Window on Porto, Portugal

Umbrellas in the sunshine, plucky pilgrims, lucky roosters, and...

.......pasteis de natas, simply known worldwide as Portuguese tarts.

The best, the creamiest ones we found, in all of Portugal, were at a bustling pastelaria in the beachside dot on the map, Labruge, north of Porto, where we had booked an apartment for a week.

Unable to resist these, warm from the oven, we indulged every morning, along with an excellent cafe con leche, Spanish for 'flat white'

A quick language lesson on a prickly subject. Generally you do yourself no favours by speaking Spanish in Portugal. Imagine addressing a Londoner in French and you get the idea! That said, the Spanish term for your morning coffee (cafe con leche) is generally accepted with a smile.

OR get an even happier response by asking for café com leite.

'Portugal is just like Spain,' we thought, before leaving home. Inserted into the Iberian Peninsula that, after all, is mostly Spain, we reasoned that perhaps Portugal might simply turn out to be more remote and less advanced.

Wrong, wrong, and doubly WRONG!

Despite the 1200-kilometre border, and generally good relations between the two countries, Portugal is proud of the differences.

Difference #1: The Spanish and Portuguese languages may have some similarities but they are also very different. Even 'thank you' is gracias in Spain and obrigado in Portugal.


Now we have dealt with breakfast and manners ... let's see what else Portugal has to offer.

(Quick answer: more than you could possibly expect!) 

So, here we are, crossing the border at the top end of Portugal, headed south on the highway from Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. This might seem like a perfectly adequate sign, but there is an important omission.

Spanish drivers (and having picked up our rental car in Madrid, we were counted as that) need to buy a special carnet to allow them to pass through the tolls without incurring a fine. We found this out days later!


Picture-perfect Porto

Let's begin with Porto, largest city in the area, (pop. 215,000). Our plans were made. We'd researched the city from the internet and guide books and, on that first day imagined visiting famous old churches, relaxing in public gardens, strolling the old streets, a good lunch - and plenty of photo ops.

One thing was right. The photo ops were definitely there, but we hadn't expected a motocross enduro!

The noise was deafening, the course hair-raising (for onlookers as well as participants), and the tension palpable.

Every spot behind the barricades was taken, and the higher vantage points had been secured long before the competition began. At lunchtime, we luckily found this vantage point...

...a delightful spot with views both ways - to the race course...

... as well as the double-decker Dom Luis I bridge over the Douro River. After lunch, a walk across this 176-metre 'coathanger' style bridge, brought us to the 'caves', cellars well known to aficionados of Porto's eponymous liquor, port.

SEE FOR YOURSELF on this video, what Porto is like.

The Douro empties into the sea beyond Porto, but it begins 900 kilometres away in northern central Spain. In its lower reaches it is busy with many types of watercraft...

...ferries, barges, private boats and river ships. 

On this busy day, of course the street performers were in full swing - literally!

See this clever fellow on the VIDEO (above).

On the southern bank of the Douro, the atmosphere is hushed in the caves. Visitors can taste if they wish, or simply explore the various styles and vintages, and of course most people purchase some as a delightful souvenir or gift.

Difference #2: You will only find true port in Portugal. Think of the names: Porto, Portugal, and it all comes from vineyards upriver in the Douro Valley.

Another day we become more mainstream 'tourists' unable to tear ourselves away from buildings like this, the Igreja do Carmo and Igreja dos Carmelitas, adjoining churches whose walls are covered inside and out with the traditional blue and white tiles of Portugal. 

Inside is a single nave with seven lavishly gilded altars.

We soon discovered that churches are not the only buildings that merit tiling. This is the main hall of Porto's Sao Bento railway station.

Every wall is tiled with different themes. Over 20,000 tiles have been used to visually express Portugal's history.

Many other churches too have tiled facades, and it is worth taking time to see the stories in the pictures.

Originally brought by Moorish invaders in the 13th century, these hand-painted blue and white tiles, azulejos, are now found throughout Spain and Portugal. The 16th-century Portuguese King Manuel brought them back from Spain and the fashion caught on.

Even the facades of many private homes are also tiled.

Perhaps this man is asking 'Where are my tiles'?

Porto is a large and busy city with a mesmerising web of streets and laneways. That is fine if you want to just wander, but if you need to get from one place to another quickly, there are 'tuk-tuks'...

...or an excellent tramway network.

Once with more than 20 lines, this heritage tramway, established in 1872 with a mule-drawn tram, operates on three remaining lines.

Difference #3: You will have heard and seen Portuguese Fado music on this page's VIDEO, but when walking around the streets of Porto (or any Portuguese city) watch out for signs like this.

Food and wine will be involved, and the haunting folk songs make for a captivating evening that you will long remember.

Porto's cathedral may look grim on the outside, but take a moment to step inside.

Do this at exactly the right time, as we did, and you will be rewarded with a stunning photograph just like Gordon took (above).


Pilgrims' rest - Labruge

About half an hour north of Porto, and just walking distance from the shores of the Atlantic ocean, tiny Labruge was quiet in early May when we stayed there. We had chosen this location, rather than the city, because we could fan out over several days and explore a number of places. The plan worked well.

It has only a couple of cafes and restaurants, but outside one we met this group. Labruge is on the Porto branch of the Camino Way, one of several routes from many parts of Europe that converge on Santiago de Compostela.

