Porto: musings, a hostel review and a walking tour

with 12 Comments

Finding sense

I have often wondered why Europe is so popular with travelers across the world. In an attempt at answering my own question, I considered how I felt when I landed in Porto.

  • Amused
  • Relieved
  • Hungry
  • Eager
Porto, which greeted us with open arms
Greetings from Porto

Now consider each individually.

Amused at the chatter in multiple European languages, most of which I didn’t understand but sounded rhythmical to my ears. Coming from a culture of thousands of languages, I can relate to the passion and homegrown intimacy in regional languages. Portuguese turned out to be one of the most poetic languages I have ever heard (if you happen to find Fado music on the streets, just stop by and listen!) Relieved, at making it out of the airport on time as SATA Airlines has a reputation for delays. Hungry, to taste my first meal in a new country known for its sweet delicacies. I was shamelessly carrying a list that I knew we would never be able to accomplish. Eager, to navigate my way through streets where the past was a witness to everyday living, and to observe a culture that is unknown to me, one that had evolved in its exchange with our homeland, India.

Aren’t these what most travelers visiting Europe seeking, in essence? To visit an old world, bottled in new desires? It’s no surprise then, that the continent is so attractive to many.

Why Porto?

Our decision to fly into Porto was intentional. We planned to traverse the country from north to south. While most visitors make it to Lisbon, Portugal’s second city deserves more than a mention. It is known for:

  • Art
  • Port Wine Cellars
  • Laid-back streets
  • Its neighboring wine country, Douro Valley

Gallery-1

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The Hostel

Ahead of Gallery Hostel’s narrow passageway dotted with art and postcards is a living room, a fleet of stairs that takes you to the bar facing an airy sitting space. On either side of the bar is a meal room and a relaxed lounge with games, a giant flat-screen, a guitar and beanbags. Rooms are available after 3 pm and the staff is forthcoming with ideas on things to do. The check-in includes a sweet deal of coupons for port wine that can be redeemed at the bar (cannot even begin to tell you about how happy that made us).

Choosing to stay in a hostel and having well serviced facilities, an inclusive breakfast and proximity to cultural landmarks are reasons we thanked ourselves for prioritizing.

With Gallery, we were pleasantly surprised to find:

  • Sunlit balconies
  • A huge room with bunk beds (enough to have a mini house party!)
  • Spacious bathroom (with a separate shower and WC, though they were cubicle sized)

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What we wished we had known: Toiletries weren’t included (side note: it seems like this provision differs among hostels, so you’re safer carrying travel size personal products)

PS: Most hostels don’t have elevators so prepare to lug suitcases up or down. Luckily, we were traveling light!

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True to its name, an artistic theme extends into the rooms too. Our double bunk bed room was a tribute to a reputed Portuguese architect named Souto Moura, credited with several restoration projects and for designing the astonishing Paula Rego Museum in Cascais.

Discovering Porto

Being short of time in a new country is a reality I’ve had difficulty coping with. Our greatest rescuers in such situations have been walking tours. For us, it is the quickest way to get acquainted with main areas in a new place. This gives us the luxury to linger in lesser explored corners or simply find our way back if we drift around!

Porto's street art took us by surpise
Porto’s street art took us by surprise

Porto

Gallery Hostel provides a free walking tour that starts on premises. A leisurely breakfast, and we were out on the sunny streets of Porto. Lea, a tourism student who also works with the hostel was our guide for the day. Giving an introduction to the history of art and architecture in her country, she was quick to tell us about two street artists, Costa and Azul, whose works were visible on electric boxes in Rue da Bombarda. The linear pattern on the sidewalk that we were on was another example of fine Portuguese craftsmanship surrounding us. Rocks laid by hand, arranged in different patterns were a permanent fixture in every Portuguese town that we visited. “This is where it started”, she said, referring to her country, “and then it spread to the world.”

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From then on, Porto’s quirks and charms unfolded through our guide’s stories. Like how the neoclassical Carmelita church was built for nuns and the baroque Carmel church for monks and both discouraged entry of the opposite gender for the longest time, despite being right next to each other. Or how Porto’s oldest coffee shop is named after lice!

Walking into Cordoria Garden, Lea pointed out that the only survivors of a tornado and a raid in the garden were maple trees that came from Brazil. Yet, there’s no mention of the previous wreckage. Instead, the garden is oddly dotted with statues of laughing men in various comical poses.

