Porto

Image result for porto graphic designIf you are near Portugal and seeking an authentic travel experience I recommend going to Porto! Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and it feels significantly more livable and less touristy than Lisbon. Not saying I don’t like Lisbon, it’s wonderful, but Porto is a north-western land of delicious port wine, working class locals, environmentally friendly artisan crafters, hip, pop-up stores and last but not least, sardines… so many salty sardines.

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We flew in to Porto expecting the typical gray skies and chilly river atmosphere, but we lucked out when we were greeted with sun. We got to the city center easily by taking the metro from the airport. On the way in we spotted some rebellious teens playing on the train tracks, some stay dogs scampering in the streets and old men working hard on their farms. The ivy creeps up the metro walls made of stone, as the scene was already being set for the city. Porto has this strange, run-down, sort of industrial/apocalyptic feel, which unfortunately has to do with the unbelievable industrial decline and unemployment of the city. However, it also creates a strangely beautiful, grungy personality that is unique to Porto.

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We stayed in a chic and quiet hostel called Garden House Hostel on one of the main shopping streets of the city. It wasn’t ideally placed in the medieval center of town (called the Ribeira) but Porto is a pretty small city, so the farthest walk was around 25-30 minutes. Close to our hostel along Rua de Santa Catarina are two of the most visited spots of the city, the Majestic Café and the Chapel of Souls. Majestic Café is a ornate, 1920s gold and wooden cafe that is included in UCityGuide’s list of “Top 10 Most Beautiful Cafes in the World”. The Chapel of Souls, or Capela das Almas de Santa Catarina, is one of the most beautiful churches in Portugal, with a massive blue and white-tiled facade. It dates back to the 18th century.

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While Porto is sprinkled with many beautiful churches, the main cathedral/fortress, the Sé do Porto, acts as the protective mother of the city, overlooking from the top of a hill. This cathedral started being built in the 12th century, so it is one of the city’s oldest and most important monuments. You can get great views of the city from up here.

Continuing past the main cathedral, we walked through a residential neighborhood with narrow streets, colorful apartments with stray cats at the door and clean laundry on the line. While meandering throughout the city, I made a point to try to discover the most beautiful tiles (called azulejos), which wasn’t difficult considering that Portugal’s architectural trademark are these small porcelain tiles. These azulejos first appeared here in the 15th century when the Iberian Peninsula was still mainly under Moorish rule; however, most of the existing tiles in the city were reconstructed in the 20th century in an aim to revive Porto’s intrinsic, artistic personality.

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The narrow, cobblestone streets will wind you through plazas, past small corner markets and will spit you out at the most charming, tourist street of Porto that is nestled parallel to the River Douro. On this street there is the iconic (yet oh so beautiful) view of deeply colored apartments next to the black iron, double-decker bridge, Ponte D. Luís I. There are bustling cafes, fisherman sitting on the edge of the walkway, men playing the accordion and people shopping at tents with local crafts and trinkets.

You can grab a drink, or walk across the bridge to ride the cable car, take a tour of one of Porto’s many fine wineries, or simply to get a wonderful view of the downtown from across the river. We chose to eat in the Praca de Ribeira, a busy, sunny plaza, where I had some port wine and a croquette da bacalhou (Yeah I know… when in Rome!).

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Heading back inland, there are countless other sites to see. The São Bento Railway Station rivals Grand Central in being one of the most gorgeous train station that I’ve ever seen. Once again, here Porto brings in the colorful tile motif to convert a potentially lifeless and practical place into essentially an art museum and tourist attraction.

One of my favorite things about Porto (forewarning: my inner-nerd is about to come out) is that part of the Harry Potter series was written here! JK Rowling lived in Porto for two years while outlining her ideas for the Sorcerer’s Stone. She was a frequent visitor at a popular cafe/bookstore called La Livraria Lello, a neo-gothic bookstore has a grand wooden staircase and stained glass windows. Livraria Lello has since become a major city attraction. You can pay 3€ to check out Rowling’s hangout, which is the rumored inspiration of Flourish and Blotts. Much of her inspiration came from the artsy city vibes. It is rumored that Salazar Slytherian is actually named after Portugal’s dictator from the 1930s, António de Oliveira SalazarNot to mention – all of the school students wear long, black, caped robes… Curious. Unfortunately, I was not able to find Hogwarts or Diagonal Alley. Sorry to disappoint.

