame goes to those four sardines. Both Declan and I forked our way first through what must have been heart, liver and butthole, instead of delicious fish meat. The tiny bones didn’t help, either.

Marilynn deserves extra kudos for eating the fourth sardine. Grilled sardines are supposed to be a Portuguese delicacy, but, to my taste, avoid them at all costs.

On to other cuisines

Although we didn’t discuss this among ourselves, we didn’t eat traditional Portuguese again on this trip. We had so-so Italian at a restaurant on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the Douro River and some tasty Chinese takeway from Restaurante Mar Norte. Marilynn ordered and said the owner was Portuguese, which is surprising. Also surprising was how good and inexpensive the food was. We had two fried rice dishes and a vegetable noodle dish, none of which were greasy, a problem that often occurs with Chinese. We supplemented Chinese leftovers with a fresh noodle dish the next day.

While visiting Braga on our final full day in Portugal, we had a meat-and-cheese platter at Nocha’s Tapas and Wine. It’s hard to screw up meat and cheese, but the recommended house red wine complemented the meal perfectly.

Just avoid the sardines wherever you go, and you should enjoy Portuguese cuisine.

Harry Potter Popular in Porto

Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling is the George Washington of our times. It has nothing to do with politics or military strategy. Rather, it has everything to do with the tourism industry that has sprouted up around every place that Washington slept and now is burgeoning with every place Rowling got inspiration or wrote or where parts of the iconic films were shot.

So here we are in Porto, and Declan’s dragging us off to the Livraria Lello, a century-old bookshop that inspired the winding (and moving) staircases at Hogwarts as well as the general feel of the place, with its heavy mouldings, intricate woodwork and colorful stained glass ceiling.

I knew nothing about Rowling’s connections to Porto, but she taught English as a foreign language in the city for several years, marrying a Portuguese man with whom she had a daughter. From there, she moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, with the first three chapters of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” in her suitcase, but more about that later.

Going with the flow

As the success of the books and then films turned Potter into an international phenomenon, any place identified with Rowling also became popular. Apparently, the staff at Livraria Lello formerly were fierce about prohibiting photo-taking by tourists. “Hey, we’re here to run a business,” was the general tone of the staff quoted on some older travel websites I consulted.

But today they embrace the tourists, the red paint in the centers of the stair treads chipped off through constant use, a couple stopping traffic on the stairs so they can take a selfie without others in the shot. Of course, that couple, the three in my family and everyone else in the bookshop paid four euros for the privilege of visiting the business.

The door attendant (I’m not making that up) directs tourists to the corner shop to buy vouchers, then scans them at the door before allowing admittance. I overhead him say (in English, thankfully) that 5,000 people visit the store each day during high season. That’s an awful lot of golden galleons, silver sickles and bronze knuts. You can use the voucher toward books, but we already are hauling more of those back than we intended, the result of hanging out with so many Northern Irish authors. And a large majority of the ones at this bookstore, naturally, are in Portuguese.

There may not have been 5,000 in Livraria Lello when we visited, but it certainly felt that way.

‘Thinking fondly of Emma Watson’

Several years ago, during a fall book tour to support Marilynn’s biography of Stewart Parker, we met a friend of Stewart’s at The Elephant House, an Edinburgh coffeeshop where Rowling wrote while her daughter slept. As I recall, the place was rocking with tourists on a dreary Scotland November afternoon.

The main evidence of the popularity of the place wasn’t in faded stair treads, but in the toilets. Every square inch of the men’s room was filled with graffiti about the books, from the sweet to the profane and about every sentiment in between. I know from Marilynn that the women’s room was the same way.

My favorite graffito was one that said, “Thinking fondly of Emma Watson.” I have a picture of it (yes, I took photos in the toilet), but it’s locked somewhere in the cloud that’s a pain to access remotely.

So you’ll have to take my word for it.

Coimbra an Up and Down (Mostly Up) Experience

I forgot to mention how hilly Coimbra is. Porto is the same way. Getting up the triple and quadruple switchbacks—while walking on cobblestones—is a test for any person. Fortunately, Declan took that into consideration, too, when planning this trip.

