PORTO, Portugal — Honestly, the only thing I knew about Portugal before a recent trip there was Vasco da Gama, the 15th-century explorer who found the first ocean link from Europe to Asia, via India. Oh, and that bottle of Port wine that three of us shouldn’t have shared a couple of years ago. Delicious, but deadly.
After spending a week in Portugal in June, I am the worst of converts: I’m in love with the centuries-old tile work, the steep alleyways, the sardines that adorn restaurant tables and T-shirts alike, the best egg custard you will ever put in your mouth, and the fact that the euro goes farther here than in Portugal’s better-known neighbors.
My favorite city was Porto, a pretty second city in the north that remains in Lisbon’s shadows. If you arrive by train, you’ll get your first glimpse of the country’s national artwork: beautiful blue and white tiles, or azulejos, that cover the walls of the Sao Bento station. Though these 20,000 tiles tell the history of Portugal and took the artist 10 years to complete, visitors to Portugal will see tiles throughout the country, on interior and exterior walls, even on the more humble buildings.
I like the authentic feel of Porto: this is a place that doesn’t exist for tourists, yet welcomes them. We’d be in a cafe in Ribeira, the trendy waterfront area of the River Douro, and just above us were windows with a week’s worth of clothes drying from them.
The McDonald’s here is a work of art, including chandeliers and stained glass; it used to be the Imperial Cafe. Even the youth hostel is covered in azulejo tiles, with wrought-iron balconies.
Porto isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s an uphill walker’s city, and the health app on my iPhone showed that for each day there, we walked more than 5 miles, and climbed the equivalent of at least 25 floors. We did take a cab across the Douro to a lunch reservation we’d booked back home. But the driver dropped us at the end of the bridge, pointed way up in the hills and barked the equivalent of, “You’re on your own.”
We could see all of the Port houses strung along the hillsides, and ours — Graham’s — was perhaps the highest. Founded in 1820, Graham’s is a family-run vineyard that boasts an excellent restaurant, Vinum, with stellar views of that distant river.
The fare featured local fish, fruits, and vegetables, starting with “Fresh oysters from the Algarve” and “Fish soup, according to the old recipe from Povoa de Varzim’s fishermen.” But the best was yet to come: dessert, served with a glass of Graham’s 10-year-old tawny Port. The Toucinho do ceu,a traditional Portuguese dessert, was tasty but the wine was outstanding.
A word of caution: Port is 20 percent alcohol. Use sparingly. After lunch, we took a water taxi across the river on a flat-bottom boat.
As someone who read every single Harry Potter book aloud to my son (He was 6 when we started and 12 when we ended, and he let me down gently at the last volume: “I can do this on my own, Mom”), I had to visit the Livraria Lello. Often called the most beautiful bookstore in the world, it is known today as J.K. Rowling’s inspiration. She allegedly wrote some early chapters of Harry Potter in the stunning neo-Gothic space while she was teaching English in Portugal, and if you’re a fan, you can feel the splendor of Hogwarts when you enter.
But entering isn’t easy. There are continual lines from fans who arrive from around the world. First, there’s a line at a kiosk to get a ticket (5 euros, or nearly $6). The longer lines — which often stretch down the block — are to enter the store.
Anxious to actually sell books and not just be a gawking site, the store started charging an entry fee in an effort to control the swarm — but the ticket price can be applied to any purchase. A brochure warns against selfie sticks. We were told by a guard at the ropes to the entrance to come back between 3 and 4 p.m., when the line would be shorter.
It was, and we spent half an hour browsing, walking the winding staircases, admiring the wood-carved handrails, the huge stained-glass skylight, the hanging lanterns, the sculpted busts of famous writers. Yes, I could imagine Hermione studying here.
Portugal was once a leading producer of cork, and still has forests of the trees and makes cool stuff out of the bark, from shoes to umbrellas (yes, cork is waterproof) to hats and bags. Selling her wares at a pedestrian market was Carla, who makes bags, including backpacks, with her mother.
“We cut the sheets of cork to the shapes we want, we stitch them and stamp designs on them,” she said. I bought a small bag with a tile design on one side for 12 euros.
Another Porto special is the francesinha, or “little French thing.” There’s nothing little about it: this sandwich is for meat-lovers, and it’s filled with ham, steak, and sausage, covered with melted cheese and a fried egg, between toasted buns — and served in a shallow bowl with a spicy brown sauce. Decadent and yes, delicious.
For dessert any time of the day, try the pastel de nata, a flaky and creamy egg custard tart. You can get them all over Portugal, but the best-known purveyor is in Belem, a short tram ride outside of Lisbon, where lines are as long as for the Harry Potter library. But well worth the wait, though the tarts will disappear in record time. (Buy a full box.)
You can’t leave Portugal without hearing fado, which features two people picking their 12-string Portuguese guitars while a third person sings song of lament and hope, in the tradition of the fishermen’s wives of yore.
I bought a CD at a performance we saw at a cafe, and I’ve been listening at home, lamenting the fact that I’m not still over in Porto, and hoping that someday, I’ll get back.