I missed that. But I saw too many great old buildings to count, drank much locally produced wine, ate bacalhau (salted cod) and caldo verde (potato and shredded cabbage soup) in myriad variations, munched olives and pastries (separately), found refuge in a coffeehouse from another time, was trapped by an epic parade, and spent a quiet hour in the most beautiful bookstore I've ever seen. Porto and its environs may be not be edging Florence and Tuscany off the A-list any time soon, but for someone looking at architecture and listening for medieval echoes in the narrow streets of the city and the towns that surround it, pleasant surprises await.
I started with a bird's-eye view of Porto: the platform of the Torre dos Clerigos church, atop a narrow, 248-foot-high stairwell. It costs about 75 cents to climb. From the top, you see the Douro wending west from the inland hills, twisting through the city, then emptying into the Atlantic. Along its banks, you see a dense roof-scape of red tiles over Porto's oldest quarters, with laundry hung to dry on a thousand balconies. (The other prime viewpoint in town is across the river from the high walls of the former Monastery of Serra do Pilar.
Across the river you see clues to the trade that has helped sustain Porto through several centuries of fluctuating economic health. Beginning in the late 17th century, port producers (most of them English-owned companies) got their inventory from barcos rabelos (barrel-bearing boats) that floated down the Douro from the vineyards upstream. Nowadays trucks do that job, but the port houses still line the less crowded side of the river, more than 50 of them, many offering tastings and tours. They keep a few barcos rabelos afloat, too, for the sake of nostalgia and tourism. (For about $10, you can take a 50-minute river cruise under the five bridges that cross the Douro at Porto.)
After an easy stroll across the Dom Luis I, I peeked in at the popular showroom of Sandeman (established 1790), where, Zorro-like, the tour guides are required to wear the company's signature black hat and cape. I went instead with Calem (founded 1859), where they gave me an agreeable English-language tour, which concluded with a port tasting.
In the maze of narrow old streets on the city side of the river, dozens of restaurants sell salted cod and port, and also bottle after bottle of vinho verde, a young, light, fruity, affordable variety of usually white wine.
It was hard to keep still in Porto; there was so much to look at in every highly concentrated block. In a stationery store, I bought some 50-year-old grade-school teacher's charts for my wife (who may now try to teach her Silverlake second-graders Portuguese).
One night, the sky inky and the wind gusting, I walked halfway across the high span of the Dom Luis I bridge. I stood on the sidewalk, traffic racing past while winds whipped. I don't recommend this to acrophobes, but it did help me work out the lay of the land and sharpened my appetite nicely for an after-dinner drink.
Another night, I stood on Rua de Ceuta at 10 p.m., watching after-dinner lingerers communing over coffee at the neon-lighted Cafe Ceuta, a scene that seemed to have been composed by a Portuguese Edward Hopper.
But my favorite cafe experience by far was the Cafe Majestic, a crumbling art nouveau throwback at 112 Rua Santa Catarina, the city's main pedestrian shopping street. The place dates back to 1921. Cherubs dance before the flaking mirrors on the walls. Cut glass windowpanes swoop in elegant curves. All the wood paneling is elaborately carved, and a grand piano waits in a corner. The waiters wear white coats and gold epaulets. I ordered a small ham sandwich and a coffee (about $5), and spied on the tourist-diners who surrounded me. All European; no Americans.
I stayed in the tony Hotel Infante do Sagres, a retreat of distinguished furnishings and Old World atmosphere that was walking distance from the leading downtown attractions, including the 14th century Church of San Francisco, the historic Palacio de Bolsa (stock exchange) building and the Soares dos Reis Museum (which specializes in 19th century paintings).
In the hotel, there were lots of iron handrails, stained glass, and more tile work. I found the staff reserved at first, but by the time I left, desk staffers had given me good driving and walking directions, time-saving rental-car logistical advice and sound restaurant recommendations. (There are plenty of hotels in town available in the $50 to $100 range. For a couple of recommendations, see Guidebook on this page.)