Our last big “vacation event” together was a trip to the U.S. last year, but Jo and I have settled into a pattern of short breaks every few weeks – me typically to Budapest, Jo to Vienna, Bratislava and sometimes further afield. She likes to meet her friends, I like to wander the streets anticipating the next eating/drinking opportunity (which never seems to be far away). Bliss for me is a café table on the water, glass of dry white in one hand and a new book in the other.
I think it was in April or May this year when Jo started making her plans for Rome in the fall, and I felt this gave me the perfect excuse to set out a bit further afield myself. I thought about Corsica and Sardinia, Sicily and Bosnia – primarily thinking of dining opportunities and also, of course, the wines on offer. Rural France was another possibility, as was Portugal – in fact, Portugal was the first place we ever considered retiring, way back when in the ‘90s.
So I read and considered, and learned more and more about Portuguese seafood and wine. Porto, in the north, seemed for some reason more interesting to me than Lisbon, even though it’s not exactly off the beaten tourist path.
I’m not sure why.
Ultimately I think it was the descriptions and reviews of a particular hotel in Porto that decided for me; specifically, the Castila Santa Caterina Hotel. It was presented as quirky to the point of bizarre, with beautiful secluded gardens in a less-frequented, actually rather seedy part of the city. And it seemed like there was no lack of quality seafood in the area (we’re a bit starved for seafood here in landlocked Slovakia).
So I made my arrangements for Porto, the first week of July.
I decided on the 5th, so that Jo and I could spend July 4 together. I’d have to take the train, of course, so that she had the car while I was gone. Rather, I’d take the train to Bratislava, spend the night at the Kempinski, and fly out of Vienna airport the next day.
The 2 ½ hour train journey was quite pleasant – I had a first class compartment with A/C and WiFi to myself (Slovaks hardly ever spend the extra 4-5 euros on the much more comfortable first class – it’s an unconscionable waste of money). And of course the wonderful, loving arms of the Kempinski in Bratislava (or any Kempinski, for that matter) never fail to relax and soothe. I had to ride to the airport (about 35 minutes) in a BMW 7 series instead of the Rolls, but I was feeling charitable, so I let it pass without complaint.
The flight to Frankfurt was exceptionally smooth – no need to ever show a passport or even handle a piece of paper; the whole thing was done through boarding passes sent to my mobile. All in all the trip took about 5 hours, and I was on the ground in Porto around 3:30. I’d have time to watch most of the Wimbledon singles final between Djokovic and Federer, although surely poor Roger didn’t stand a chance.
My first impressions on the expressway into Porto were of South Florida, but then I realized that the temperature was pleasant (mid 70s and clear), and that the terrain was a bit hilly. So maybe something like San Diego was more appropriate.
We arrived at the hotel in 20 minutes, and I got my first look at the famous gardens:
Shortly thereafter, I got my first look at my room. It was tiny. I actually had the impression – though I now see it’s an exaggeration – that the large(ish), beautifully tiled bathroom was bigger than the room itself. Yes, exaggerated, but not too far off.
And there was no Wimbledon on the TV! What’s wrong with these people?
But there was WiFi, so I pulled out my laptop and found the match, then crawled up into bed to watch. Necessary, since there was no room to sit down anywhere.
Damn! Fed came back from 2-5 in the fourth, but still lost. OK, now let’s get out and see this town.
The old historical center and the river are down one very long hill from the Santa Caterina – maybe a mile and a half. I walked past one empty shop after another, separated by shuttered, closed buildings. The street was virtually deserted. Yes, this was a slightly seedy area, and the effect with all the closed businesses was depressing. I know the Portuguese economy is in the tank, and here was the proof. I even started thinking about the logistics of returning home early.
I felt a little better as I trudged on, but not much – bums here and there, and lots of shuttered shopfronts. Finally I reached the river, obviously where all the tourist action is. Much better. I stopped at a tapas bar/wine shop on the water. I could finally approximate my bliss point. Nice wine, nice tapas, good book … yes, much better.
Of course, one can’t stay at a place like this forever (as much as I might like to) – at some point you must move on, so I did. Along the riverside were many outdoor-seating restaurants, providing a pleasant enough atmosphere. It was quite obvious that almost all the clientele were tourists, so I was a bit dubious about the quality of the food, but I eventually settled on an ok-looking place and had a serviceable prawn curry starter and a confit duck leg with a wonderfully crunchy skin. I’ll give it a 6+. Oh what the hell – a 7.