Near the Livraria Lello there is a gorgeous church to stop by, the Igreja do Carmo, another blue and white tiled building. This 18th century church has a beautiful garden, a golden organ and an elaborate, Rococo designed facade. Another must-do in Porto is a visit to the Torre dos Clérigos, a tall 18th century look-out tower, which provide a great city skyline view – providing you survive the 240 stairs climb. There are some cool artifacts inside, and a description of other city monuments.

IMG_5383While we lucked out with sunny weather, like I mentioned, Porto is usually known for its rainy and moody disposition. Thankfully, not only does Porto have the charm of the old tile churches and small medieval streets, it also has a variety of up and coming areas with shops and cafes so you can stay occupied in the case of cloudy weather. A Vida Portuguesa is a hip concept store to buy natural soaps, local foods and thick, hand-woven rugs. Casa Oriental is a sardine store built in the 1920s with brightly-colored, vintage tin cans. Even if you’re not a sardine fan, it is pretty comical, so it’s worth a visit. And Mercador Café has a charming minimalist vibe, great food and hot chocolate if you’re looking to cozy inside and chat with a friend for an hour or two.

My main advice for visiting Porto is to just enjoy getting lost out in the city! Porto doesn’t have a ton of major attractions or monuments, and for this reason it is not such a well-known European travel destination. But I promise, you will not be disappointed. Porto is an endless scavenger hunt of ivy-covered walls, colorful tiles, mysterious old sardine shops and gorgeous antique cafes that will surely keep you busy and leave you feeling as though you stepped back to a different, magical time.

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Weekend in Ghent

Belgium Part III: Ghent -The Real Belgian Fairy Tale

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Friday evening we arrived into the fairy tale village of Ghent. Ghent, also called “The historic heart of Flanders” and “Europe’s best kept secret”, is a really small town; less than 260,000 residents. A large portion of the population (about 70,000 people in fact) are students, which leaves the city feeling lively and dynamic. The rich history of the city, that dates back to the medieval times in the 11th century combines with this youthful, progressive population to create a fascinating and almost tangible mix of old and new.

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We hopped on the tram from the main train station, Gint-Sint-Pieters Station to our Airbnb in Rabot, which was also coincidentally in the Turkish neighborhood of town (Just like where we ended up in Brussels!). Our Airbnb was a private room in an artist’s apartment. Our host was Reintje, a sassy middle-aged Belgium lady who teaches local dance classes and complains about her husband ditching her for a “younger, prettier” woman. Her apartment has lots of hanging plants, mosaic tile art and a cage of two fat parakeets that are free to fly around the kitchen whenever they please.

That night when we got in, Reintje showed us a map to the city and we went off to find dinner and explore. The city was dark and quiet, the Christmas lights were strung up on the restaurants and houses. It felt like we had entered a magical Christmas wonderland.

 

Nicole and I didn’t know what to expect and it was already dark, so we had some trouble finding our way around. But thankfully we were warmly welcomed by a few Ghentians,  who showed us the way when they noticed that we holding the map upside down in the middle of the street. We wandered around the canals, saw the stone castle (The Travesteen) and got sushi for dinner near the old bell tower.