The district of Porto is divided into two sections by the river Douro: Porto and Vila Nova da Gaia. Being on a flat land next to the river, Gaia is considered ideal for storing port wine made in the nearby Douro valley. Which is why the biggest names in the port industry store their spirits in cellar houses in the region. Walking by old Porto, we made our way to Miradouro da Vitória viewpoint to catch a glimpse of both sides of the city. And like most viewing spots, this one didn’t disappoint.

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A pattern that I’ve noticed about walking tours is that they tend to save a stunning surprise towards the end. In our case, it definitely was the São Bento station, ahead of Clerigos Tower. Depicting Portuguese history, the larger than life imagery on the azulejos (tiles) and crisp white intricately carved ceilings had us transfixed for the longest time. No photograph seemed satisfactory, and no video seemed to capture the aura of this painstakingly beautiful public space.

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I sauntered over next to the ticketing office to find our desired train route. It was quiet corner from where I could watch tourists, commuters and the station in all its grandeur. I felt like I had entered another period in time and inwardly thanked Porto for treating me to the luxury of silence in motion.

Note: While walking tours are free, it is usually a good courtesy to tip the guide.

More details about Gallery Hostel can be found on their website.

 

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Supriya
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As a kid, Supriya had to be brought back to reality from her daydreaming excursions. A digital marketer by profession, she enjoys reading, writing and photography. Her wanderlust list changes each week, but she's strongly eyeing countries in South America, the Middle East and Japan as destinations for her journeys :)

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12 Responses

  1. Sara Broers
    | Reply

    Great tips! Making note… travel light, so not to drag a suitcase up and down a staircase and to pack personal toiletry items.
    Sara Broers recently posted…Why The Alabama Gulf Coast Is My Sliver of ParadiseMy Profile

    • Supriya
      Supriya
      | Reply

      You’re welcome Sara! Are you headed there soon?

  2. Holly
    | Reply

    Worst case I would have to push my luggage down the stairs lol. Looks really nice.

    • Supriya
      Supriya
      | Reply

      Yeah, that’s there too Holly 😀

      Traveling light gets so meaningful here!

  3. Tonya Denmark
    | Reply

    I’d have to agree, I love walking tours and all the wonderful information you can find in them. Looks like you had some incredible weather on your side and great photos. I love the sculpture of the men laughing.
    Tonya Denmark recently posted…How to Find and Book a Unique Hotel Part 2My Profile

    • Supriya
      Supriya
      | Reply

      Thanks Tonya, we did enjoy some beautiful weather except on the first evening. We absolutely love the concept of walking tours and glad we could do this both in Porto and Lisbon.

      Where has been your favorite walking tour(s) experience so far?

  4. […] us. It was close to main landmarks and in the heart of Porto’s art district. Read our review here and more on why we chose to visit this city. Day 2 was looking bright and sunny and we had signed […]

  5. I love walking tours! This looks like such a great stay, beautiful pictures. I haven’t been here yet but it’s on the growing list 🙂 Thanks for sharing.
    Alyssa | Adjust Your Focus® recently posted…What’s in store for AYF?My Profile

    • Supriya
      Supriya
      | Reply

      Glad you liked it Alyssa. Give Portugal a chance, it won’t disappoint you 🙂

      On another note- where have you participated in a walking tour? Any favorites?

  6. Anda
    | Reply

    I not a great fan of organized walking tours, but I have to agree that sometimes they provide a lot of useful information. What I actually dislike is traveling with a group of strangers and having to be told where to stop and what to look at. I generally like to do my own research about a place I visit and go wherever I like.
    Anda recently posted…Bacara Resort & Suites – Is It Worth the Steep Price?My Profile

    • Supriya
      Supriya
      | Reply

      I know what you mean by doing your own research, which is why I prefer to check way in advance with walking tour providers on exactly what they would be covering on the tour. That leaves us with enough time to visit all the lesser known places in our free time, especially those from our our researched list 🙂 On the contrary, sometimes walking tours have taken us to places we wouldn’t have ended up going to on our own, since not everything can be found on the web or in guidebooks. Besides, no matter how well researched you go, there’s always a few local things to do that emerge from a discussion with the guide! Hope you get to enjoy the experience sometime Anda.

  7. […] couple of hours east of the city of Porto, Douro Valley is a curvy hideaway with trails of vineyards on both sides of the road. Having […]

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