Christmas and New Year's adventures
19.12.2012 - 28.12.2012 12 °C
Hello again! Hope everyone's holidays were great, I have all sorts of adventures to share with you from the past few weeks, but first, let's talk about Christmas in Porto, Portugal!!
My roommate, Tiago, offered to take me in over the Christmas holidays this year, and the opportunity to join him and his family as they celebrated and ate good food was too good to pass up. As such, I flew in to Porto on the 19th of December to join him and his family. The city of Porto has a vastly different feel than the city of Barcelona, although no less beautiful. It is set up on a hill directly adjacent to the Douro River (translates to 'Of Gold'') and is endlessly hilly. Four gigantic bridges over the river connect Porto with its sister city Gaia and affort unbelievable views of the cities.
Whereas in Barcelona I can orient myself immediately based on the continuous slope of the city toward the sea, I felt hopelessly turned around all the time in Porto. Good thing I had Tiago around to keep me straight! The city itself also feels much more old and industrial than Barcelona. While Barcelona seems to sparkle in the almost-endless sun, Porto felt a bit more grungy and blue-collar. Nevertheless, the city was beautiful. The common theme in architecture that I found numerous times on the edifices of churches, train stations and stores was a type of gorgeous painted tiling, found mostly in light blue paint over white background. It's the type of art which you can spend a long time studying for its unbelievable intricacy and detail.
Porto's most famous export is actually the wine that is only produced upriver of the city in the Douro region of Portugal. People in and around this area are fiercely prideful of the unique, rich, alcoholic wine produced there, called Port. The grapes are grown and aged upriver and then transported down on these tiny motorless boats to the docks on either side of the river to be bottled and distributed. I don't have a great photo of the boats, but there is one in the bottom of the following photo. The scenery around the Douro made it all felt a bit like taking a step back in time.
I would end up getting to try lots of this wine, and although I would like to blame it on my inability to say 'no' in Portuguese over Christmas dinner, I think the more likely explanation is that I thoroughly enjoyed it and didn't want to say no. Which brings me to the language differences. In general, more people in Portugal speak English than in Spain, however that is mostly limited to the younger generations. At home, Tiago was the only one who could speak English (or Spanish). This made for some funny exchanges between his family and myself. My personal favorite result of the communication problems was that every time I cleaned off my plate, they thought I was still hungry regardless of how much I had already eaten or the status of everyone else. I ate very well, needless to say.
One of the days, we traveled to Guimarães, which is known as the birthplace of Portugal. Back in the 9th century (a few years before the US constitution was written) it was founded and would become the seat for the County of Portugal, the birthplace of Alfonso I, the first king of Portugal, and also was the site of the Battle of São Mamede, which had a large influence on the foundation of the new country. The largest rememnant of bygone days is a huge, absolutely gorgeous castle on a hill overlooking the city.
Sightseeing and adventuring aside, the reason I was in Porto in the first place was to experience Christmas! Christmas in Portugal is actually a two-day event, with a huge dinner in the evening on the 24th. The meal of choice for Tiago's family is octopus, codfish, potatoes and cabbage, an extremely hearty and delicious meal. I had never eaten well-cooked octopus before but it turned out to be absolutely excellent. After dinner at midnight, gifts were shared and opened, which was followed by a rousing game of 10 cent Bingo! Everyone at the table took a turn reading the numbers off the cards, so I just went with Spanish and hoped for the best. Luckily, the number systems are very similar so with a couple of pronunciation tweaks (and some translation from Tiago) I made it through fine. Although, I had a great three-game streak going at one point, and I'm not sure if that was a result of some favorable translating going on in my head or just luck!
Dinner on Christmas Day was more traditional, with turkey, lamb and potatoes. There were not as many fixings on the side like stuffing and squash, but the meat was cooked to perfection and I again stuffed myself just like I would have done at home.
Since I have gotten on the food train, why step off? Over and over before I left for Porto, I heard about how good the food is. And I am happy to report that I was not misled. The first day there I got to try some of the famous meat empanadas (don't actually know if they're famous, but the way Tiago talked about them before we left I have to assume they are!) and coffee. In contrast to the empanadas in Spain, these were delicious and extremely inexpensive.
Finally, I have saved the best for last. In Porto, they have a local specialty called the 'Francesinha' which looks like the following. It was tops on everyone's list of things to try while in Porto, so of course I had two (at separate times of course). It really and truly embodied everything great about the Porto culinary scene: several different types of meat, pastry topping, melted cheese, a homemade tomato based sauce, a fried egg on the top, french fries to soak up the leftover sauce, and most importantly, no vegetables!! Feast your eyes.
Well-fed and sufficiently rested, Tiago returned to Barcelona shortly after Christmas. It was an awesome trip, getting to experience the Portuguese culture and food and Christmas traditions was awesome, even though I missed my own family and our own traditions over Christmas very much. I hope you and yours had an excellent holiday season, and stay tuned in the next few days for my next post, which includes some more Barcelonin holiday traditions and a visit to Gaudi's unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia!!
That's all for now, take care and see you next time!