After thirteen days in Spain, Daniel and I flew from Barcelona into Porto, Portugal. The flight was only an hour long, and since both countries are part of the Schengen Zone we didn’t need to go through any border control checks, which was convenient. As the plane descended I was amazed at how green the Portuguese countryside was. It was like looking down at an enormous golf-course, all covered with lawn and trees.
Porto is the second biggest city in Portugal with a population of a little less than a quarter million. It sits on the Douro River and is near the Atlantic coast. It’s an old city, dating back to Roman times, and has many of the features I’ve come to associate with old European cities: narrow and winding cobblestone roads, old churches, and remnants of city walls.
Daniel and I are staying in an apartment in the downtown area, about a ten minute walk from the riverfront. The entire city is pretty hilly, which makes getting around more challenging, especially since the public transportation isn’t nearly as good here as in Barcelona. (There is a metro system, but it doesn’t reach much.) The bright side of this is that when I go for runs even a short distance makes me feel like I’m dying, which I’m telling myself is probably great for improving my lung capacity.
We have discovered that the reason it’s so green around Porto is because it rains a lot. Apparently it rains something like 50 inches and 155 days a year on average. It hasn’t rained very hard yet, but there are many days where it drizzles on and off. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that the apartment we’re staying in has no heat. (We seem to have reoccurring issues with heat in the places we stay.) I have never heard of a modern building with no heat–no AC is one thing, but I think of heat as a necessity (unless you’re in, like, Thailand). The apartment does have a fireplace, so we have been getting good at starting fires and in the evenings we huddle around it like we’re old-time pioneers living in a log cabin. Honestly, it’s not great, I worry that I will never get the smoke smell out of my hair, but it’s a good motivation to get out of the house.
Portugal is known for its tile-covered buildings. It’s common for older apartments, churches, shops and government buildings to have a tiled exterior. The tile designs range from a single solid color to very colorful and elaborate motifs. For more important buildings the tiles will often be painted like a large mural, usually depicting historical or religious scenes. The overall effect is to make Porto a very colorful city. I honestly had never thought about putting tile on the outside of a building, and it seems like maintaining it would be difficult (lots of more neglected buildings have patches of tile missing), but it does look very pretty.
Because of its proximity to water, fish and fishing play a big part in the culture and cuisine in Porto and Portugal. Sardines, in particular, are a common export from this area, though they also fish tuna, eels, mackerel, etc. What’s kind of odd though, is that the most common fish used in cooking is cod, which they don’t catch locally and instead have to import from Iceland. Called bacalhau in Portuguese, the cod is generally bought dried and salted, and you have to soak it in water for several days to rehydrate it before cooking. It’s actually pretty rare to prepare fresh cod, which is also strange, because modern supply chains are sophisticated enough to import fresh cod, and it would be a lot easier to cook.
The Portuguese eat more cod per capita than any other country in the world. Bacalhau is on every restaurant menu. It’s eaten boiled, grilled, made into fritters, in soups, and more. There is a saying that there are over 365 ways to prepare bacalhau, so you can eat it a different way every day of the year. On restaurant menus there will be a section for meat, a section for fish, and a separate section for bacalhau–that’s how important salted cod is in Portuguese cuisine.
Soups are also a big part of diet, and the primary way of eating vegetables. In the same way that in the States you can buy bagged greens for different salads (caesar salad mix, “asian” salad mix, baby greens mix, eg) here the grocery stores package the vegetables into soup mixes: caldo verde mix, carrot soup mix, etc, so that you only need to add the bag to some broth for a meal.
Daniel and I try to cook most of our meals, so we spend a lot of time in grocery stores. It’s an interesting way to learn about a culture (and try new snacks!), but when you can’t read the labels or talk to the shop assistants it can also be a huge headache. Written Portuguese has some similarities to written Spanish, with some extra letters. Spoken Portuguese however, sounds totally different. It actually sounds kind of like Russian to me. (I looked it up and found this video explaining why those two languages sound similar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pik2R46xobA.) Daniel and I can’t pronounce it at all (we’ve tried and no one understands us), so we’ve been using a lot of miming to get around. A few days ago we bought a kilogram of fresh clams from the grocery store, and trying to explain what we wanted to the lady working the seafood counter was very difficult (lots of pointing and hand signals).
One reason for English being less prevalent here as compared to Barcelona could be that tourism is still fairly new to Porto. According to our walking tour guide, tourism has only really taken off in the last four years–kickstarted in 2014 when some travel agency named Porto The Best European Destination. So while there are some parts of town that are definitely pandering to visitors (some parts of the waterfront, for example) outside of those the city still feels very residential.
On our first day here, Daniel and I visited the Livraria Lello bookstore, which is famous for being where JK Rowling did some of her early writing on the Harry Potter series. Porto is very proud of its association with JK Rowling. Apparently Rowling taught English in Porto for a couple of years and started writing the first Harry Potter book during that time. Livraria Lello has become a huge tourist attraction for Harry Potter fans, so much so that you now need to buy tickets to go inside. I visited with Daniel, and while it is a beautiful space, I thought it was kind of a shame that it has become so popular because nowadays it’s so jam-packed with people taking pictures that it’s almost impossible to actually browse any of the books they are selling.
Locals can reel off a whole list of ways that Porto influenced the Harry Potter series (but some of them sound like real stretches to me). One that checks out is that she named the founder of the House of Slytherin–Salazar Slytherin, who in the book is portrayed as a smart but bad dude–after the former dictator of Portugal, António de Oliveira Salazar, whom the locals seem to also consider a smart but bad dude. I was surprised that it was only recently that Portugal moved away from dictatorship, which happened in 1974, shortly after Salazar’s death. No one we spoke to had much good to say about Salazar or his policies, and if you want to go down the rabbit hole, you can read about the fascist regime he founded.
Obviously, Daniel and I are having a good time learning about the history and culture here in Porto. Other than the gloomy weather, we are enjoying the city. After Barcelona, it’s nice to be in a place that’s a little greener and less built up. Porto has an older, quainter feeling that I find charming, and I’m appreciating the slower change of pace.