The next morning we had breakfast in the Airbnb, walked through Ghent for a bit and then headed off to Bruges for an easy day trip.

~~~ Just like the post about Brussels, if you prefer follow our travels chronologically you should read the blog about Bruges now.~~~

If not, feel free to keep on scrolling!

The bulk of our adventures in Ghent happened when we returned from Bruges. That night we took the train back and got dinner closer to Gint-Sint-Pieters Station, and then walked to a bar that our host highly recommended, called the Hot Club. Its a small, moody bar tucked behind a long mysterious brick alleyway with live music and an outdoor terrace full of small intimate tables with candles and plants. I got to try a favorite local beer!

 The next day we woke up early and took advantage of our full day in the city! Breakfast in the Airbnb again, and off to check out some churches, museums, shops and markets. We wandered around on that quiet Sunday morning, feeling like we really were part of the city. I enjoyed the little artistic details of the city, the absurd amount of bikes, the painted windows, and the hidden, top-notch restaurants. It reminded me somewhat of Sevilla in the respect.

While we meandered into the downtown we couldn’t resist the temptation of the local candies in a fancy street vendor in the one of the main plazas. The most popular regional treat is called a “cuberdon” (or neuzeke),  small bite sized sugary drops filled with ungodly sweet raspberry gel inside. To be honest, these little sugar noses were not my favorite; I preferred the marshmallows covered in a thin chocolate shell and powdered sugar. (You can see them below in the white cartons next to the purple cuberdons).

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After grabbing our sweets we climbed up the Bell Tower, the Het Belfort van Gent or the Belfry, a proud monument of the city’s independence. On top of the tower is a small statue of a dragon, the symbol of the city. The alarm of the Belfry has been protecting the citizens of Ghent for centuries.

We climbed up the hundreds of stone stairs, read about the historical significance of the building and enjoyed checking out the old bells. As if that isn’t enough, at the top we got an amazing 360° view of the city!

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After that we decided to grab a mid-morning waffle to munch on while we wandered around before joining a free walking tour of the city.

The tour guide showed us the main monuments of the city and talked about the importance of trade in the history of Ghent’s growth and architecture. The city first saw the light of day in 630, and because Ghent was built among canals and rivers, the marshy landscape was not good for growing crops. But thanks to strong European trading roots of mostly grain and wool, Ghent grew to be one of the most important cities. At one point Ghent grew so much that it was second in size to Paris!

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Graslei and Korenlei are main buildings alongside of the Leie River, the major trading post of Ghent.

We also learned about the old stone castle, situated in the middle of the downtown called the Travesteen, also known as the Castle of the Counts. The castle was first built in wood to protect the residents during the Roman occupation. After an attack  from the Vikings in the Middle Ages the castle was fortified in stone. Fun fact! In 1949 the Ghent students protested in the castle about the increasing prices of beer – haha!

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While we did learn a lot and got to check out some great scenic spots of the city, it was too cold to stand and listen for another hour and a half. So we ditched the tour early to go grab a delicious lunch at a small, hipster pizza place near the castle called Otomat.

After lunch we went to go see St. Nicholas’ Church, right next to the Belfry. The inside of the church is peaceful and beautiful; the massive stone columns and the stained glass were really incredible. You could feel that the church was very old – over 700 years old in fact!

There was part of the church building had been sectioned off from the main cathedral and converted into a space for local pop-up antique markets. We stumbled upon the market randomly, but really enjoyed checking out the vintage dresses, jewelry and old records, and we thought what a cool way to reuse an empty space in the middle of a city!

If there is one thing that I learned about the local population, is that they are so proud of their city and they want to maintain old roots while also embracing new modern ideas. (Like the market in the church!) Because the city is so small, the people of Ghent are very practical and useful with the space that they have. For example, they tuck the christmas market (ferris wheel and all) next to the old, stone butcher hall. And for god sake they have even experimented with the genius idea of combining a laundromat and a café and turned it into a hip hangout called WasBar. Genius!

Overall I was extremely impressed with Ghent, and left the city already thinking of when I could return. I couldn’t have asked for anything more in Belgium. While it was chilly during our visit, Ghent was incredibly charming during December. But it leaves me curious to what the city would be like during the summer…

Who knows! Maybe I’ll just have to come back and see for myself!

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A Day in Bruges

Belgium Part II: A Day in Bruges

 

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Bruges is a nice city! But honestly, nowhere near as nice as Ghent. Brussels had exceeded my expectations, but unfortunately Bruges did not. Not to say that it isn’t beautiful! – With all of the old, brick buildings with ivy, the small canals and the narrow houses lining the streets… No one can deny that it is super charming! But for that very reason, I think that the tourism is getting the best of the city.

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Bruges is a very small city. There is only one train station, and it does not take long to walk to the city center. A round trip ticket from Ghent was only 6,70€ and it only took about a half hour to get there, so it is ideal for a day trip. bruges-map-2

Nicole and I for some reason walked the wrong way onto a crowded, local shopping street, so initially we got a little confused. But we eventually made our way through the narrow, residential streets to the center by following the crowd of people and the top of a cathedral.

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All of the action in Bruges culminates in the heart of the downtown, the Grote markt (or Old Market), the main plaza of the city that dates back to the late 17th century. But the market place and the canals have actually been used for trading by the fishmongers since at least the 1300s! In the Grote markt is the 12th century bell tower, called the Belfry, the Provincial Court and this small row of cute, fairy tale, gingerbread buildings.

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Provincial Court in the Grote Markt
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12th Century Bell Tower

During the Christmas season the Grote Markt is full of stands of traditional Belgian fare, crafts and products, an ice skating rink, and not to mention HUNDREDS of tourists. It was almost to the point that we couldn’t enjoy ourselves because we were getting pushed around. We were able to get our hands on some local treats, a cheesy potato dish called tartiflette and some hot gluhwein.

In effort to escape the crowds of the main plaza we decided to wander outward. We walked down Steenstraat, a main shopping street and found another Christmas market (where Shakira was playing on the loudspeakers) cute shops, book stores, and our favorite bakery from Brussels, Aux Meiveilleux de Fred.

