It may have been April but the weather was already warm in Porto and the daylight long. The sunlight hurt my eyes but warmed my cheeks as I crossed River Duoro from Gaia at the south to Porto at the north via Ponte Luis I, the landmark steel arched bridge that appeared on literally every postcard that you could find here. The view was stunning at this time of the day. The sloping city was basking in golden twilight. Sea gulls were circling high above the sky while the locals and tourists thronged at Ribeira, searching for food and entertainments as the sun set in the west.
Upon my descent from the bridge, I found a table at a local restaurant at Ribeira and ordered a seafood platter. I thought it was only fitting to have seafood when you were in the warm Mediterranean weather and close to the water. I was sipping my beer when I heard a voice of melancholy and sorrow drifting in from a distance amidst the clutter of tables, conversations and clinking glasses. It was Fado sung by a busker. It reminded me of what the guide from the free walking tour this morning told me - saudade. The Portugese word for feeling deep nostalgic and longing, often about lost love.
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I have heard a few good things about Porto, no doubt from my Instagram followings where the beautiful pictures of the city slowly and regularly creeping up. I was sold. I need to see the city.
So there I went during the long Easter weekend and checked in to my B&B, an apartment perched on the slope of Rua de 31 de Janeiro with a view overlooking the railway lines running in and out of Sao Bento Station. My local B&B hostess did not speak much English but one thing she said that I must tick off while in Porto was to visit Sao Bento railway station, one of the most beautiful in the world. She was beaming with pride when she said that. There was also no reason not to as the station was only a hop away from where I stayed. She was right, of course. Every time I walked past, I made a detour to visit. The station was like a magnet pulling me in. I felt rude not to. I couldn't help myself every time admiring the tiles, the space and the light, which were simply magnificent.
Porto is heaven for tiles lovers. The entire city is dotted with buildings, mostly churches with walls cladded with the iconic blue and white Azulejo tiles that tell thousands of stories. The locals may have been oblivious to their existence and they walked past without shooting a glance. For me, it was just a precious sight to behold. Along with Sao Bento Station, there were Capela de Santa Catarina, Igreja dos Carmelitas and the Porto Cathedral (Se), to name a few. They were all treasures to me, the type that makes you quicken your foot steps as soon as you see it from a distance as you can't hold the eagerness to stand in front of it and have a close look all over.
While it may have been a decrepit building, Mercado do Bolhao was another favourite place of mine in the city. The spiral staircase leading to the first floor with its metal balustrade and the surrounding wall with peeling paints and cracked tiles under the soft morning lights, provided me with a good introduction of what this place was like. It was full of characters. Past its youth and beauty, it is nonetheless the place the locals frequented for groceries and sundries and the tourists for souvenirs or a peek into the local life.
Compared to the Portuguese capital, Lisbon, Porto is a smaller city. It is also so compact that I walked nearly every where whilst there. The entire city was adorned with many characteristic buildings with Portuguese and the walk was therefore never boring. As a hilly city, the ascent to the top of a steep lane was always rewarded with the picturesque view of the city. My favourite was a slow saunter from Torre de Clerigos to the Palacio da Bolsa through the narrow winding streets that connected both points.
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Writing this post at my flat in east London on a grey day with the dismal rain pelting on my window, I suddenly missed Porto, its warmth and its golden twilight. A sense of melancholy rose up to my chest. Is this what you would call 'saudade'?
My two pennies' worth:
- Walk up to the hill of Rua da Vittoria to Igreja Paroquial da Vitoria for the (orange) roof top view of the city.
- Walk up Rua do Ferraz off Rua das Flores for your best Instagram shot - narrow sloping lane with the Se in the background.
- Cross Ponte Luis I as the sun sets, the view of the city and the river is perfect at this golden hour
- Also during sunset, have a slow stroll around the Se and take in the view of the city as the birds fly back to their nests and darkness befalls. See here.
- Eat lots of pastel de natas at the city's best and oldest bakery, Padaria Ribeiro. I missed it as I thought I would go before I left the city but it was Easter Monday and the bakery was closed! Lesson learnt - don't save the best for last!
- As if it is not enought, the next door bakery Leitaria da Quinta do Paco served the best eclairs in Porto! There you go, back to back eating between pastel de natas and eclairs along the same street, less than a minute away! No reason not to.
- Majestic cafe and Livraria Lello are always full and have long queue. Wake up with the larks if FOMO is real and they are on top of your list of things to cross out.
- I love the traditional grocery shops in Porto. There are a few along Rua Formosa. My favourite has been A Perola do Bolhao. While you are in the area, visit Mercado do Bolhao.