Lots of Port in Porto

Trip Start Aug 16, 2010
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Flag of Portugal  , Northern Portugal,
Wednesday, November 3, 2010

3/11/10

So the next morning I woke up early and packed up all my stuff. Then I grabbed a very quick breakfast at the hostel.  By that I mean that I chugged a glass of the "orange juice" and had some toast and grabbed one of the wrapped pastry things to go.  I double checked my directions with the girl at the front desk of the hostel and then left for the bus station.

I got there just as one of the buses was pulling away; I wasn't too worried at that time though because a new one pulled up almost instantly.  I double checked that this was going to the right terminal.  I had learned that there were two terminals in the Barcelona Airport and they were very far away from each other so it was important to make sure that I went to the right one or there wasn’t enough time to get to the other one were I to make a mistake.  I expected the bus to leave fairly quickly but I ended up waiting for at least 15-20 minutes before the bus finally left.  I wasn’t too worried yet though, because I had left myself a decent cushion of time.  But when we got stuck in morning traffic on the way out of the city I did start to get worried.  By the time we finally got to the airport I knew I was cutting it really close.  I got in line to check in at the Ryan Air line.  I got to the front and was told by the lady at the desk that first I had to go to another line.  That I had in fact waited in the wrong line.  I had to go to this other line to get my boarding pass stamped.  I did that and was also told that it was too late to check my bag, (which I had already paid for) and would have to pay to bring my bag onboard as a carry on.  I was upset by this but didn’t have any time to worry about it.  I ran through the airport to security.  When I finally got through security I didn’t even bother lacing up my boots and sprinted to my gate.  When I got there my heart sunk because there was no one near my gate.  I pretty much knew I was too late.  But I still gave it a try.  I went up to the lady at the desk and showed them my boarding pass and they said it was too late.  I looked out the window and the plane was still just sitting there.  I begged and tried my best to persuade them but they said there was nothing they could do.  I didn’t really believe them.  I had missed the time by about 8 minutes.  They could easily have let me on if they had wanted.  I would bet good money that everyone on the plane hadn’t even finished sitting down and putting their baggage in the over-head compartment yet.  But they checked and told me that their next flight was at 11:00pm that night if I wanted.  So feeling really bummed and disappointed I left and headed back to the front of the airport.  I didn’t really want to wait until 11:00 that night to leave since it was only 10:00am.  I also wasn’t very keen on giving Ryan Air any more money that day since they had just screwed me over hard core.  So I checked with airport information and they said there was another flight in a little over an hour with another airline.  But I had to take a bus to the other terminal to find out how much it was.  Luckily there was a free shuttle between the two terminals, but it was kind of long.  I think it is really weird to basically have two airports, which are so far away from each other.  But I get there and am told by their airlines that they only had 1st class tickets available and they were around 550 Euros, way out of my price range.  But they told me to check with the Portuguese airlines and they might sell the same tickets for cheaper since the two companies had some kind of deal.  They didn’t but they did have cheaper tickets available for a flight at 3:30.  So I bought tickets for that flight.  It cost me about the same as the other Ryan Air flight would have but was much earlier and had the added bonus of not being Ryan Air.  So I had about 5 hours to kill in the Barcelona airport which I spent some time eating napping and writing but mostly playing solitaire on my lap-top.

So I got on my plane and got to the airport.  I made the mistake of saying “gracias” to the flight attendant.  I was immediately corrected, politely but firmly.  “I am not Spanish” she told me, “I am Portuguese, we say Obrigado”.  The Portuguese language to me sounded nothing like the other Latin based languages.  It sounded like a mix of Italian, Spanish and Hebrew.  But almost everyone there spoke English which was good because like in Barcelona my French was useless there, far more people spoke English than French, which surprised me when I would try to use my French, both to try and combat the stereotype of Americans only speaking English and because I honestly thought that due to France’s closer proximity both geographically and phonetically, they would speak more French than English.  I had to take the metro from the airport into the city.  I bought a ticket, but really that wasn’t necessary.  There was no turn-style or anything.  You were just supposed to wave your ticket in front of some automated pillars in the middle of the walk way, but there was nothing and no-one that was there to stop you from just walking through without a ticket.  I made a mental note to remember that when I went back.  I finally got to my stop and took the steps up to the street level.  I had been expecting to arrive at some side street slightly outside of the center.  But I exited right into the main square of the city.  Without really trying I had apparently booked a hostel right in the center of town.  So my first look at the city was really breathtaking.  The architecture of the city is really beautiful, very classical but unique and the city was also very clean.

