Anybody Wanna See Another Church?
Porto, the second largest city in Portugal, is unquestionably scenic and quaint. But if you come here expecting to find a diversion that will occupy you for more than the truly enthralling 30 minutes that you’ll need to take copious, priceless panoramic photos of the hilltop Old Town from across the river, you should have at least a passing interest in two activities; touring countless churches and drinking port.
Porto’s tourism bureau religiously identified and plotted the locations of no less than 20 churches on Porto’s free map of the Old Town. How many more churches are hidden within Porto that didn’t make the map God Himself only knows, but suffice to say that this is a city deeply in touch with its spiritual side, even by European standards. Although I don’t have concrete proof of this, with the notable exception of Venice, my off-the-cuff assessment is that Porto has the highest number of churches explicitly outlined as tourist attractions of any other city in Europe. While I can certainly appreciate the need to show off a city’s highlights, I doubt that even Jesus would have the stamina and/or yearning to cram in 20 church tours over the course of a two to three day visit. However, 200 to 500 year old churches are nothing to sneeze at, no matter how densely placed they may be, so I did my very best to at least walk past and photograph each one while only entering and touring the top three. Even this high speed, hit-and-run approach took the better part of an entire day.
Part of the never-ending thrill of being an American in Europe is how staggeringly old everything is and, even more inconceivably, how well these ancient edifices have been preserved. Tiny Porto alone probably has more profoundly historical buildings than the entire United States combined, though this should come as a shock to no one. The U.S. is hopelessly handicapped in this category as we have only been around for a scant 500 years, the first 200 or so being quite thin in noteworthy architectural achievement, and once we did get going we didn’t have god-fearing monarchies and rulers who saw fit to devote 100 years and untold money and labor into vast cathedrals when there was frontier to be explored, gold to be rushed, railroads to be laid and the like. Consequently, if there is a single structure in the U.S., with the majority of its original components intact, that is more than, say, 300 years old, I certainly haven’t been told about it. Thus it is quite understandable that the non-stop, overwhelming awe at being awash with more of these buildings in a single European city than one can realistically absorb in a few fleeting days is simultaneously stupefying and exasperating.
Port in Porto
Once you’ve exhausted your church touring fortitude, it’s time to cross the Douro River and kick back with some of the finest port in the world. There are two dozen port-wine lodges in this area and tours and tastings are literally forced on you whether you arrange them for yourself or not. Those proactively seeking a port injection simply need to stick a toe into the nearest tour office for a few seconds to be encumbered with more port tour options than should be legally permitted. Less enthusiastic port aficionados will not be left out. At some point in your visit, virtually all tourists are targeted by a port-winery representative who will thrust a brochure and a free tour pass into your hand before you have a chance to look away from the church you’re trying to photograph. Even if the taste of port makes your face screw up, the free tours and tastings are wonderfully enlightening, picturesque and enjoyable (Port Fun Fact: The prerequisites/ongoing requirements for the squad of guys whose job it is to go around to all of the port-wineries to taste and grade the port are as follows; several debilitating rounds of lengthy, intense schooling/training, smoking of any nature is not allowed, ever, and the only alcohol that is allowed to touch their tongues is port. No beer, no wine, nothing. Ouch!).
However, true to course, free always comes with a price and in this case the price is suffering through a hard sell during the tasting the likes of which are only equaled by Cancun condo agents after the free breakfast. While you will be happily fed more port than you could ever want in one sitting, you will also have a representative hovering over your shoulder with a catalog in your face, breaking down the details and occasionally stunning prices for each bottle that you sample. Escaping with your wallet unscathed is possible, but it requires exquisite finesse and timing, which ain’t easy after that fourth glass of port. If you feel that you’re nearing the breaking point, feign a trip to the bathroom and escape out the window, but if you keep your wits and stall for time, you need simply wait for the representative to be called away for other translating duties and disappear while her back is turned.
As I mentioned earlier, the city of Porto itself is notably charming. As they were wont to do in the olden days, the city is built on the top and sides of the steepest hill for 20 miles in any direction in the interest of city defense. Porto’s “hill” becomes positively cliff-like in some places, with the city seemingly tumbling over the precipice and “streets” that are reduced to audacious steps in places that will wind you whether you are going up or down them. These stairways are lined with narrow, borderline implausible homes about the width of a bus that would undoubtedly be considered uninhabitable by U.S. standards considering their size, age and obvious access nuisances. The simple act of bringing home a modest bag of groceries to one of these dwellings would probably injure or completely incapacitate the average car and physical convenience-softened American.
One of the most rewarding parts of touring Europe are the accidental, but memorable encounters and experiences with the people and places during your visit that are not mentioned in any guidebook or even remotely considered a tourist “attraction” for that matter. My incident in Porto occurred when I ran across the numerous groups of older university students participating in the traditional and solemn obligation of hazing the living crap out of the freshmen. This was going on all over the city during the entirety of my visit. In fact, I started to wonder exactly when or if these kids actually went to class. The older kids set themselves apart by wearing all-black get-ups comprised of thick wool suits and flowing capes, so all they need are funny hats and swords and they could have an instant Zorro convention. The freshmen were marked by wearing white vest-shirts, mirthful paper hats and giant pacifiers hanging around their necks. The Zorros march the freshmen around the city and make them do stupid things like roll on the ground and cry like babies or sing songs while on the bus. It’s nothing like the horrible hazing you hear about in the States where kids are forced to eat goose ca-ca and end up with a broken arm at the end of the week. It was all very good natured and endlessly entertaining for those of us standing around, watching the spectacle.
Ultimately, two or three modestly taxing days are more than enough to conquer Porto. While it is far from being an exhilarating destination, its beauty and unpretentious offerings will appeal to nearly everyone and its subtle charisma will inexorably earn a place on your European highlight reel.