The south of Portugal is better known than the north. People book package holidays on the Algarve and visit Lisbon for a bit of culture and some custard tarts. But Porto is worth a long weekend or more, if you have the time, to explore the Douro valley.
Enjoy the elegant blue tiled train station Sao Bento, the shabby chic balconies and windy streets, the picturesque view of the Douro complete with boats that formerly transported Port barrels from up river, the blinking lights of the English Port houses emblazoned against the sky, Sandemans, Grahams, Taylors, Cockburns.
Portugal is the place to buy brightly coloured ceramics (including my favourite fruit and vegetable majolica), jewellery, shoes, perfumed ovals of soap in decorated boxes and cheap stylish clothes. Food is attractively packaged, particularly sardines, tuna and mackerel.
When it comes to eating, try the multitude of Portuguese egg yolk based pastries, the rustic bread, the post office red tomatoes with actual flavour, the pink raspberries from the Douro Valley, the intense olive oil, the saffron barley sugar, the snowy copper roasted almendoas de moncorvo. The signature ‘dish’ of Porto is an outrageous sandwich known as a ‘Francesinha‘ or little French girl. It’s a Portuguese bastardisation of a Croque Monsieur but way over the top, including a multi-meat bulging interior, a cheese sauce blanket, a spicy tomato sauce and a fried egg on top. This is more than a mere snack. You can find vegetarian versions too and I’m working on a recipe. In restaurants, order local Douro wine including Port and grilled sardines for a simple but reliably delicious dinner.
I went just as the annual festival de Sao Joao, held on June 23rd, was beginning. Buildings and streets are festooned with paper decorations, tissue paper origami versions of pots of the local tiny fragrant basil in red pots, live music is on every corner, while inhabitants bash each other over the head with plastic hammers. Unfortunately I missed the highlights of the festival but there is always next year.
I maintain that Portugal has been somewhat ignored by travellers, food and wine lovers. This can only change.