After our short flight from Rome, we freshened up in our hotel room and headed out to explore Porto, hoping to get a taste of the city during our brief stay. We darted into a local eatery for a quick bite to eat, fuel for an afternoon of riverside strolling. The restaurant was eerily empty, mirroring the promenades of shuttered stores outside. O Cacula was dimly lit and contemporary, full of clean lines and exposed stone. We struck up conversation with the friendly owner, Jorge Ribeiro, who spoke excellent English. As we sipped on Super Bock, a popular local beer, Ribeiro chatted about his years managing restaurants in London and his eventual return to Porto to take over his family’s restaurant in 2005. The vibe of Porto, he told us, is laid back, yet artsy. Sure, it didn’t have the movida of Madrid, but it was a livable, inexpensive place. He beamed as he told us the city won an award for tourism two years running.
Soon our dishes arrived: a plate of tomato, mozzarella and pesto, and a set of small hamburgers, called preguinhos. The beef filet sliders, topped with local ham and cheese, melted in our mouths with salty goodness.
Back on the street we continued our stroll down a never-ending hill towards the river Douro, past Gothic style churches and more empty streets. We wondered aloud where all the tourists Ribeiro had mentioned were to be found. Our concierge had mentioned that since it was Sunday, many shops and businesses would be closed. But then, suddenly, there they were: throngs of tourists and locals alike, all butted up against the river. They lined up to board boats, basked in the late afternoon sun at outdoor cafes, and popped in and out of tiny shops. The city’s most famous bridge, Ponte Luís, towered in the background. Made of iron and constructed by a contemporary of Eiffel, the bridge had a hard, industrial look, neither pretty nor ugly.
We decided that we were ready for our next plate of tapas and plopped down at one of the many sidewalk cafes along the Ribeira do Porto. Waiters hustled between the tables at Esplanada Taverna and nearby, a man strummed an acoustic guitar in the plaza. We noshed on our cheese and ham plate and sipped more Super Bock beer, catching tidbits of conversation and folk music that floated through the air.
At our next stop, an entoca, or wine bar, we sat in director’s chairs along the river and sipped samples of port wine. Now somewhat buzzed and bordering on stuffed, we shuffled across the bridge to the other side of the river. We stopped at the busiest spot, Taberninha do Manel, where dozens were sat at outdoor tables. There a server started chatting with us about the food, beckoning us to come inside. As Andre guided us to a table inside the rustic tavern, he explained, in perfect English and with great gusto, that he had taken over the tavern for his father after his return from Manhattan. He continued to give us snippets about his life, the food as he breezed by our table time and time again. Still on a Super Bock kick, we ordered a few brews, as well an assortment of goodies. The croquettes with bacalao (salted cod) and empanadas with carne were delicious, but the crowning glory of our afternoon of tapas hopping throughout Porto was a local dish, the francesinha. Made of ham, pork sausage, chipolata and cheese, and drizzled with milk, brandy, whisky and spices, the francesinha is a Portuguese sandwich that resembles stew or lasagna more than anything else. Our steaming francesinha was served by an old woman, who smiled and whispered, Bon appetit, as she plopped the sandwich down on the table. My boyfriend and I had opted to split the dish, and we were glad we did: It was massive. “It’s great for a hangover,” Andre called over his shoulder as he zoomed past our table one last time.
The sun was setting as we left our last post and began our steep walk from the river to our hotel, located in the center of Porto. We hadn’t seen the churches, monuments or museums I had mapped out prior to our layover, but it didn’t seem to matter. We had mastered the art of a short, short stay, savoring the best bits of the city; we took in the rich culture, one mouthful at a time. Leaving Porto, we were uncomfortably full, yet satisfied.