So I wandered around a bit before I could find the right street for my hostel.  Turns out I had walked past it the first time.  But I got there eventually.  The hostel was movie themed.  Even the stairwell to the second floor which was their main floor had posters from each of the star wars movies, except Episode III.  I was instantly impressed with the hostel.  Their common room was nicely furnished with couches, a nice TV, computers, movie posters, a decent DVD collection and a guitar.  I picked it up and played a little bit while I waited for the girl to finish something with another guest.  Then I was shown to my room which turned out to be themed on the director Almodovar Cruz.  Each of the rooms had a different theme, such as The Godfather, Clockwork Orange, Tim Burton, Corpse Bride, Ice Age etc.  I was a little disappointed in my rooms theme.  I had never heard of this director or, (to my knowledge) seen any of his movies.  But I was told by some of the other occupants that he had made many good movies and often used Penelope Cruz as a main character.  So I had several pictures of Penelope Cruz from various movies and some movie posters decorating my room so, I guess there’s not too much to complain about there, could be worse ;-)

Each night at this hostel they had events in the common room.  So for about 1.50 Euros I had several glasses of red and white Porto wine and had a great time meeting all the other exchange students there.  There were travelers from Belgium, Australia, Ireland, New York, Spain and Romania.  There was a couple from Belgium, who were lots of fun.  The guy was Australian (and got very drunk) and the girl was from Belgium.  We talked international politics and movies themed on our various places of origin.  Turns out making fun of Bush is fun everywhere, so I was right at home.  But it was really interesting hearing each person make fun of their own stereotypes and countries of origin.  The couple from Belgium explained that Heineken is hardly ever drunk in Belgium; apparently they customarily do not export their best beers.  Australia does not consume Fosters, which I found very surprising based on the massive ad campaigns in the US convincing us that Fosters is “Australian for Beer”.  And not to leave Ireland out, apparently Guinness is not very common in Ireland according to the Irish guy.  So after learning quite a bit about foreign beers we all decided to head out in search of a pub.  I don’t think anyone really knew exactly where we were going but it’s pretty hard to wander very far in any decently sized city in Europe without finding some kind of bar or pub.

The one we found turned out to be quite lively.  It was filled with several large groups of younger locals.  And later we were joined by a very jolly group that I think may have been a wedding party.  I got a very large mug of beer and although I have no idea exactly how big it was, (I had had quite a bit of port and some vodka already), I just know that it was much cheaper than in Aix.  Everything in Both Barcelona and even more so in Porto was really cheap especially by comparison to Aix.  Several of us also got some local specialty dish for dinner.  I can’t remember what it was called, mostly because I couldn’t even pronounce it in the first place.  But it was basically a bowl with a big square of meat, with some more spicy meat some good spicy meaty sauce and covered in cheese.  It was essentially a cardiac arrest in a bowl, so therefore it was of course delicious.  Spices, meat, more meat and cheese… My favorite!  Occasionally the large group of local youth would all stand up and start singing loudly.  None of us knew the words of course but all joined in none the less and sang along as best we could.  They all thought this was great and we all sang and drank together for a while.

That night I was sharing my room with a girl who I think was from Germany.  She had hiked here way here.  She was on some kind of pilgrimage, which is apparently very common here in Europe.  I forget exactly what it’s called, but a lot of students and youth here do it at some point.  There are trails from all over Europe which all go to some city in Spain.  It sounds like a lot of fun.  I’ve already met several people here who have done it at one point or another.

The next morning I had an awesome breakfast with this French couple, which was nice because I got to practice my French, which I was surprised to discover was improving.  I’m not sure why but after that conversation was when I really realized that I had made a significant amount of progress, although, I am still not at the level that I want to be at.  Breakfast was great, at least for a hostel.  It was actually quite good, although I’m not sure if every breakfast is forever going to look good by comparison to the abysmal breakfast at my first hostel experience in Barcelona.  I had some kind of chocolate cereal, coffee and bread with Nutella.  I then asked for suggestions from the girl at the front desk, as to what the best sites to see were and where to find the Porto caves.  She recommended a bus tour. I ended up purchasing a ticket to this tour where you could ride around with a audio tour and get off and on at any stop and look around at the sites and then get back on the next bus.  For a little extra I also got a boat ride up and down the river through the center of the city.

