I am by no means an expert on European travel but this just had different written all over it. I had been eyeing a trip to the westernmost country in continental Europe after having heard a lot about the culture, the food, and of course the architecture. It is also the country known to be the most laid back and maybe even a little cheaper than others. The challenge was a lack of direct flights but then several airlines did provide good one layover options. My connections were messed up by the closure of Pakistan airspace, but that gave me an evening in Istanbul on the way in, during the layover. Not ideal, but I enjoyed the visit to Hagia Sophia and the food. I had timed my time in Porto to coincide with the midsummer’s festival and that was the best decision I made. It was an unforgettable evening and night.
Once inside, there are several to do – the most popular being Lisbon, Porto, the Faro district in the Southern parts, and the Madeira islands. I was keen on a relaxing break after a series of hectic trips and chose to visit only Lisbon and Porto. While the Faro district has amazing beaches, they are not that much different or special. The Madeira Islands are quite stunning looking but then would have meant another flight and making the 8-day trip more crammed. So it ended up being an even split between Porto and Lisbon. I had booked return flights to Lisbon, but due to the airspace issue, I managed to change my inbound flight to one that landed at Porto. So all that left was a simple matter of finding a one-way train. It is a very comfortable 3-hour ride and that is probably the best way to make the trip. It takes 2.5 hours on the Alfa Pendular, the faster train. The slower and older Intercidade trains take 30-minutes more and are probably equally comfortable while costing about 30% less. I had chosen the later train but then taken a first-class seat to make up.
For local transportation within the cities, Uber works great. The average wait time was less than 5 minutes and it usually costs about half of what a regular cab would have. There are trams and local trains that make for great public transport options and then there are the national heritage Funiculars. If you don’t know what they are, google can be handy – they can surely save a lot of walking up steep slopes.
In picking the accommodation, I followed the usual ritual. For shorter stays of 3 or 4 days, I prefer 3 or 4-star hotels typically in the dead center of the city, walkable from at least some attractions. In Porto, this turned out to be a wonderful hotel called Eurostars Porto Centro. The location was true to the name – 10 minutes from pretty much everywhere and 5 from some. In Lisbon, it was the hotel Turim which was really well located, not the best designed.
Local food is amazing and can be very different – unlike most European countries. In Porto, the Francesinha sandwich is made with bread, ham, sausages, and steak. It is typically covered with melted cheese, an egg on top, and a generous portion of a secret sauce that each restaurant prepares with its own touch. It is usually washed down with a small portion of local beer or with wine if you are a tourist. While the locals never have much of it, for a visitor a good taste of Port wine is a must. While full of natural sugar, it has a unique flavor and science behind it that can make you fall in love. They use brandy or some very strong alcohol to kill the yeast mid-way through the fermentation process. The yeast is what is converting the sugar in the grapes to alcohol – so there is a lot of sugar left and because they added some alcohol, there is more of that too. After that remains the small matter of the aging process which can be a few years in a large vat or even some decades in casks.
There were a number of other unique aspects of food starting with the starter plates that the server would just leave on your table not always telling you that it is not complimentary. Even though at times unwanted, the olives and the bread were usually quite nice. The time around midsummer’s eve is the time for the city to feast on grilled Sardines – which are finger-licking good. There is a very unique dish of grilled cod mashed together with thin fried potatoes and some spices. A lot of places around also serve good tapas and the all famous Piri Piri chicken. In most places wine is about as expensive as water – you make your choices wisely.