We wandered north of the downtown to more of a quiet residential area. (Almost too quiet…) But I enjoyed taking a break from the jolly, tourist Christmas hype and getting a chance to image what living in Bruges would really be like. The city is very clean. The buildings are well designed and well preserved.

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So by the time late afternoon rolled around, we we’re ready to be heading back to Ghent. On the way out of the city we were able to catch the beginning of the sunset while walking by the canals. It was a nice way to part with the city.

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Everyone says that Bruges is the Belgian fairy tail, but I’m going to have to disagree. While Bruges is really a nice city, my heart still lies with Ghent! I think that I would enjoy visiting Bruges more on a random midweek day during the spring or early summer, instead of during the thick of the touristy winter season. But regardless, it was still a great day in Belgium!

Bring it on Brussels

Belgium Part I: Brussels

To be honest, I didn’t have high expectations for Brussels. Many travelers had told me that the city is nothing special, industrial, boring… I found absolutely NONE of this to be true. Our experience in Brussels was brief yet completely unique, lively, and fun. In my opinion Brussels has proved to be a strong contender for capital European cities, providing a mix of art, architecture, cultures, languages and history… Are you intrigued yet?

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While yes, Brussels is a modern city with posh bookstores, glamorous concept stores and minimalist museums, I also got a sense that the locals are dedicated to proudly showcasing their Belgian/French/Flemish history and customs. Like every city, it may have its slummy, sterile and less “charming” areas, but I did not find those moments to detract from our overall experience. So I would say 100% YES, spend some time in Brussels if you get the chance.

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Brussels is a great travel destination because it is cheap and easy to fly in to from other European cities, and it leaves you in a good position to travel to not only other places in Belgium, but also in Germany or the Netherlands. You can get a one way flight to cities like Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm for under 20€! Belgium is also a great choice because the four main cities: Brussels, Ghent, Bruges and Antwerp are all relatively close in the northern part of the country. We took advantage of this and started our Belgium weekend in Brussels, took the train to Ghent and from there to Bruges and back.

Thursday night around 1 AM Nicole and I stumbled through Brussels in the cold and dark until we finally found our hostel, Brxxl City Centre. Little did we know that the hostel was in the Turkish neighborhood of Brussels, a bit outside of the center, but thankfully still within walking distance.

We woke up early Friday morning, ready to tackle the day and make the most of our afternoon in Brussels because that night we were already heading to Ghent. (Yeah I know, we’re greedy lil’ overachievers, trying to fit in three cities in four days – scoff!) So we scurried off to have a quick coffee and pastry at Cafe Capitale. It was nice being able to practice the very minimal French that I know. We also picked up some marzipan at one of the most famous, fancy sweet shops in Brussels, Maison Dandoy. 

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Maison Dandoy has two shops, the one closer to the Stock Exchange building does NOT sell waffles, but the one on Rue de L’Etuve does.

It was a chilly, gray day, but we wandered around for a while enjoying the buildings and city street art. We awed at the huge main plaza, Grand Place, and the gorgeous buildings surrounding us with large wooden doors and golden painted accents.

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As if the beautiful architecture wasn’t enough, Brussels is also known for the painted cartoon scenes that are scattered randomly throughout the city. Everyone especially loves the ones with Tintin! I think wall art is such a great addition to any city, it gives it a lot of character.

We went on a free guided walking tour of the city. Our guide was a young Flemish girl with fiery-red hair and an even more fiery passion for her city. She taught us all about the history and politics of Brussels,  as well as the current status of the city, as a Federal State and the bilingual (French and Flemish) political and administrative capital of the European Union.

We stopped to grab 1€ waffles (the “Belgian” way, according to our guide). Supposedly, only tourists eat them with cream and strawberries and nutella -the real Brusselians (or maybe I can call them the “sprouts”) eat them plain with their hands.

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Then we continued to see the “REMARKABLE” main tourist attraction, the Manneken Pis, which is sincerely… a joke. Manneken Pis (a Dutch name that translates to “Little Man Pee”) is a tiny bronze sculpture of a naked boy peeing into a fountain. It was designed in the beginning of the 17th century. The lasting tradition is for the Brussels residents to make him clothes, and dress him accordingly for seasons and holidays. When we were there, poor little Manneken Pis was stark naked.

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The tour guide showed us where to get the “best” Belgian fries and the best bars, and then led us up the hill to the more wealthy, residential area of Brussels where the palace and museums are. From the hill you get a really good view of the city.

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Nicole and I picked up some friends during the tour,  Amit from Tel Aviv and Sarah from Saudi Arabia/California, who joined us for the afternoon. Its so fun making international friends! We went to the Musée Magritte which was quite fascinating. Rene Magritte was a Belgian surrealist artist. He was friends with Dali. We spent an hour or two browsing through his art (what an existential guy!) and practicing French.

After that we all went to go try the famous Belgian fries (or should I say “frites”) at the Friterie de Cafe Georgette. Our tour guide had told us the secret to why they are so delicious… they are fried in beef fat. Yes. BEEF FAT. At first, I was grossed out, but then I tried them and I was more than satisfied. They’re delicious! And there are also over 10 sauces to choose from! But I recommend the house sauce. You can tell that I was happy to get my hands on those fries…

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Too happy, perhaps?

We also explored inside the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert (The Royal Gallery), a luxurious 19th century shopping center with a rounded glass ceiling that has numerous cafes, chocolate shops and bookstores. We spent a while touring around a French bookstore called Tropismes. This place is the bookstore of my dreams. Even if you don’t speak French (like us) or if you don’t have money to buy classy books (also us…) it is still worth the visit! The walls are covered with books and giant mirrors reach up to the intricate, gold and wood ceiling. I could have stayed there forever.

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Can you imagine living on the second floor?
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Inside the bookstore of my dreams

One of my favorite things about Brussels was all of the Christmas displays at the chocolate shops. Super charming and festive. Brussels has a lot of great sweets, like this giant brioche bun with chocolate. You can find them at the fancy French bakeries, Aux Merveilleux de Fred. With the giant glass windows so you can watch them be baked fresh before your eyes!

So after grabbing a 1€ Belgian beer with our new friends, Nicole and I headed back to the hostel to grab our bags and catch our train to Ghent. The train was a comfortable, double- decker car. From Brussels Midi-Zur to Gent Saint Peters it was 11€ round trip and only took about a half hour to arrive.

