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Travel in Porto, Portugal: Of Wizards & Wine

Updated: Feb 7

Tours vs. Trips - they are different, and both are nice

The past few years our travel has evolved from trips to tours. Trips are what you do when you have a week (occasionally two) and you do an out and back to someplace you’ve always wanted to go, or go back to. Tours, on the other hand, are a series of places, some intentional destinations, and some that just happen to be in-between, all linked together. Tours used to be only for the very wealthy, who didn’t need to work, or the retired. Now, plenty of regular working folk like me can tour, thanks to our nascent WFH rules and the “Internet.”

We love the big tours for several reasons. One, they allow you to see a much broader set of interesting places for a relatively lower outlay of time and money. Two, just when it’s time to go, instead of actually going home (feeling sad), you get up and go some place new (and problem solved). Finally, you see a lot more of your friends and family because while you might not ever fly to San Antonio just to hoist a few pints with your crazy old college mate Steve (Steeeverinooo!), you might stop in San Antonio when driving between say...

well okay bad example, I don't think San Antonio is between anything, but you see my point.

So, tours are our jam now. But, the trips still happen too because, well it’s just hard to be on tour all the time. Ask Steven Tyler about that. So we slip a trip in here and there between tours to address what is obviously a stage IV chronic travel addiction.

Our most recent trip was to Porto, Portugal

When I plan these exotic junkets, many months ahead of time, I’m thinking big picture. Which is a polite way of saying I'm not thinking.

Usually, I’ll see an email promotion for cheap flights and my brain goes “what?, $443 from DC to Portugal... LFG!” It seems so straightforward. A quick couple of flights and like magic you’re sipping a fine tawny on the Douro. It’s only the morning of departure, and then at every step along the torturous journey, that I start to process all of the actual travel steps that stretch out before us like a game of Snakes and Ladders. There were in fact 12 discreet travel steps involved in this one. Each one required us to be on our feet (or trapped in a seat), thinking, confirming, hurrying up, waiting, schlepping, snoozing, stopping to queue up again, sorting out something very confusing (I’m talking to you Schiphol airport Schengen Area immigration system), and so on, and so on.

In this instance:

  1. Ride to First Airport. UberZach, so no ride share or taxi to sweat out, but you’re still trying to get the house closed up and make sure you absolutely haven’t forgotten your passport, or your trousers.

  2. Burlington Airport (BTV) – TSA Shuffle, sit and wait. Queue up. Drop a bag. File on board.

  3. Flight to Dulles (IAD) – Sit, wait, disembarkation of passengers (the world’s most agonizingly slow process ever invented “why did he wait until now to hunt for the rest of his seat crap and pull his bag out of the overhead?”)

  4. Dulles Shuffle – Lots of trains between concourses so we can kill most of the layover hours at the United Lounge. More hurrying up and waiting at the new gate for Amsterdam. Also of note, my first ever plane boarding experience with no ticket and no passport required. Facial recognition software only to board the flight. So a total Orwellian freak out. We’re all doomed. So I’m going to get drunk in Porto in the meantime.

I won’t give you the rest in detail, but the complete tally is:

· 1 automobile

· 4 airports

· 3 airplane seats

· 4 airport seats

· 1 TSA clearance

· 1 EU Immigration clearance

· 2 metro rides

· 1 long walk to hotel with luggage from metro

And presto, we’re there. 26 hours without sleep later. So not quite the zippity zap of my optimistic travel planning brain, but still a sight easier than booking passage in steerage on a dung freighter in 1809. So I'm not complaining.


Ahh, Porto. So why there, specifically? No real reason. Cheapish flight. Have heard good things. It was November, so it seemed like the sort of place that even if it was cold and raining, you could find plenty to do. And so we did. Here are the highlights:

Ahhh, Continental You Say?

One of our very favorite things about Europe is the continental breakfasts that are typically served at hotels. If you’ve never experienced one, picture the free breakfast at the Hampton Inn. Now picture the complete opposite of that. We love to linger for as long as the staff will tolerate us. In addition to about a dozen trips to the buffet, I usually will manage about 2 espressos and 3 cappuccinos as well. If you’ve not seen this Key & Peele sketch it gives you a pretty good idea of Tom & Lori waking up in Europe.

The Douro River

Lori has to do a boat trip no matter where we are. I fear these. Invariably, they are expensive and much too long. The thing about a boat is that you usually can’t just get off early and wait for her in the pub, like on shopping trips. But this was my kind of boat trip. 50-minutes long, BYOB (mmm Port), very scenic, and not a single safety or sightseeing announcement over the squawky PA. When have you ever been on a tourist cruise where they didn’t give 50 boring announcements about something? I was in Seattle recently, on a boat (thanks dear...) and we had to endure a 20-minute safety briefing from the captain. And he was just a guy we kind of knew. Wasn’t even a paid excursion. So, this was heaven. And the whole cruise was conveniently snatched between two downpours.

