Oporto, Porto by the sea

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One of our more recent weekend adventures took us to the western coast of Portugal, a country that was surprisingly foreign, given its many similarities to Spain.  The first foreign thing we noticed was the climate – it’s semi-Mediterranean, but close enough to the Atlantic that the temperature is noticeably lower than it is inland.  The second thing was the language – most of the locals preferred to speak English over Spanish, when possible, which was just as well –  Spanish is similar to Portuguese, but not enough for us to understand anyone’s responses in Portuguese.  More surprises were just around the corner…

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Waterfront on the Douro River.

Porto is to Portugal as Barcelona is to Spain.  That is to say, it’s the country’s second-largest city, and an important one, culturally and economically.  It began as a Celtic settlement, before being occupied by the Romans, Moors, and Visigoths, at various points. In contrast to Spanish Renaissance architecture throughout the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, Porto’s material of choice is granite (there’s a lot of it), with rows of colorful houses tucked between.

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Porto (in Portuguese, Oporto, meaning “the port”) is the source of port wine, delicious seafood, and some of J.K. Rowling’s more profitable ideas.  The author presumably started writing the first Harry Potter book in the Majestic Café (see below) when she was living and working in Porto as an English teacher.  We saw some striking similarities to parts of the story – black, robe-like school uniforms, a bookstore straight out of Diagon Alley, and a train station not too unlike King’s Cross (you’ll have to go to London to see the real deal, but this one had cool tile artwork).

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While in Porto, we visited Caves Sandeman, one of the many wine companies lining the waterfront.  Most of the vineyards are located in the Douro Valley, but the wine is aged in the cellars in Porto, where the climate is perfect for the job.  The “House of Sandeman” was founded in London by a Scotsman, and made its way to Porto soon after; its logo combines the Portuguese student’s cape with the Spanish sombrero (there were important economic between the two countries).  I’m no wine connoisseur, but from what I could tell, they do a pretty good job there, if not with the wine, certainly with the marketing.

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And, naturally, we spent some time on the beach.

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Porto was the kind of place that you could probably visit multiple times and still feel like everything is new.  It felt more like a Northern European city than anywhere I’ve been in Spain (not that I would know, but…) – I’d say it was distinctly Portuguese.  Without a doubt, it was a fantastic place to visit.

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We returned to Salamanca on the night of the UEFA Euro Cup Championship game between France and Portugal.  Spain is sandwiched between the two countries, and from what I could tell, there was an even distribution of loyalties between fans here.  Having just returned from Porto, we were happy to see Portugal take the title.

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