Like most people who have googled the northern city in Portugal, I arrived in Porto expecting to see this:
Most articles and blogs I came across while researching what to do in Porto described it as a bright and vibrant city by the sea. While the view above can be seen from across the Douro river, the striking colors laid a bit of a false narrative for me; I found the energy of the city more sleepy than lively. When we arrived in Lisbon after spending two days in Porto I felt relieved; I knew almost immediately that the busy capital was more my speed.
With six days in the warm southern city we were lucky to meet and chat with a fairly diverse sampling of other travelers–a younger couple from California, a middle aged husband and wife from London, a pair of Canadian students, studying land surveying at a school in France. One thing I love about meeting travelers in Europe is that they are usually coming from and traveling to somewhere else; you meet them somewhere in their journey and get to hear their impressions on what they have already seen, you get to learn from them.
Interestingly, what we were learning from all these other couples is that they loved Porto, many of them found it much more fascinating than Lisbon. As we heard this sentiment repeated, it started to haunt me, what had I missed? Don’t get me wrong, I liked Porto, It just seemed to me that when you were in the middle of that beautiful view, instead of in front of it, things were a bit more gray and run-down. I thought it was appropriate that there was so much rehabilitation and construction going on in the city, it seemed a long time coming. As my husband and I explored and walked different ways home to our AirBnB we saw so much beauty that had not been cared for and maintained, much of it was even abandoned.
When I pointed this out to our new acquaintances I got a similar response from all of them–a shrug. Something in Porto had captured them; I could see they almost felt sorry that I missed it. These conversations stuck in my mind the rest of our trip and as we traveled home and I fingered through the slideshow of our last ten days. I thought about why my impression of the city might be so different from that of other travelers.
Whenever we visit anywhere one of the questions at the forefront of my mind is could we live here? With hopes of living abroad for a year or two someday, I am always interested in the vibe of a city, as well as it’s amenities. I always consider:
- Is it walkable?
- How is the public transport?
- How diverse does the city feel–am I the only brown person for miles?
- What are the markets like–is there a lot of fresh food available?
- Are there lots of things to do–is there a theatre scene and festivals, and weekend markets–are there chefs who are excited about food?
- Are the people friendly–does there seem to be a sense of community?
This list can actually go on and on, but the point is that these are all things we have now and would need to have in any other city we’d consider living in.
I’ve never thought it was a mistake to bring this could we live here mindset into each trip… until I started thinking more deeply about Porto.
I could never live in Porto–it was too slow for me. Some days, I get out of bed and I’m unmotivated and sluggish; it takes about two minutes for the streets of New York City to light a fire under my ass. The city has so much energy and I need that from where I live–I often rely on it to carry me, especially in the winter. I am lucky to have a partner who feels the exact same way; quite obviously our need for pace and energy in the place we live is valuable to know about ourselves. However, I wonder now if I’ve missed some of the magic in the sleepier places we’ve visited. I’ve been so busy evaluating, perhaps I should have been slowing my stride; going with the flow has never been one of my strong suits.
I believe I am always genuinely interested and respectful of the cultures we visit, but perhaps I need to focus less on whether a city “fits” me, and more on what I can learn from the people and the place while I am lucky enough to be there.
On a food tour we took in Porto, we stopped into a restaurant we NEVER would have found of our own. We ducked our heads down through the door and entered into an almost cavelike space with stone walls that must have existed for hundreds of years. Our guide told us that the restaurant specialized in slow food, everything was made in house and took significant time to prepare. She said because they offer this slow food, they offer a slow dining experience as well. They take reservations (and were booked for days so unfortunately we were not able to partake), but only one per table per night. So if you sit down at 7pm, there is not another couple scheduled for your table at 9, it is yours for the night. Sit, enjoy, savor–be their guest.
This restaurant was the one place in Porto I think I truly able to appreciate. I’m not one to sit at a table for hours for a meal, but when I tasted the pork sandwich there, it all made sense to me. The sandwich looked so simple, but with each bite, you could understand how it took 7-8 hours for it to be created. How could pork sliced so thinly, be so tender and flavorful? How could the marriage of rosemary and garlic taste so pronounced and bold, yet so clean? How could the bread be so crusty, but so doughy? As we reluctantly left the establishment, we were invited to take in the aroma of the pork cheeks being basted in front of us in the open kitchen. I wanted to stay, desperately. I wanted to sit and feel the stone wall on my back, and get lost in a trance staring at the open flame in the hearth, and be brought dish after dish of food cooked by someone who really cared about food.
It’s not surprising that I find my appreciation for Porto through the food; in my busy life where I’m often anxious for the next thing, the one thing I will wait for is a good meal. Perhaps I can remember this the next time we get to a place that’s seems less than lively. I have to remember that life is happening at all different speeds, all around the world. Figuring out my pace, whether to slow down or speed up, is all a part of the adventure.
Credit title photo:Khachik Simonian