~~~ If you’d prefer to follow my trip chronologically, go read the blogs for Ghent and Bruges and then come back to Brussels.~~~

If not, keep reading!

On Sunday night after exploring the other two smaller cities, we took the train back down south to Brussels and stayed in the same hostel (creatures of habit, you know). That night we walked around the city center at night, enjoying the lights in Grand Place and around the Christmas market.

We had dinner at a place called Le Cirio, one of the oldest restaurants in Brussels from 1909. The restaurant, while looking fancy with curved mirrors and wooden columns was actually super casual and inexpensive. We got sandwiches and chatted with our Portuguese waiter.

The next day our flight was around 5 PM, so in the early afternoon we had another solid chunk of time to explore the city. Yay! The first thing we did was breakfast at Mokafé, a popular brunch spot inside the Royal Gallery, where we got crepes and coffee. Then we walked towards the main cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, to take a look inside. It was beautiful!

After we went to the Belgian Comic Strip Center. There is a museum on the second floor, a library and an awesome comic store! We spent almost an hour checking out the building and the comics.

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Then we wandered around to the more local-shopping district of Brussels called Ixelles. We found one really cool bookstore called Taschen. Most of the books are about design, art history and architecture, so needless to say I wanted to buy them ALL. Only problem – they were in French.

Ixelles was a bit different than we had expected; from what I had read it sounded like an upcoming, hip neighborhood, but all we really found were a bunch H&M look alikes, and a couple of local grocery stores. The part closer to the downtown was a bit more interesting with some small cafes and cool architecture.

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So we went back into the historic center to buy some Belgian chocolates and grab a quick lunch at the Christmas market.

And then headed back to the hostel to get our stuff and catch a train from Midi Station to the airport. Of course our trip back to Madrid couldn’t have gone completely smooth… On the way to the airport our train broke down. All of the passengers were evacuated off of the train and left to wait at the station for about 25 minutes until the next train arrived. It was sort of a bonding experience, we ended up talking to an older group of Spaniards, who were also visiting Belgium for the weekend. Anyway, we eventually got to the airport and caught our flight just in time.

As I’m reflecting back on it now, I’m extremely happy with our decision to go to Belgium. Sometimes my mind still wanders back to those 1€ waffles, those dreamy canals and brick houses covered in ivy, and (mustn’t forget, of course!) the gluhwein! I’m hope I can return some day!