If Porto, Portugal, were a water sports enthusiast, it’d be a daredevil kite surfer executing spectacular loop-de-loops over a heaving sea. Moncarapacho would be a mellow kayaker drifting through calm marshes in a nature park. The two areas—one north of Lisbon and the other on the eastern Algarve—offer a delightful study of cultural and geographic contrasts.
Porto, is a metropolis on the move and it’s picking up pace. Fifteen years ago, derelict wrecks on the steep bank overlooking Porto’s rooftops and the Douro River were up for grabs. Now major hotel conglomerates are asking owners to name their price. And name their price the youthful architect-owners of our skillfully renovated property did. The figure was three times what they’d been offered by the same developer the previous year.
Days before the newly enriched young family moved to the suburbs, my husband and I snagged the last reservation. We weren’t just treated to a snazzy accommodation with spiffy Porto views. The studio, with its prized positioning in the Ribeira neighborhood, plus insights from its generous and congenial owners, provided a fascinating experience of a dynamic city swept up in boom mode.
The energetic, edgy feel of the city is striking. In addition to the countless innovative renovation projects in progress, jolting juxtapositions meet you at every turn. At outdoor cafes, disheveled university students gather next to elderly matrons in starched blouses and pearls. A tiny mom and pop grocery store shares a wall with a contemporary tapas bar offering trendy mixed drinks. A glamorous boutique hotel faces a boarded up, graffiti-laced, condemned apartment. A late model Porsche roars by a workman in paint-spattered overalls peddling an antiquated bicycle. A dreary shop selling traditional sewing supplies sits opposite an up-market jewelry boutique doubling as a hip wine-tasting room.
To get a sense of the evolving city—nearly three million inhabitants in the metro area—while discovering some its main attractions, we walked everywhere. Since Porto rests on a series of hills, that meant scaling severe inclines. (Tip: Teetering stilettos don’t mix with Porto—comfy footgear required.) But reaping benefits from a stair master workout every time we left the apartment was useful, as finding flavorful food was a top priority. Highlights in the cozinho category were: O Caraças for a down-home fresh fish dinner; the ultra-elegant Majestic Café, for coffee; Caldeireiros for petiscos,or tapas—the pork sandwich and barely spicy roasted green chilies were delectable. (The waiter talked us out of the renown alheira de caça, a sausage of rabbit and chicken on garlic spinach, explaining he wasn’t a fan. Acquired taste, maybe?); and Candelabro for a light, freshly prepared lunch of homemade soup and sandwiches; and the chic wine bar, Pateo das Flores, or the fanciful A Parte for drinks and people-watching on the colorful Rua das Flores pedestrian street.
On the tourist sights list, not-to-missed are the Cathedral Sé do Porto and the baroque Torre de Clerigos, both boasting beautiful, expansive Porto views. A walk over the double-decker iron bridge, Ponte de Dom Luís I, designed by a disciple of Gustave Eiffel, brings you to the south side of the River Douro, home to the famous port houses, to include Sandeman’s. Though tours and tastings are on offer, the star of to the “other” side of the Douro is the sweeping Porto cityscape.
Also, the marvelous tile work at São Bento train station is worth a detour, as is the impressive 19th-century, wrought-iron Mercado do Bolhão. While the dilapidated structure awaits its scheduled overhaul, the vibrant market it houses puts on a fast-paced show six days a week. Harry Potter fans will need to pay homage at Livraria Lello, the exquisite old world bookstore with the distinctive, deep red staircase, said to have inspired J.K. Rowlings. (The five-euro ticket required to enter is applied to purchases.) Shoppers won’t want to miss A Vida Portuguesa which offers a vast array of vibrant Portuguese ceramics and house wares. The Feeting Room sells not only footgear but also quirky designer clothes and fun household accessories, as well as bath products like the exclusive Claus soaps.
Though time didn’t allow for a boat or funicular experience, we hopped on a city bus for a 30-minute ride to the Atlantic coastal town of Matoshinhos. After a choose-your-own-fresh-fish lunch at Salto o Muro, a family-run institution, we strolled down the wide promenade along the vast sandy beach. On one side of the walkway, we admired an art installation in the form of a gargantuan net sculpture, She Changes, by the American artist Janet Echelman, and on the ocean-side, dozens of surfers conquering the curls.
Far from bustling and demanding Porto, a two-hour Ryanair flight took us to Faro, on the edge of the serene, relaxed Ria Formosa Natural Park. During our week-long stay in the Avocet House on the lush enclave of Casa Flor de Sal (near Moncarapacho), we took it easy. We biked on a flat bike path through lush marshland to the teensy town of Fuseta—beach-side Bord d’Agua is great for coffee or a light lunch. We strolled through picturesque Tavira with its gracefully sturdy, multi-arched Roman bridge straddling the Rio Gilão, stopping at Pausa for plate-licking garliky gambas and succulent bochecha de porco. In the miniscule, hilltop gem, Cacela Velha, we oohed and ahhed at the spectacular sea view. Disappointment, however, followed in Albufeira. After a decades-long absence, I found the once authentic fishing village and pristine beach have been swallowed by garish development—ouch!
Back in the nature park, all was well. Birding for Ralph was stellar. He spotted over 50 bird species, including azure magpies, kentish plovers, black winged stilts, hoopoes and a family of storks, residents of our holiday property. Mama and Papa Stork worked hard during the frequent, frantic feedings, without any help from us. Our job was to stay out of the way and watch the action from our rooftop terrace—with crisp, chilled Portuguese vinho branco in hand.