He scheduled mid-day breaks on most days, so I wouldn’t have to be on my feet for too long at a stretch and would be ready to go again in the afternoon. He also booked hotels close to where the action is.

In Coimbra, the nighttime action includes fado music, a Portuguese specialty that generally denotes a sense of longing. We attended an event at à Capella, an intimate venue in a 14th-century chapel. The music was interesting, but not really to my taste. However, Marilynn liked it better than the flamenco music and dancing we saw in Seville, Spain, a few years ago.

Roman influences everywhere

On our final day in Coimbra, Declan had us scheduled to visit the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, built over the remains of a Roman forum. The cryptoportico (a kind of elaborate foundation) is believed to be the largest surviving Roman building in Portugal.

A tour of the cryptoportico begins the museum visit. Long, spooky corridors with occasional archways line one side, while shorter offshoots and individual rooms are dotted throughout. In other places, industrial walkways above other ruins allow good views of other parts of the cryptoportico.

Other highlights of the museum include the 11th- or 12th-century remains of part of a Roman-style cloister that was unearthed on the site in the 1930s. Another is the expansive apse of the church of the Convent S. Domingos, which was built between 1553 and 1564. A controversial decision was made in the 1960s to dismantle the severely deteriorated church, where the apse wound up in the museum. Seeing the amount of degradation, however, the decision seemed a wise one.

You’ll also find lots of religious painting, sculpture, statuary, reliquaries and what Declan and I like to call bling. Among my favorite things, however, were the dozen or so azulejos (Portuguese tiles) that contained mathematical or astronomical concepts dating from instructions issued by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus in 1692. The style suggests they were made in Coimbra.

Going back to church

There’s no better way to top a visit to a museum full of religious artifacts than to see a church. So after lunch, we found our way to the Historical Cathedral of Coimbra, a “church-fortress” dating to the 12th century. The church features small slits in the walls, just like in a castle’s battlements, the better to station archers in case of a siege.

Like all churches this old, there are numerous influences, including Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance. The highlight, for me, however, was the 13th-century Gothic cloister that surrounds the central courtyard. I especially liked the pediments below the arches, each designed in a different pattern.

Our time in Coimbra complete, we boarded a train for our next destination—Porto.

Declan Plans Portugal Adventure

For literally months, Declan has been planning this nine-day trip to Portugal. The last hurrah, if you will, to this wonderful seven-month European adventure that ends in just over two weeks.

When I told someone he had planned 85% of the trip, Declan looked at me sharply and said that the estimate was low. In retrospect, he’s probably correct. He first defined what cities we were going to visit after Marilynn and I said we should confine ourselves to the north of Portugal, where it was likely to be cooler in the middle of July.

Declan then researched plane tickets from both Belfast and Dublin to find the best (and cheapest) ones. He researched sights, hotels, transportation, restaurants and more, filling our days with activities while respecting our need to rest from time to time.

I’m writing about our first day in Coimbra on the fourth day of the trip (in Porto), and I can say that Declan has done a tremendous job so far.

Academic beauty in Coimbra

After flying in to Porto, we immediately headed to Coimbra, in the middle part of the country. Coimbra served as Portugal’s capital for more than 100 years (between 1139 and 1255, when it moved to Lisbon) and houses the country’s oldest university, founded in Lisbon in 1290 but relocated to Coimbra in 1537. So I guess Coimbra’s loss is Lisbon’s gain, and vice-versa. We stayed at the Hotel Vitória, a short walk from the train station and centrally located within the city.

Our first day was dominated by a visit to the Universidade de Coimbra, located in the highest part of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2013. Several of the buildings feature terrific city views, including the clock tower. One ticket allows entry into all of the buildings, and climbing the clock tower is an extra euro—the winding staircase gets tight and twisty at the top, but the views may well be worth the vertigo.

The Biblioteca Joanina (library) was deemed too distracting for student use, its 60,000 volumes housed amidst gilt, frescoes and lots of ornate woodwork. The 18th-century building remains too precious for tourist photos, so you’ll have to take my word that it ranks high on the audacious scale. Speaking of audacious, under the library is the Prisão Académica (academic prison). Misbehaving students were housed under the library until their grades got better, I suppose.

