I visited Porto because it was cheaper to fly out of than Lisbon. I may never visit Porto again because I’m worried I’ve used up all the luck the city can offer me. I got off the train with no expectations and stumbled into one of the better weekends of my trip thanks to chance encounters with friendly strangers, close calls with dramatic weather, and a whole lot of fortified wine.

Porto is famous for being the home of Port, the sweet fortified wine that your favourite British professor probably drank before lecture. I think the city should be renowned for a lot more than its booze.

First of all, its train station is gorgeous. The tile work in the main entrance is composed of over twenty thousand hand painted tiles and took eleven years to finish. It’s the first piece of Porto that I saw and it certainly set the tone.

Then there’s all the other tiles scattered around the city. Oh so many tiles! I’d developed a crush on Lisbon’s urban aesthetic but then I saw Porto’s gritty walls contrasted with such colourful tiles and it was love, especially when the buildings wore the residents’ wet laundry around their windows.

And of course there’s food. Porto has its fair share of markets and traditional fare, but what set it apart for me were its northern delicacies. The most famous example being the francesinha, an artery clogger that could go toe to toe with the best of them, and its little brothers the bolinhos (deep fried salt cod fritters) and cachorrinhos (the Porto hot dog).

Oh, and did I mention it could hold its own in a Panorama battle with Lisbon?

Secondly, I’ll just go ahead and say it’s a “lucky” city, at least for me. Whether it was returning to the hostel mere seconds before an unexpected torrential downpour, bumping into a hostel-mate on the street who directed us to a top-tier port tasting and tour that started in a few minutes, or just casually arriving at the platform to catch an airport-bound train that I thought was more regular than thirty minutes, luck just kept on giving.

Last but not least, luck saw to it that I bumped into some other hostel-mates on the street with the same mission as me that morning: coffee and pastries. It didn’t take long after joining forces to realize that I’d made some genuinely great people. The quartet of US-born English teachers are working in Madrid and constantly on the lookout for seat sales that lead them to good food and great sights. When Jennifer told me she’d compiled a food list and was keen on checking off as many Portuguese dishes as possible, I knew I’d be tagging along with them. Thankfully she wrote a great blog post about some shared plates and adventures so I can cut this one short and just post pictures.

Porto

Porto

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It’s pretty hard to visit Lisbon and not take a day trip out to Sintra. When chatting around the hostel it was not a matter of “if” but “when.”  I went on the day where four other dorm-mates agreed to my ambitious plan of buying the day pass to tackle Sintra, Cabo da Roca, and Cascais all in the same day. We made a wake-up pact to ensure our early departure and dismiss any guilt around making a bunch of noise early in the morning.

Catching a train was easy (they leave every 20 minutes) and the day passes even gave us free use of the bus which was much more enjoyable than climbing the steep hills up to our first destination, the Palácio da Pena.

Sintra was a traditional summer getaway for Portuguese nobles. Nestled high in the mountains, the cool breezes were a welcome relief from the stifling heat of the city. I, however, was not there in the summer and didn’t appreciate the wailing gales coming off the Atlantic, especially considering that I had yet to acclimatize to the European chill after months in the sweltering tropics.

We found refuge in the castle’s stunning interiors where elaborate furniture and ornaments were on display. Sometimes I’d pop out for shots of the castle exterior or its panoramic views, but mainly I was happy staring at old chandeliers and ornamental furnishings.

We briefly strolled through the castle gardens but our hearts (or rather stomachs) were set on warm pastries. Sintra is the birthplace of its own little gems. Our first stop was Sapa, the bakery where queijadas originated before moving on to Piriquita for its travesseiros. Both were decent, but nowhere close to the pastel de nata.

Rejuvenated by the pastries and caffeine, we visited the the Quinta da Regaleira and sought-out its famous underground passages and mystical well whose stairs lead up from the proverbial pits of hell into the light of heaven.

Alas, the heaven we climbed up to was cold and rainy so we set our sights on Cabo da Roca and hopped on a bus which was then driven at breakneck speeds on windy mountain roads by a maniacal driver who seemed oblivious to the fact that half of us were standing up and holding on for dear lives. (Maybe we never climbed out of the well?)

The journey paid off with the stunning sunset light illuminating the western-most point of continental Europe and its barren landscape sculpted by the fury of the Atlantic winds. We all had some fun being pummelled by its force and were lucky enough to catch the last bus to Cascais.

But by the time we got to Cascais the sun had set and all we cared about was finding real food in a warm restaurant before getting on a train back to our warm showers and suddenly luxurious dorm bunks.

Lisbon

Sintra + Cabo da Roca

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An e-mail had suggested that I should make a day-trip out to Obidos. I’d heard there was a chocolate festival going on in a nearby town during the days I was in town. When I figured out that the chocolate festival was in Obidos, it was kind of a no-brainer.

Obidos is only about 80km away and busses run on a semi-regular basis for less than €8, so I made my way to the bus station fantasizing about an old medieval town made of chocolate.

In the end, the chocolate festival was disappointing due to a noticeable lack of free samples and very little to do given the fact that we had to pay to get in, but walking-off the calories along the old city walls ended up being far more enjoyable than stuffing my face with mediocre chocolate anyways.

At least the chocolate festival gave me the excuse I needed to visit this beautiful medieval town and for that I’m grateful. The town is a perfect size for a day-trip since you can pretty much see all of it in a few hours and there are plenty of shops and cafes to enjoy. Hopefully these pictures will give you the excuse you need to visit even without the promise of sweet indulgences.

Lisbon

Chocolates In Óbidos

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