Wow, it’s already 11pm! I was worried about the whole Iberian late dining thing, but it actually came quite naturally and was never really a problem. Taxi up the big hill and to bed.
Since I didn’t want to simply wander through depressing streets back to the same place I saw last night, I decided that I needed an agenda – a goal for the day. A little browsing led me to “the 3rd best bookstore in Europe” - (per the Guardian), with a beautiful interior and a good selection of English books, so I decided to find it and check it out.
I set up the location in my mobile GPS and took off on foot.
And my mobile led me right there. The weather was perfect and the streets lively. A nice variety of shops was open, with a vibrant buzz in the air. I immediately realized that a) this was a nicer part of town and b) yesterday was Sunday. Of course everything was closed! Much (though not all) of what I’d seen was not “out of business” shut, but merely “Sunday”shut.
I passed several of the famous blue tiled churches, cafés, plazas, streetcars and tourists. A great antidote to yesterday; I was feeling much better.
I reached the bookstore only to find a big crowd outside waiting to get in. It turns out that, unusually for a bookstore, this is a big tourist attraction.
The inside is filled with people, stopped in the aisles and gawking as if they were in a cathedral. And the interior is reminiscent of a cathedral, with wonderful wood carvings substituting for Gothic stonework.
Outside I had been amused to see a sign grudgingly allowing photos “Mondays from 9-10”, along with a couple of “no photos” signs. I was late for the one hour window, hence the lack of photos here. Here are a couple I stole:
So there are all these gaping tourists inside, most of whom look like they’ve never been in a bookstore before, and the employees are absolute fascists about stamping out photo-taking. There’s even one guy whose job it is to stand at the top of the stairs and periodically yell “NO PHOTOS!”
I can see why the owners are annoyed – very few of this crowd are buying anything. Still, they seem a bit excessive with the anti-photo hysteria. And maybe they’d sell more books if they had ANY English selection at all, which they didn’t. Maybe along with some guidebook/tourist type stuff. They probably thought that would be an abandonment of their deeply-held principles or something.
The interior was impressive, though.
My visit to the bookstore over, what I need to do now was to buy some books. I typed “English bookstore Porto” into my phone and it located one, to which it then led me. I’m again in awe of this technology.
Walking to the bookstore, the city continues to grow on me. I notice a nice looking place for lunch – the “Progressive Café”, founded in 1899, apparently the oldest in the city.
Returning with my Updike novel (Roger’s Version – very amusing), I may have been just a bit late, since almost everything on the menu was sold out. After perusal of several menus, I’ve started to get the impression that all anyone eats here is cod and octopus - and I’m a big fan of neither. But I did see a nice looking piece of cod on a kid’s plate as I walked in, so I ordered the “Golden Cod”. Ooops, wrong thing – what I got was chunks of cod mixed with chunks of fried potatoes.
But it really wasn’t bad at all – I actually enjoyed it. I was a little put out that the accompanying glass of wine cost an outrageous 89 cents, but I got over it.
After lunch I walked some more, continuing to enjoy the city.
I Eventually ended up at the outdoor bar at the Intercontinental, on the Placa Liberdad.
I briefly consider that I should have stayed here, but I do a quick price check and find that it costs 4 times what I’m paying at my castle up the hill, so it's probably I good thing I didn’t see this first, especially since my room may have been no bigger here.
Dinner time was approaching, so I asked my phone for the best seafood restaurant in Porto, and it directed me to one a few blocks away. I linger over Updike until a semi-respectable 8:00, and then set off.
Well, the place didn’t look like much – perhaps the app interpreted “best”as “closest”. But right across the street is a place that looks good to me, and the menu posted outside looks good too, so I settle on it – undeterred by the fact that it’s called “Restaurant Coma”.
I wasn’t terribly hungry so I just ordered a salad and two starters – specifically an asparagus and tomato salad with parmesan (OK, the tomatoes were not the greatest), crab croquettes (fine, but nothing special; no chunks of crab), and a prawn/onion tempura (slightly doughy, barely warm). This and two glasses of wine set me back 42 Euros. The staff were friendly and professional, and the portions were HUGE.
