The surprise trip turned out to be…

….drumroll…Oporto, Portugal!

In Portuguese, it´s Porto, which translates as “port.” Apt name, as its coastal location and its river Douro lend to the city some beautiful views and beaches within a metro-ride away from the center. Even though “charming” is an over-used word to describe most small cities and towns in Europe, Porto really was exactly that, but with many ruined buildings and old grungy neighborhoods thrown in the mix. Adds to the historic charm.

Red rooves, the up and down of hilly cobble-stoned streets, small French-style cafés everywhere…

We finally managed to locate a world-famous bookstore, Livrería Lello, where some of the scenes from the Harry Potter movies were shot. One can see its resemblance to Hogwarts; its snaking ornate wooden staircase is its prize attraction.

FOOOOOD. How can one ever write about a destination without mentioning the food? Especially Portuguese food, with its amazing seafood dishes — codfish, bass, sea barnacles, octopus, shrimp, you name it. The salt taste of the sea makes it seem as if these sumptious creatures were caught only minutes ago. Also, good food is much cheaper here than it is in Spain.

We decided to splurge and order the most expensive fish I’ve eaten ever, a huge oven-baked sea bass buried in sea-salt. Even though the fish alone was 46 euros, the entire meal was actually pretty reasonable, considering it was also my first time trying barnacles fresh out of the sea and seasoned by mother nature. They look pretty weird but are mighty tasty.

Javi putting on his photo-face. The fish was accompanied by a stewy rice with spinach, beans, and a delicious red sauce. After paying the bill, we took a stroll in an attempt to digest the entire fish that we had just eaten, and decided it might have been better if we had gone instead to this restaurant here:

A trip to the beach and bike-riding. Sun, breezes, a long boardwalk, exercise… The weather was perfect, water was cold.

Cabeleireiro = Hair salon. These were everywhere, which led to our non-stop repetitions of “Cabeleireireireireireiro.”

We went on a small cruise of the Douro and got to see some of the bridges connecting both sides of the city and the pretty houses overhanging the water. Also enjoyed just lounging on a bench by the riverside, watching the gondolas drift by, sipping on iced cafe con leite, observing the cable car going up and over the river.

The notable difference between the Portuguese and the Spanish surprised me a bit, in our interactions with waiters, tourist information points, hotel clerks, and even strangers. I mean, they do live on the same península and speak similar languages. But the Portuguese seem much more reserved and professional and speak English exceptionally well. The Spanish generally give off much warmer personalities and love to chit-chat; it only took a funny comment or a thumbs-up from a Spaniard like Javi to get the waiters to crack a smile and show their neighborly hospitality.

Porto’s also home to some interesting ceramic art. We popped into a small ceramics workshop in a little alleyway manned by a busy Portuguese lady. Some of the tile art was quite beautiful, with simple scenes of the city and its river.

Who can resist a city where old trolleys still run regularly?

Bacalao, Pasteles de Nata, and …more Good Food

John and I arrive early in dreary Lisbon this past puente and of course make a bee-line for the first coffee shop we find. The streets are quiet, but the pastry shops are already open and serving their signature baked goods to the morning crowd.

After our routine 2-hour coffee, we suddenly realize that his jacket is gone, along with his passport, mobile, mp3-player, house keys, and monthly metro card…not such a good start to our vacation. So after a a visit to the police station and the British Embassy, we settle in to our hostel, take a siesta, and re-gather our holiday spirits.

What we noticed first about the city is that it’s much drabber than Madrid. Lots of dilapidated buildings, paint jobs and renovations needed. It’s also incredibly hilly — my legs got really sore from walking up and down all day. But that’s where the trams and elevadores come in.

But the best thing was the food! A signature Portugese dish is bacalao, or codfish, and I tried it a couple different ways: baked, grilled, and in a rice stew. Food there is not only a lot cheaper than what I’m used to Madrid, but far better in flavor and quality. You can find seafood dishes for 6.50 euros that come with potatoes, veggies, and a salad.

I also tried some grilled squid.

On to dessert…the most popular pastry in Lisbon is the “pastei de nata,” or also “pastei de Belém,” because they originated from the neighborhood of that name in the far western part of the city. They are basically little egg custard pastries, almost the same as the ones you would find in a Chinatown bakery, except they’re eaten at room temperature and are a bit crunchier.

And they’re even better dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon…

We explored the riverside, the castle, Barrio Alto (which is the main shopping and going-out district), and basically walked around in circles all over the city center until we could find our way without a map by the second day.

A view of the “Golden Gate” bridge replica.

The castle Sao Jorge.

By the river Tagus.

The monastery in Belém.

Lisbon by night.

On the fourth and last day, we went to a little village about 40 minutes outside of Lisbon by train, called Sintra. It’s small, picturesque, and cozy, but was heaped with Spanish tourists. Sintra boasts a very unique-looking palace (at least from the outside) atop an endless hill, as well as a castle and cute wine/marmalade shops.

I was glad we got to get out of Lisbon for a bit, as it was getting smaller and smaller the longer we were there. On the whole it was a nice weekend escape from Madrid (and from Spanish food), and we even got to meet up with two friends who were also spending the puente there.