So I headed off to the bus stop.  Since I had missed my flight the day before, I only had today to see the entire city.  So I figured this tour was the most time efficient way to see as much as possible.  Since the main reason that I had come to Porto was to see the caves and try as much Porto wine as I could I wanted to make sure I left plenty of time for that.  So most of the city I saw from the top of a bus as it drove by.  I only got off the bus once to take a couple pictures and got right back on again.  I would have liked to see some of the sites in more detail but I simply didn’t have time.  But I did see quite a bit and learned a lot from the audio tour.  The city was very beautiful, many of the buildings were also covered in colorful tile work like in Barcelona, but it wasn’t quite the same, it had a distinct character.  Many of the buildings especially the churches had their tiles painted in blue and white, which made them look almost like Flow Blue China.  As we drove along the beach the wind which was decently strong that morning was creating some really dramatic waves that were nearly as tall as the lighthouse they were crashing against.  I got some cool pictures.  If I had had more time I would really have like to walk along that section of the route.  I really hope I have a chance to come back to Porto someday and do some more thorough exploring.  Along the river I got to see some of the old boats that they used to use to bring the port wine from the vineyards to the caves in the city to age.  The boats looked like old Viking ships which is apparently what they originated from.

I got off at the last stop which dropped me off right along the river which is right where many of the Porto caves are located.  My first stop was at the Croft Port Winery.  It is, (according to them) the oldest port company in the city, established in 1678.  They have pretty much existed as long as port wine is known to have existed.  They had a free tour and I got to taste two glasses of wine for free!  One white at the beginning, (I didn’t even know that white port existed) and one red at the end of the tour.  I also purchased two more glasses of different styles of port they had mentioned that I wanted to try.  Because, well wasn’t this the reason I came to the city in the first place?

For those of you who don’t know, port wine is basically wine that has its fermentation process interrupted by the addition of a grape brandy.  This makes the wine sweeter and stronger.  It is then aged anywhere from 6 to 100 years before drinking.  It lasts much longer than regular wine and in my opinion is much better.  Although I still love the original, what a classic!  I ended up buying two bottles, both as gifts for family and friends back home.  One is a “Vintage” port wine.  This means that the grapes were picked on a year where the weather was just right and the year was declared by a government agency to be a vintage year and then that vineyard had its wine sampled and approved to be of vintage quality.  The grapes are crushed by foot only as this doesn’t break the seeds giving a slightly bitter flavor to the wine.  After the fermentation and addition of the brandy it is then bottled un-filtered.  This will add flavor and character to the wine as it ages in the bottle instead of the barrel for up to 100 years or more.  The year I bought was 2005.  And I was told to save it for at least 5 years before drinking it.  Although they said the longer I wait the better and that it would likely reach its best quality in 50 years.  But I don’t think that my dad will wait that long.  Yep, spoiler alert!  Dad I bought you a really nice bottle of Port as your present.  Only down side is you have to wait at least 5 years before you can enjoy your present, sorry.  But I think it will be worth it, guess we’ll have to wait and see.  I was told that it is a popular tradition for people to buy a bottle of vintage port on the year when a child or grandchild is born, save it and then give it to them later on in life when they are old enough to enjoy it.  It’s supposed to be like an investment, because it increases in quality and value over time.  This is all according to my guide of course.

After this winery I went to one other Graham’s, established in 1820, which was recommended to me by hostel, plus I got another free tour at this one since they had some kind of deal with the bus tour company.  This one was really interesting as well, you would think that it would be the same as the other winery but I learned lots of new information here as well.  Plus I got to see the personal wine collection of the family that owned it.  The pictures are a little blurry due to the low light and my not so fancy camera so forgive me.  At the end of the tour we tasted three glasses of different varieties port wine. I bought another nice bottle as a gift at this winery as well.

After this it was getting kind of late so I headed back to take my boat tour.  I would have liked to visit another cave but I was afraid that the boat tours would stop and I wasn’t sure when they stopped, plus I was starving and was already feeling a little tipsy.  So I found place that had some spicy pizza with Tabasco sauce in the pizza sauce.  I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how much I miss spicy foods so I can never resist anything that claims to be spicy.  So I stopped and had a nice pizza.  Although I wolfed it down so fast I hardly had time to enjoy it.  But I was really afraid that the boat tours were going to stop soon.  So when I was done I headed across the bridge to the other side of the river and got on the boat.