The Livraria Lello

The most famous bookstore in the world. What J.K. Rowling hath wrought... Not her fault, but while she was living in Porto, she began writing a series of books about some seriously strange school kids at this very bookstore. In those days, this little gem was just a book store (with the coolest fucking stairway ever in it). Artists and authors would use the quiet, splendid space to create. Today, you can take your picture on the stairway (after an 8 Euro entry fee) shoulder to shoulder with literal busloads of tourists. Nevertheless, you can still readily see where she got some of her visual inspiration for parts of the story, as well as photobomb annoying tourists to your heart's content.

Paranoid Abroad

Despite my self-regard as something of a worldly James Bond sort, I spend a good share of my time abroad in a state of confused embarrassment. Too provincial to know. Too proud to ask.

One afternoon, just as another rain started to fall we found a little restaurant nook on a small side street. There were a few tourists in it, but it still had the frenetic bustle and modest trappings of a locals place. And there were just no cues whatsoever as to the local customs.

For example, we didn’t know how queuing for a table worked. There were lots of people jammed into a chaotic scrum in the narrow entryway, flanked by a bar with no bartender. To say the staff was busy was like saying I only just like coffee. They were flying around like squirrels on crack. Once finally seated, we didn’t know if we would receive actual menus or just needed to know what to order by osmosis. I had had that experience many years before in New York of finally getting my turn at the intimidating deli counter and innocently asking what was on offer. Not welcome. Similarly, we didn’t know how to get drinks after we had ordered food. We spent the entire hour pointlessly asking one another what we should do and then trying to eye the more experienced diners for clues. Despite this, it was all thoroughly enjoyable.

When I got up to pee, I very confidentially strode right into the tiny women's bathroom in the rear of the restaurant while my wife very nearly had a second pee at our table in amusement. Meal complete, we had no idea how to pay. After waiting at the table for what seemed like a long-enough interval, I decided to walk up to the bar and try my luck there. The waiter/owner/bartender/jack of all jobs fellow rapidly materialized in front of me on one of his many trips there for beverages, but evidentially didn't have time to tally up our meal on the little pencil and paper system they used. Rather than explain, or just ignore me, he wordlessly slapped a couple of little port glasses on the bar and filled them from a bottle in one fluid motion. And just like that, he was gone again, without ever even making eye contact with me. But for the first time all afternoon, I understood him perfectly.

“Patience, my ignorant American friend, patience.”

Red Red Wine (stay close to me)

The alliance between Britain and Portugal is the oldest in the world to still be in force. The Treaty of Windsor was signed in 1386. The historical details are complex, so let me simplify it for you. The Portuguese received military protection from Spain. The English got Port.

Port is fortified wine. It's 20% alcohol vs. the more common 12%. That allowed it to survive the trip to Britain in the hot, humid holds of ships without turning. A love affair was born.

England is still the number one consumer of Port to this day. And why not? It's absolutely delicious. Port vineyards are exclusively in the Douro Valley a hundred or so kilometers east of Porto. The wine is then put in barrels and floated down the river. Or it was back in the day. Hydroelectric dams put an end to that. They still have the boats pleasantly adorning the river mouth, but now it goes on trucks. When they reach Porto the barrels are loaded into the huge warehouses that line the southern shore of the river in Gaia where it will age anywhere from 2 to 20 years.

We made a careful study of the different Port Houses (lining the Douro on the Gaia side) and the different styles from Tawny to Ruby. No definitive conclusions yet, but rest assured the work continues.

You can also make Port Tonic cocktails from Port. This was a new, and exciting discovery for us.

Here is one recipe courtesy of Olive Magazine.

The More Things Change...

Another thing we love to do in Europe (or anywhere really) is take walking tours from local guides. We took two excellent ones in Porto detailing different aspects of social, political, geographical, and architectural history of the city. At one point our guide was describing a conflict in the 1800s between forces of liberalism and authoritarianism that reminded me of how truly timeless this struggle is. Nearly every country in Europe has swung between these political states for centuries. After the Roman Senate came Caesar. After the French Revolution came Napoleon. After the Weimer Republic came Hitler.

Portugal endured Antonio Salazar for 36 dark years (J.K. Rowling named the character Salazar Slytherin in his honor). It’s a sobering reminder that our fear of the outside world constantly gives rise to an impulse for a strongman who promises a fantasy about returning to some former glory that is only imagined and was never real.

Anyway, I’m just glad that could never happen in America – we being not as backward as Europeans.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yes “more Port Garcom! A revolution is afoot.”

Ramble On My Friends


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1 Comment

Paul Metaxatos
Paul Metaxatos
Nov 18, 2023

great post, reminded me of a really fun trip to Portugal a few years back. We bought a bottle of port at the beginning of the trip that kept us entertained after hours from one interesting city to the next!

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