A man from Augsburg Germany and two university students from Valencia, Spain joined Dave and me and our guide Pedro on a fabulous walking tour of Porto, Portugal. Pedro works for the same tour company that we used for a walking tour of Lisbon and like that tour this one was stellar. Pedro was an excellent communicator, his knowledge of the city and Portuguese history encyclopedic, and to top it off he is a native son of Porto. He grew up there and has recently returned to his home city. His childhood memories of Porto added a neat flavor to the tour. Pedro is a marine biologist who worked as an educator at an aquarium before becoming a city tour guide. Dave liked Pedro right away because he said we would not be visiting any churches in Porto, which all charge entry fees to tourists. Pedro commented that in his mind that was the antithesis of what church should be about.
I had no idea Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling once lived in Porto and was an English teacher there. She was married to a Portuguese television journalist and after suffering a miscarriage gave birth to her first daughter in Porto. Later the marriage ended acrimoniously and Rowling moved back to Scotland. There are all kinds of stories, none confirmed by Rowling herself, that various sites in Porto influenced her books. There were people lined up outside this bookshop in Porto whose staircase is said to have inspired the one at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books. There are apparently numerous other connections to Rowling and Portugal. Is it just a coincidence for example that her evil character Salazar Slytherin shares a name with Portugal’s long time dictator Oliveira Salazar?Did you know Porto has what is widely considered the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world? It is located in a heritage building and the food franchise did a great job of maintaining the exterior and interior historical integrity of the building.
I was surprised to learn from Pedro what a forward thinking country Portugal is. Same sex marriage has been legal there since 2010 and abortion on demand since 2007. Portugal decriminalized the possession and use of drugs in 2001 and began devoting huge resources to harm reduction programs, public health campaigns and addiction treatment services. Portugal was the first country in the world to abolish the death penalty and a debate on legalizing euthanasia has begun in Parliament. Last year Portugal volunteered to accept 10,000 refugees. A more conservative Portugal is reflected in this statue of embracing lovers outside an old Porto prison. Two writers Ana Plácido and Camilo Branco were incarcerated in the prison in 1861 for committing adultery. They were having an extra marital affair and that was grounds for arrest. Pedro told us Ana was thrown in a cell in the basement of this jailhouse with all kinds of criminals but Camilo got his own room on the upper floor and was able to write a best-selling book during his time of imprisonment.Although many houses in the Douro Valley are covered with tiles the ones in Porto are unique because most of them are textured.
The Luiz bridge is the main pedestrian pathway across the Douro River. Pedro told us young boys from Porto routinely dive off the bridge. It is very dangerous because the water is only deep enough in certain places and the currents are very strong, so you have to know the exact spots to jump. Last year an American tourist saw the Porto kids jumping so he jumped too but not in the right place. His body was not found for many days.
I most enjoyed our walk through the oldest parts of Porto, which until recently was home to brothels, drug dealers, gamblers and the criminal elements of the city but it is in the process of being ‘cleaned up’ for the tourists and is now safe to walk through. Pedro said he would have been terrified to walk these streets as a child. The stairs leading down to this area used to be called The Stairs of Lies because men lied to their wives about visiting this section of the city to gamble or visit prostitutes. Some church or government official thought giving the stairs the name Escadas Das Verdades or The Stairs of Truth might change the area’s reputation but it didn’t help.
I could write much more about all the interesting things we learned about Porto from Pedro. It is a simply fascinating city I would love to spend more time in. Pedro recommended we try a uniquely Porto dish called the francesinha. It is made with bread, pork sausage, roast pork, ham, a fried egg and covered in melted cheese and a rich beer and tomato sauce and served with French Fries. So after the tour we went to a restaurant Pedro recommended and ordered one to share. The waiter however must have purposely or genuinely misunderstood us and brought us each our own. It was a ridiculous amount of food. Neither of us could even think about having supper later. That francesinha might last us for several days!