Then back to my tiny room for reading in bed.
I woke to overcast skies – in fact, it looked really dark. Then I noticed that housekeeping had lowered the metal blind covering the window from the outside, so I raised it, but it was still pretty cloudy. I contemplated the possibility of staying all day in the hotel in case of persistent rain – there’s a reading room downstairs that’s actually pretty nice.
In fact, the common areas in this property really are pretty amazing:
And so is the garden outside:
But to stay here all day? What kind of vacation would that be?
So despite the clouds I did a little research on a main goal of this trip – a day trip north up the coast, hoping to find a beachside “seafood shack” kind of place, like the one in St. Augustine that my friends Arlye and Frank have found and love so much (I’m jealous every time I hear about it).
TripAdvisor recommends a place called “A Cabana” in the small town of Apulia, just about 30 miles to the north. The praise is glowing, and it’s reinforced by many reviews on other sites.
But how to get there? Google tells me I can take a bus out of Porto at 11 am, so I download the bus company’s app to my phone, then buy and download the bus ticket as well. Then I locate the bus station via Google maps, and set up the GPS to lead me there on foot.
On the way to the bus the weather cleared up quite a bit. I also noticed that my hotel’s street improved quite a bit as I progressed downhill, toward the river. I never would have found the bus station without the GPS app; it actually appeared to be completely unmarked! Got there with about 10 minutes to spare and found my seat behind a 20-something hippie couple (he ginger, English; she French) on a very comfortable, modern bus that was only about half full.
Freeway most of the way; one intermediate stop on the way to Esposenda, the closest stop to Apulia. I trusted that there would be a cab at the bus station and I wasn’t disappointed. A 10 minute cab ride and I was deposited at A Cabana.
Yes, it is a “seafood shack”, as I had hoped. The menu is simple, and of course there are some items you needn’t even consider – who would order steak or chicken at this place? (The girl sitting next to me, it turns out – and, as always, I was briefly tempted by the baby backs).
But for me it’s a “cabana salad” (half portion) and a stuffed crab.
I was lucky to get here early – around 12:30 – so it was easy to get a little two-spot snug against the wall. When I left around 2:00, people were waiting to get in. One comment I saw repeatedly on the review sites was to the effect that “it’s interesting that this place is always full, while the other restaurants around are nearly empty”. I confirmed this later.
OK, so the food arrives – the half salad and a stuffed crab with a carafe of vinho verde. And it’s huge. The entire table is covered.
The salad is made of lettuce, shredded carrot, egg, pickled peppers and shrimp. And, most importantly, a great heirloom tomato, one of the best I’ve ever had. Almost on the level of the famous Torcello tomato of 2003.
The crab was giant – a giant stone crab, its shell filled with the “crab paste” intended to be smeared on bread, topped with meaty chunks. The claws legs and body were left for me to extract the copious meat.
This was exactly what I’d been looking for, the main hopeful reason I’d come to Portugal in the first place.
I’d say the room held about 70 covers, arranged mostly on long, shared tables, so the room was actually much smaller and more intimate than you’d expect for that number.
A family of three teenage girls and mom and dad sat next to me, and as the room filled – with old ladies, middle aged couples, young adults, children and babies (all Portuguese, it seemed), the experience became more than just a meal, but one of those unexpected encounters with the beauty of the human spirit that makes you glad to be alive.
The boisterous waiters were slapping bald clients on the head, flirting with the old ladies and winking at the teenage girls, calling out to each other and to the customers as they worked the room like absolute pros.
Oh, and the food was fantastic.
All in all one of the best dining experiences of my life.
But this too must come to an end, so after lunch I made my way over the dunes to the beach.
I didn’t feel like waiting here 3 hours for the bus back to Porto, so I called my cab driver, who was happy to make the drive.While waiting outside I saw a young lady get hit by a car – knocked her down good – much angry gesticulating from passers-by, so the driver produced a wife and child from inside the car, presumably to prove that he was a decent family man and not a homicidal maniac driver. The wife did her job of comforting the victim, who appeared to have sustained nothing worse than a broken ankle. The gesticulating slowly subsided.