For these four Australians and New Zealanders taking a break in their pilgrimage, it was still 200-plus kilometres north. It is easy to identify a 'pilgrim'. Look out for a scallop shell attached to their kit - see the one on the far right (above).


Let's explore...Vila do Conde

Difference #4: Portugal was here first, established as a kingdom in 1139AD, 300 years before Spain. Of course the two countries banded together as the Iberian Union from the 1500s because this made sense from a defence viewpoint.

Lighthouses like the one above are a reminder of the gutsy Portuguese sailors who explored so much of the world. Because of them and also Portugal's ambition and love of acquisition, many places around the world proudly celebrate their Portuguese heritage. Read more here....

A walk on the sand dunes and here, half a world away, we find some familiar succulents.

The good thing about self-driving and travelling at our own pace is that we can take a road at random and see where it leads. One day we headed a few kilometres north to marvel at the wild Atlantic shore at Vila do Conde.

Every town and village has reminders of the faith of many of the local people, and this tiny one was perched at the beginning of the pathway to the lighthouse (above). 

Some of these churches are hundreds of years old, but they remain regularly in use.

Difference #5: Portugal's main religion is Roman Catholicism (about 80%) whereas it is much lower in Spain.


Barcelos - rooster town

This black galo (rooster) turns up everywhere in Portugal - tiny ceramic models, fridge magnets, even on the side of the road. It symbolises honesty, integrity and honour, and Barcelos claims its link with a miracle, calling the rooster, galo de Barcelos.

Read about the legend...

This ancient city was settled by the Romans, and has been a city since medieval times.

Built on the banks of the Cavado River, it also is on the Camino Way.

Once you know what to look for - a stylised scallop shell - you will see signs everywhere.

Free accommodation and meals for pilgrims are available in towns along the routes... well as places of worship such as this small, yet incredibly ornate, chapel beside the bridge.



Amazing Braga

This university town was all aflutter with preparations for a motor race the next day.

It was mid-May and obviously the end of the year for these students who were kicking back with some mild fun, dressing-up and relaxing in the shopping street.

We had come particularly to see this edifice, the uber-ornate Bom Jesus do Monte. 

Although we chose to drive up the hill to the church, there is also a funicular. Once there, though, you still need to climb 573 steps (over 116 metres higher) for a magnificent view over the town and valley.

With carvings, sculptures, chapels and fountains, it is full of religious symbolism, and ranks extremely highly on Europe's list of sacred mountains.

Bom Jesus is surrounded by 25 hectares of gardens, forest, caves and lakes. For those with more time, there is a hotel in the grounds as well.


Spring in Viana do Castelo

Portugal has so many small towns and villages, we could have stayed all year (now there's a good idea!) and still had more to explore.

One day we travelled north again from Labruge to Viana do Castelo. This ship, the Gil Eannes was a hospital ship that voyaged to Newfoundland and Greenland as a support for trawlers fishing for cod. It is open to the public and is one of the town's major attractions.

The town's name suggests a castle, but the building in the distance is not it. That is Santa Lucia Sanctuary. It's a long walk up, but there is a funicular that takes seven minutes and climbs 150 feet. The stupendous views from the top reward either means of ascent.

The castelo turns out to be the fortress that has been defending the town since the 16th century.

In many towns, people love to celebrate spring and summer, and for this laneway off the main square, Praca da Republica, the locals have raised a rainbow of umbrellas.


The Portuguese palate

After starting with food, let's wrap up the story of this part of Portugal with even more.

Partilha bacalao, salted cod croquettes appear on many menus throughout Portugal, but in Porto this shop specialises in serving just these.

A great selling point is the presentation. If you wish to pair a croquette with a glass of port, it comes this way, and it's simple to hook your thumb in the hole and carry your lunch to the outdoor seating.

The croquettes are even yummier with a cheese filling.

Best of all you can have a free cooking demonstration by watching the workers in the window.

Seafood is one of the specialties of Portugal. With an 1800 kilometre coastline there is an abundance of all sorts of fish and seafood available in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and these are a staple of the Portuguese diet.

Sardines are something of an icon in Portugal and this shop in Porto has added a fun way to market the canned ones. Obviously they are not as old as their labels, but judging by the number of customers, it was a great gift idea.

If you see sardines on a menu, they will probably come like this, much larger than whitebait, tasty, crunchy and thoroughly delicious.

Now here is a heart-stopper. An unusual specialty of Portugal is this sandwich filled with various meats such as ham, sausages and steak, which is then topped with melted cheese and served with fries and tomato and beer gravy. Order it only if you are very hungry - or have someone to share it with!

The Portuguese love sweet treats. Every shopping street has several cake and pastry shops and all have an abundance of truly tempting options. And here we should mention something else unique to Portugal.


Difference #6: Portuguese tarts.

Finally a point of similarity between Portugal and Spain? Tapas are popular but this country has its own version. 

Difference #7: In Portugal these tapas-style offerings are called petiscos - often small tastes of regular menu items, similar to degustation items.

Before we entered Portugal, we had asked a Spaniard: 'What about the Portuguese?' meaning, what are they like?

He paused, sighed gently and said: 'Ah.... they are different'. 

Yes, they are, but you will discover it is a delightful difference.


So much already, yet we are only about a third of the way through our exploration of this amazing country.

Watch out for more very soon.


Pics and words: Sally Hammond

Video: Gordon Hammond


Sally & Gordon Hammond travelled to Portugal independently and stayed there at their own expense.


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