It’s been a slice, of francesinha! Of course we had to try this famous Portuguese specialty, advertised on every menu in Porto, if only to advise you not to bother! Unless, of course, you grew up loving hot roast beef sandwiches on soggy white bread swimming in gravy.
The minder of our apartment enthusiastically suggested Café Santiago as THE place in Porto to try this artery-clogging treat. It’s near the Santa Catarina shopping street and the central market, which is about to be refurbished along with the rest of the historic city, buoyed by tourist dollars. We ended up at O Afonso, also in the top five and closer to our destination, the Crystal Palace garden.
Inside the clean, bright restaurant, a black plaque on the wall announced that Anthony Bourdain ate here in 2017 and immortalized his comment: “Look at the size of that thing!”
Our waiter spoke no English but pointed to the four choices on the menu including the original, potato and egg and pork belly. As we munched peanuts, lupini beans and delicious small olives flecked with fresh garlic from the little dishes he left behind, the large TV monitors at either end of the restaurant quietly switched from local news and sports to Bourdain’s video on Porto, the English muted.
While the New York chef watched eels being slaughtered and sipped port among barrels in a local cellar, our original francesinha arrived. Artfully draped in pale yellow slices of melted cheese, the sandwich sat in a pool of brown sauce that looked and smelled exactly like a can of baked beans with tomato without the beans. Apparently this secret sauce may also contain beer or port.
I gingerly lifted one edge of soft white bread to check out the famous meaty layers. The thin bologna-like slice on the bottom might have been tongue and was delicious. Then a layer of cooked ham, followed by a well-pounded and well-cooked minute steak, more ham, a lumpy sausage patty and a stretchy glob of mild yellow cheese.
In case we didn’t have enough sauce, the waiter brought extra.
Digging in with knife and fork I found the steak chewy but flavourful, the sausage and sauce a little spicy and the rest melting into a bland warm blob that might be welcome if you were starving after a late night drinking with friends.
We had better luck with Porto’s fresh seafood. A round metal pot (cataplana) of astoundingly sweet tiny local clams, long meaty razor clams, mussels and chunks of fish was a winner at TapoBento, behind the Sao Bento train station with its magnificent blue and white murals.
Beware, this friendly tapas place is mobbed day and night, and we got a reservation two days after showing up on their doorstep. The owner sent us to Rapido a few doors up, where we had the most tender octopus tentacles, cut lengthwise, bathed in egg and flour and deep-fried. Most mains come with boiled potatoes, sauteed cabbage (the pointy arrowhead variety) and a lightly-dressed salad of fresh lettuce leaves sprinkled with fine carrot strips.
At a few euros a glass we’re drinking lots of wine. Most Duoro reds and whites are blends of three up to more than 40 varieties of native grapes, so you never know what you’re getting. So far they’ve all been good!
Another highlight was Porto Tonico, a local cocktail consisting of white port, which can be fairly dry, tonic water and a few slices of orange peel threaded on a toothpick, garnished with a mint sprig. Wonderfully refreshing and not sweet, it’s about to become my go-to summer cocktail. I should also mention the sublime fresh-squeezed orange juice available everywhere, no doubt from the oranges hanging from trees everywhere we went.
Between meals we walked a good 10 kilometres a day, at least two of them spent walking in circles. Like Lisbon and Coimbra, our last stop, Porto is built on hills, so even the old ladies in their blazers, skirts and sensible shoes are in great shape. There’s a statue in every square, massive baroque churches and at least one pastry shop and café per block.
But the city’s real focus is the Ribiera district along the Douro river, which attracts tourists like a magnet.
For a change of scene, walk across the two-level Don Luis 1 bridge, one of six bridges that arch across the river to Vila Nova de Gaia. Here you can wander by the famous port houses, where the fortified wine was once brought by boat from the vineyards of the Douro Valley to be shipped around the world.
On our last afternoon we squeezed onto an ancient tram that trundled along the riverfront to Foz. Here the Duoro meets the Atlantic Ocean and the sandy beaches begin, leaving the hilly city behind. Though the water was too cold for swimming there were plenty of tourists and locals walking the boardwalk. We watched a fleet of tiny beginner sailboats lean into the wind in formation and stopped for the best gelato at Tavi.
Another delectable Porto moment.