Tonight’s big event is the Brazil/Germany World Cup semifinal. It won’t be hard to find a place to watch it – after Portugal’s disappointing failure to get past the group stage (thanks largely to the USA!), the Portuguese fan base shifted en masse to Brazil. Lots of t-shirts, Brazilian flags flying from the windows, etc.
So the problem was not to find a place to watch, but to find the right place to watch. I was thinking of something slightly divey with a raucous clientele, and I had noticed a couple of places like that along the riverside yesterday. So, after an an afternoon of serious lolling about in cafes, I headed down to the river.
It didn’t take long to find the outdoor viewing area, with a big screen and tables set up, beer and burgers, etc. Perfect! I took a table in front of an excited group of Brazil fans and behind another. I only saw one brave guy wearing a Germany shirt. The area filled up fast, so I offered space at my table to a young Canadian couple. She was sulking – most definitely did not want to be there.
I ordered a burger and fries (awful) and a beer (fine) and settled back to watch the game.
Well, we witnessed history. After the third German goal of the first half, the Brazil fans were glum. After the 4th and 5th (in the first half!) they were just laughing. Incredible.
I left for a taxi home in the middle of the second half, and missed 3 more goals in that 20 minute period. Germany finally won 7-1, with only a Brazil goal in the 90th minute preventing a shutout. Lay in bed reading online about how shocking, amazing, incredible (etc.) it was. And it was!
Walked down Santa Caterina first thing this morning – the same ground I covered yesterday, but today I could be a little more leisurely. Stopped for tea at the Café Majestic. I mostly did it for JoEllen; this is the place where J K Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book. Sadly, I forgot to take a picture.
Today’s goal is to get to the other side of the river, where all the port houses – the warehouses of the big port firms – are located. They all offer tours and tastings, which might be interesting (some other time). It looks like there are quite a few nice restaurants and bars over there too, so my plan is to get over there for lunch, then lounge around at an outdoor table or three until it’s time for this evening’s World Cup match – Holland vs. Argentina. Of course, there’s no question who I’m pulling for … HUP HOLLAND HUP!
To get to the other side, I’d have to cross the famous symbol of Porto, the Dom Luis bridge. It’s a most impressive structure, designed by a partner of Gustave Eiffel (and it’s quite evident) and the longest iron span in the world when it was built in 1886.
The lower deck is for cars and pedestrians, while the upper – much, much higher – is for trains and pedestrians. I happen to be positioned to cross the upper deck.
I know it’s silly, since there’s a guardrail at shoulder height, but I have to admit I’m a little uncomfortable walking too close to the railing. Of course, if I come out to the middle of the deck, I’ll get hit by a train, so I really have little choice.
The views are amazing, though (if difficult to capture with a camera).
It looks like the only way to get down from the bluff once I’ve crossed is via teleferique. I’m able to snag a car all to myself and enjoy the trip down. Not scary, but fun
While in the gondola, I spotted what looked to be the most promising restaurant on this side of the river, so after I disembarked I walked back to give it a try. It was a good choice – I had a salad some nice homemade prawn pappardelle and (finally!) a glass of port.
Took my time, then spent a few lazy hours reading at outdoor cafes. The weather and surroundings beautiful, just a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
Finally I crossed the bridge again (this time on the lower level!) and made my way back to the big screen TV to watch the game. I found a Dutch couple to sit next to (actually, I was surprised at the amount of orange in the crowd) and we watched a rather boring 0-0 game, which the Dutch lost in penalties. Oh well.
I’m leaving today, and I’ve planned my day carefully. “If I’m out the door at 9:15, I’ll be in a taxi at 9:30 and at the airport by 10:15…” After a cup of tea, which I had to drink standing up, I packed up and made my “hotel sweep” thinking all the time that it was a little ridiculous to be doing that in such a small room.
I checked out, paid the 280 Euros for the four night stay, and was in a cab to the airport right on schedule. What an organized, experienced traveler I am!
Or so I thought, until the driver got a call from the hotel – it seems I had left my jacket in the wardrobe! For about 2 seconds I debated just leaving it, but it was a really nice Brooks Brothers, and I thought I had enough time to retrieve it and still make my flight.
Then, just after we turned around, we hit the first traffic jam I’d seen on the whole trip (accident on the expressway).
We made it, though. The driver hit 100 mph (162 kph) on the way to the airport and we arrived at 10:15. He got a good tip.