Our knowledgeable, erudite tour guide had one more piece of information to impart about Porto, her native city, as the bus headed back to our Viking riverboat for lunch.
“You should know that the people of Porto have a nickname that goes back many years,” she said. “We are known in Portugal as ‘the tripe eaters.’” The nickname was given to the city’s residents, she explained, when the good parts of slaughtered animals were given to Vasco da Gama’s sailors to be preserved with salt and spices for their long voyages at sea. The rest of the Porto residents were left with tripe, the stomach lining of various farm animals — also known as “offal.”
As she expounded on the details, which had to do with the taste and texture of tripe, the offal began to sound pretty awful indeed, as we contemplated the elegant lunch awaiting us on board the Helgrim this second day of our Douro River cruise. And the more she went on, the worse it got. “People still serve tripe in Porto today as a tradition,” she declared. “My husband has a solution whenever we go out to a restaurant for a tripe meal. He carefully pushes every last bit of it to the side of his plate and eats only the vegetables.”
Our river boat had been docked across the water from Porto in the nearby town of Gaia, and while we could see the hilly town of Porto from our riverside berth we boarded a bus in order to get a closer look at its historic center, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The bus took us over one of Porto’s six bridges, two of which were designed by Gustave Eiffel before he began work on his eponymous tower in Paris. Porto, a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, is Portugal’s second largest city after Lisbon, with a population of 1.8 million. While its name comes from its famous port wine trade, Portugal itself was named after Porto rather than the other way around. Its historic neighborhood at the top of an enormous hill is filled with cobblestoned streets, granite buildings decorated with colorful tiles, and 60 beautiful Catholic churches, the most impressive being Porto Cathedral, a Romanesque church/fortress when it was built in the 14th century. Four hundred years later, elaborate Gothic elements were added to the building and the interior altars covered in gold leaf brought from Brazil by the Portuguese sailors who had traveled to that country.
In addition to the magnificent gold leaf, the interior of the church is enhanced by walls covered in the blue and white tiles first brought to Portugal by the Moors. The same stunning tilework, incidentally, is in the town’s train station (formerly a Benedictine convent), where 20,000 tiles on the walls tell the story of the founding, history and customs of Portugal.
Down a hill from the cathedral, at 9 a.m., a line of people had already formed outside a small building. It was a bookshop, famous because of its connection to J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Rowling lived and wrote here for three years while she was married to a Porto man. It is said that she fashioned the evil protagonist of the Harry Potter stories, Voldemort, on a combination of her ex-husband and Antonio Salazar, the hated Portuguese dictator from 1932 to 1968.
Story courtesy of Julie Hatfield. Photos courtesy of Timothy Leland.