On our three hour tour of Porto we learned many things, among them that Porto, the second largest city in Portugal and one of the oldest cities in Europe, has only become a viable tourist area in the last 6 to 8 years. When Ryan Air added Porto as one it’s mainstream stops, access to the city grew. Poof, a tourist destination was born.
Perched on a river, the city offers many a church to visit, vistas to ooh and ahh over, and appealing winding side streets to explore. The bookstore that inspired JK Rowling to spill out her tale of a fellow called Harry – Lello & Irmão – can also be found here (an entry ticket for 5 euro can be purchased next door). There are 6 bridges that cross the river, you cannot visit the city without crossing the bridges on foot a time or two. For a closer look, the 6 bridges can be viewed via the a river boat tour. These excursions are very popular, the boats line up on the Ribeira side of the city and most days they go off every half an hour. And when ready for a different perspective, a gondola has been built to ferry you over this picturesque setting.
Don’t even think about spending time in Porto without scheduling a tour and tasting at one of the many houses of Port on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of town. Tourist destination or not, this area has been pumping out port wine since 1678. The history behind this delectable after dinner beverage is well worth learning about. We went on the Cockburn’s tour (pronounced Coburn) and all involved were delighted by the experience.
The dining scene is top notch and one can eat and drink quite well no matter the budget. Definitely experiment tasting the wide variety of white, red, or rosé Portuguese wines – they are well priced and rapidly becoming bottles we want to add to the cellar.
*Lunch tip: Before your port tasting, enjoy the view of the river while dining at Tempero d’Maria. We had a fantastic al fresco meal here.
These are all reason enough to visit Porto any time of the year. BUT sometimes you just get lucky and your 3 nights in Porto happen to coincide with the date of June 23rd. This is the largest, but least well known, festival in Europe: Porto’s Festa de Sao Joao (Festival of St. John the Baptist). This is is not a festival to attract the tourists. This celebration, that has been going strong for the last 600 years, is for the people of Porto.
If you happen to be there consider yourself lucky and prepare to immerse yourself in the celebration. The planning for the festival must begin on the 25th of June the prior year. The entire town is outfitted with festive banners and it includes an intricate fireworks display that happens at 12am on the dot. It involves a multi tiered show that integrates the Dom Luís I Bridge in it’s carefully choreographed and over the top fiery display.
Another surprisingly appealing feature of the celebration is the tradition of head tapping to wish someone good fortune or let them know you fancy them. Historically this tapping was done with swooping garlic flowers. Many of these were on display on the evening of the festival. However, in the 1960’s some smart plastic manufacturer introduced the soft hammer in an array of colors. These hammers are now firmly part of the tradition. Hammer sales must be brisk throughout the day on the 23rd of June.
I know my crew each added this must have accessory to their collection. What we didn’t know was how we would use them on the eve of this festival. The locals quickly taught us. Some folks took an errant approach bopping everyone in their path. Others formed tunnels and you could walk through them to receive multiple taps of good will.
Some took a more personal approach, making eye contact before wielding the soft plastic hammer. My favorite were the small children busy at 11:00 at night on the shoulders of their parents offering taps of their giant hammers on as many heads as their small arms could reach. The smile on their faces when you reached up to tap them back were the best. It was all so gentle and the feeling of good will that sprung up from this small gesture was contagious, even addictive! In the back of my less good willed brain, I tried to conjure up how this tradition would go over in the US and my brief musings on the topic were not so pretty. I will let you ponder this on your own.
After the fireworks we slowly made our way home through the crowds, continuing to employ our hammer until we made it to our front door. Though we made it home at 3am, everyone was smiling and satisfied with the evening. The locals were still making their way to the sea on foot to welcome the sunrise and continue the celebration.
The next day in Porto is a national holiday and all of Porto has the day off. While this can make it difficult to find somewhere to have lunch – it is interesting to see the juxtaposition of the city in party mode and ghost town mode. The latter better for viewing the vistas or taking an informative and entertaining 3 hour tour with Partoalities. Which is what we did and would highly recommend, it was a great way to learn more about this amazing city, the people in it, and the language they speak.
Grab your group and visit Porto – aim for the 23rd of June. You and your blessed head will be happy you did!