With the Crazy lady of Braga long behind us, and a happy and healthy Oscar back to his cyclonic self, I finally have a moment to reminisce our experiences in Porto as I sit bathing in the Madeiranese sunshine on the last leg of our journey.
As I may have mentioned, Braga and the extreme sport activities it required to get there was not high on our list of great experiences had along the way! But never the less you learn to appreciate the good stuff by travelling through the bumps in the road to get there.
Arriving in Porto a few days early forced us to book a less than appealing hotel online as our room at the pre-arranged hotel wasn't available until the original date in the itinerary. Accommodation was a little scare as the Festa de Sao Joao was kicking off in a few days and the Portuguese were congregating to the city to do what they do best - drink, eat, watch fireworks...and drink some more! We accidently drove down a back street near the hotel through an area I can only really describe as 'a ghetto' where a group of well muscled, tattooed and shaven head Portuguese fellows (heh, I just realised that description reminds me of someone!), stopped what they were doing (sitting on a concrete wall smoking and plotting only what I can imagine wasn't kid friendly activities) and looked our car up and down intently.
Time to get rid of the car a day early, this really wasn't an ideal situation and we weren't about to tempt fate.
We caught a bus into town and wandered the very hilly medieval streets and bee-lined to the river where most of the action was.
Porto is situated on the mouth of the River Douro and the river frontage is a World Heritage-listed site. Porto is not surprisingly, famous for Port, and along the river tourists love nothing more than jumping in a boat and cruising up and down the Douro marvelling at the five famous bridges and the Vila Nova de Gaia which is the head quarters of the major port manufacturers. A little sip of port along the way doesn't hurt either. Some of the boats are even decorated with port barrels like the old working boats in times of old where the precious liquid cargo was freighted along the water.
Pass on the boat ride, however we were fairly keen on a caiprinha by the river side. Caiprinha is actually a Brazillian drink which has become Portugal's answer to Sangria - (Cubans have a mojito which is similiar), so you can find them everywhere!
Apart from port, Oporto is also famous for a dish called a Franceschina. I had been enthusiastically recommended this dish by at least five Portuguese people since I had arrived in Portugal including the receptionist at the hotel who, when asked what he recommended visitors do in Porto, he replied 'eat Fransceschinas'. My jeans still tight from our Lisbon experience with the Pasteis da nata, but my tastebuds still fondly remembering the sweet life, of course I was excited about this new culinary sensation!
So...the verdict? A Franceschina is basically a toasted sandwich stuffed with beef, chorizo or jamon, and cheese. Then they take another slab of cheese, place it on top of the sandwich and then grill it within an inch of its life until the sandwich is well seared and the cheese melted. Then if that isn't fulfilling your daily salt requirements, they then place the sandwich in a bowl and over it pour a very thick soup like gravy (think Gravox). Mmmmmmmmmmm....
I had failed to see any sign of Peri Peri Chicken so far in the trip which I was not happy about at all being quite the fan, so I was also quite excited when we found a churassco restaurant near the hotel which specialised in the Galo Churrasco ('Chicken Grill'). It became apparent after just one bite that the peri peri we are treated with in Australia has been adapted for our delicate palates as the sauce is fiery hot, and Marco was the only one on the table who was happy to have seconds. But I still would have that over a Franchescina!
Back to the Douro and arteries suitably clogged, we headed to the centre of Porto as Portugal was due to play North Korea on the big screen. Oscar was dressed head to toe in Portuguese soccer gear, a 'mini me' version of his dad, and I in comparison looked less than patriotic in simple jeans and a red t-shirt.
I left Marco and Oscar in the only shady spot near the big screen and bolted to the first souvenir shop I could find. 9-Euro later Marco was quite thrilled to see me not only in a Portuguese team t-shirt and hat but wrapped in a flag. 'When in Porto...!'
Of all the matches for us to see in Portugal this was indeed a highlight. Amongst at least 10,000 folk (dressed like me!), WE sent North Korea home to their precious leader Kim Jong Il with their heads hanging low with a 7-0 drubbing. Even the lack lustre and over-rated Ronaldo managed an accidental goal which massaged his bruised but sizable ego after a less than ideal tournament.
Porto was also about catching up with some ghosts of Marco's past, and the highlight was being treated to a gorgeous traditional dinner with his Dad and partner Heather, and Damiao's best friend from his Portuguese army days 48 years ago, Jaime and his wife, daughter and grandson.
The restaurant we were taken to was definitely in no Lonely Planet book, and one of the reasons it's so nice to travel to a place where you know people, is that they can take you to their special hide outs. On walking into the restaurant, we were personally introduced to the entire kitchen and floor staff as 'mini-celebrities'. Divine pate, croquettes, bread, cheese, beef and eggs (a Portuguese favourite, no meal is complete without eggs) and of course buckets of wine made the evening memorable and calorie laden.
Marco had been disappointed that the combination of the Crazy Lady of Braga and Oscar Fever cut short our plans to visit Guimares, so he jumped at the opportunity to take a day trip there with Jaime and Damiao. Guimares is the so-called 'birthplace of Portugal'. The castle of Guimares is from where in 1127 King Henrique Ist (also a Knights Templar) led the Portuguese Catholic army in defeating the Moorish Arab occupation army of the region. Needless to say this was Marco's own personal pilgrimage to where his forefathers shed blood, sweat and tears, and while I wasn't there, I have no doubt there were tears in the big man's eyes.
It's probably a good point in the tale to explain the colours of the Portuguese flag. The red is for the blood that was spilt, the green represents the land that was conquered and the circular gold pattern represents the world from the 'Age of Discoveries'. The shields represent the families (i.e. think, House of Windsor in England) and castles the forts that were liberated from the Moors.
While disappointed to miss Guimares, 168 castles had been enough for me so Heather and I enjoyed a quiet day with the recovering Oscar visiting the cathedral (of course there are never too many cathedrals), and marvelling at Porto's history clearly visible in its streets. On our way down on foot to have lunch near the river we past the old quarter where people still cooked salted sardines on small coal bbq's on the streets, a warming site to see that even in our modern world tradition still runs deep.
We also walked over the great Ponte de Dom Luis 1st bridge which provides a brilliant view of the Douro, the port-wine lodges, and even ruins of a 12th century wall that was most probably built by King Alfonso around that time.
As mentioned we were in Porto for the Festa de Sao Joa (St John's Festival) which is basically an all night party full of fireworks, singing, and eating. For some inexplicable reason everyone purchases small plastic squeaky hammers in the days lead up from street stalls, and smacks each other with them for good luck (garlic bulbs too are weapon of choice for festival goers). The festival's crescendo of merry making occurred on our last night in Porto, and while we were in bed well before the fireworks kicked off our hotel rooms broken window resulted in us feeling like we were in the centre square all night. For some bizarre reason Oscar even managed to sleep through the fireworks at 3am! (I ask you...who organises fireworks at 3am? Only the Portuguese).
We were more than a little weary in Porto after six weeks of travelling with Oscar, who by now is gaining speed on his feet that has caused our hearts to skip a beat on more than one occasion! So perhaps the tourist activities were not visited with such enthusiasm as they were five weeks ago, but we still had a great time.
I was so glad we had organised for our time in Madeira to be at the end of the trip as we were more than ready for some relaxation time and ten days there was going to be perfect!
I look forward to writing my blog on Madeira, I can tell you that this place has captured my heart and soul in a very short space of time and has been the jewel in the crown. Stay tuned...