Student exams and important academic ceremonies take place in the Paço das Escolas (the original Royal Palace). We saw what appeared to be a Ph.D. defense take place in the Grand Hall, a high room with lots of dark wood, second-floor doors that can be opened from the two-sides balcony above, ornate ceiling and large portraits of Portuguese kings.

Saint Michael’s Chapel dates from the 16th century and replaced an older chapel from the 11th century. The 2,000-pipe organ dates from 1737 and remains in use today for music concerts, as well as weddings and baptisms at the still-consecrated chapel.

The central buildings of the university form three sides of a rectangle, with open views of the city from the fourth. With his back to the city, the statue of King João III overlooks the courtyard. The 16th-century king was responsible for moving the university to Coimbra and expanding it during his reign.

Several other historic buildings are included in the ticket price, including the Chemistry Laboratory, the Cabinet of Physics and the Cabinet of Natural History. The latter, created in 1772, is the oldest museum in Portugal that remains in its original location. These three buildings, with their science exhibits and displays, could easily have filled a day for those with an eye toward the history of invention, chemistry or natural history.

All I can say is that Declan knows what his parents like.

Bullocks Butt in on View of Bronze Age Standing Stone

Bronze Age religious symbol or bullock hindquarters scratching post? The Ardmore Gallan Standing Stone may have served the former purpose at some time during its 2,500-year history, but it’s definitely serving the latter purpose at present from its location in the middle of a field full of cattle.

The Ardmore Gallan Standing Stone is located a couple of miles outside a village with the great name of Muff. In fact, the stone is often called the Muff Stone. It dates from 2,500 BC, standing about six feet tall and half that in width and depth. Its distinct feature is 40 cup marks, or round indentions, about half of which are encircled by one, two or three rings. The stone evokes similar feelings to Newgrange, an ancient stone monument aligned with the winter solstice.

Finding the stone took a morning’s effort, several wrong turns and directions from a helpful older man cutting weeds along a remote roadside. None of us suspected it would be found a quarter mile off the main road, the concrete driveway winding behind a house before opening up in front of several farm buildings.

Grand adventure ahead

Declan read about the stone in a book our B&B host provided us, and it looked cool. We had no definite plans for Monday, and we all enjoy an adventure. Our host believed there was a historic marker that would make locating the Ardmore Stone a snap. But we didn’t see it on our way to Muff, so we inquired about the stone at a petrol station in town. However, no one there knew how to find it.

Heading back toward Moville, Marilynn remembered it was near Inishkeen, signs for which we’d seen along the way. So we left the main road and headed in that direction, only to wind up back on the main road at another sign for Inishkeen. So we’d basically traveled in a semi-circle.

A little ways back, an older man was weed-whacking his yard, so we turned around and asked him for directions. He was quite specific: pass the closed pub with the thatch roof, then a closed building supply company and take the next road to the right, a concrete driveway. He gave great directions, but it was obvious the concrete road was somebody’s private drive and not a public thoroughfare.

Preternatural bovines

As we wound up the road, we could see the stone in the middle of a field, looking like it was being protected by a herd of cows. The road wound uphill, past a residence and opened out to three large outbuildings, a truck with its door open in front of one of them. We got out and were immediately met by a large dog that, fortunately, turned out to be friendly.

The farmer then appeared from the building, and we asked permission to see the stone. He graciously agreed, cautioning us to watch out for cow patties and assuring us the bullocks would be no bother.

We couldn’t escape the feeling that the cows felt some sort of connection to the stone. They watched us intently, moving away from us in ones and twos, then en masse, but never getting too far away. As we approached the stone, they continued to watch us from turned heads. We spent a few minutes examining the stone and snapping a few pictures before making our way back to the car.

The cows started walking back around the stone as we moved away, again with intent stares that seemed preternatural. They gathered around the stone as if protecting it, one rubbing his butt contentedly across its face.

Farmer Dermot explained that he gets visitation requests quite frequently and is happy to share the stone. Apparently more happy to share than the cows appeared to be.