            The ride was really fun.  They didn’t talk or give you any information but it was fun to see the city from the river.  All along the river there were what were essentially ruins, though they didn’t appear to be incredibly old.  But they were slowly being covered by vines and plants so there was kind of an air or nostalgic romance about them.  I think I accidently ended up on the perfect boat tour.  At the beginning it was still light enough to see everything clearly, but when the boat turned around and started heading down river toward the ocean we had great view of the sunset and then when we turned around again and headed back to the dock we got a beautiful view of the city at night with all of its lights turned on.  I overheard the two girls sitting in front of me on the boat speaking French together and asked them (in French) if they would take a picture of me, which they did.

That night back at the hostel there was a whole new group of travelers from all over the place including a German family I think from Bavaria who had their two young sons.  This was funny at moments when we older travelers fell into subject material that was not quite appropriate for them and then caught ourselves and tried to cover.  But the parents didn’t seem too bothered by this, which I found a little weird.  That night they had more port, these weird beans, (they apparently grow on trees and kind of taste like wet peanuts) and some flame roasted cured sausage of some sort.  The guy who worked there who was supposed to be cooking for us had never cooked like this before so it kind of turned into a team effort, where the goal was to try to get them cooked without them tasting like charcoal.  There were two other girls at the hostel who were also from Bavaria, although I don’t remember if they were from there of just studying there.  That night was one of their birthdays so they asked who wanted to go out to a club or bar with them.  No one else wanted to go, I wanted to make use of my last night in Porto, plus it was her birthday after all so I felt bad that no one else wanted to go.  They were all busy playing a karaoke video game when we left.  The girls had found out about a Reggae club in the city from one of the employees at the hostel, which I thought sounded like a lot of fun, and very different from all of the clubs in Europe I have been to so far.

We had a lot of trouble finding it and had to ask directions more than once.  We finally found a building with a sign that matched the name that we had been given.  But it looked more like a house and the one window we could see into looked more like an office.  We stood outside for a while trying to decide what to do.  Should we knock?  If it wasn’t a club, we would look pretty stupid knocking on the door of and office or private residence.  I was trying to look through the mail slot when a random guy walked up and asked us if we wanted to go in.  He didn’t speak any or very much English.  But we tried to gesture no and that we didn’t know where we were.  But to our horror he just knocked on the door and when a lady came to the door he walked off.  We stood there in silence for just a second not really sure what to say since we weren’t sure if this was the right place and hadn’t actually been the ones to knock on the door.  But the girl just handed us cards and ushered us in the door.  So I guess we had found it.  We didn’t really know how to respond but once inside she finally explained that these were cards for drinks and that we would get them stamped and pay for the drinks when we left.  Finally things were making sense.

We went inside and were very disappointed to find that we were the only people there.  There was a really cool backyard area the two cool bars.  But it was totally empty.  So we decided to each order a drink and see what happened between now and when we finished.  If no one had shown up by then we would leave.  A little later a French guy with a scraggily beard came in and I invited him to join us at our table since he looked sad and awkward alone at his table.  So I figured we could all be sad and awkward together all alone in our private bar.  But luckily people slowly started to trickle in.  I learned from the bar tender that the DJ came on at 1:00am and we had arrived right when they had opened at 12:00.  I really don’t get how everything starts so late here.  France and Spain do the same thing.  I think it’s because they take a nap in the middle of the day, so they have the energy to eat at 8:00, start partying at midnight and dance until 3:00 on a Wednesday night.  But I’ll never get used to that, it seems inefficient to me, oh well… when in Rome…  Eventually a bunch of people arrived and we ended up having a great time.  Everyone was really chill we dance and drank and did what one would expect to do at a reggae themed club.  Inside in the dance room everyone was smoking, it was so thick one might have expected it to be coming from a fog machine, except for the smell.  Before I knew it, it was past 3:00 and the girls wanted to go home.  So we headed home and thus ended my last night in Porto.

The next morning I woke up and left for the airport extra early.  I was not going to miss another flight on the same trip.  This time all went according to plan.
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