In which we meet the heart of Porto

We have all heard it said that work is what you make of it. Today, we met Anabelle, who took a job as a lavatory matron, and determined that her toilet would be the best in Portugal – and maybe the world.

An enormous bundle of energy, Anabelle was talking to us and another tourist couple as we waited for the trolley, and it was at least five minutes before we realized she was also monitoring the nearby public WCs. Then she told us her story. When she took over the job, this site was home to drug users and was extremely filthy and disgusting. No, no, no, said Anabelle, who scrubbed and polished, brought in river rocks and incense, plants and music.

Now, as her guestbook testifies, she is the Queen of the Waters, the Princess of Porcelain, the Lady of the Loo, and her work is admired by her admirers from around the world. (Have you ever seen a guest book in a public lavatory?) Anabelle calls it her special book and loves to show it off. She was bursting with pride at what she has created, so she insisted on giving a tour of the facilities. Rather magically, Frank Sinatra was singing “New York, New York” when we walked in.

New York is a distant dream for her, but Anabelle had seen Frank here in person, a memory she cherishes. She couldn’t afford a ticket, but she charmed her way past a “gorilla” guarding a gate, and got to see him sing. But her favorite performer is Patti Smith, for whom she has a special affinity based on getting up when you’re down. A force of nature, Anabelle is passionate about Porto, and gave us a little heart to remember her by. What a special spirit.

If you had asked us thirty minutes earlier about the spirit of Porto, we would have said it was all about business. We had just toured the Stock Exchange Palace, which celebrates the religion of commerce in grand style. Replacing a former monastery, the interior offers one grand space after another, all designed to impress and persuade those who come to do business with Porto. The Commercial Association – which is still very active today and which owns this still-functioning building – even had its own court.

Its most exotic and decorative room in done in the Moorish style, and it is still used today as a state room for the city. Why, the King of Belgium had lunch there just yesterday. Today, it was set up for a play to be done tonight. Rental rates available on request.

It was lovely and showy, of course. But did it have the passion of Anabelle behind it? Not at all.

And then there is the other life force of Porto, the Douro river. We took a boat cruise, which allowed us to see more of the six bridges that cross the river. We might not have seen all of them, but we certainly saw enough to admire several centuries of bridge design and construction. The trip also gave us a better view of the Gaia side of the river and its port houses. We have now well and truly covered the waterfront of this very picturesque city.

We are just about to leave Porto. As it turns out, we saved the best for last in our Portuguese travels. Nothing else has come close for energy, beauty, style and delightful surprises. Obrigado, Porto!

Don’s Food Corner

For our last meal in Portugal, we turned to another of Porto’s historical cafes — Guarany Cafe and Restaurant. It’s just across the street and up a block from the revamped Imperial Cafe, now McDonalds. Unlike the repurposed Imperial or the abandoned and then restored Majestic that we visited yesterday, the Guarany looks like it never lost its original purpose or look. The waiters were formally attired and the tables were awash with linens and fine tableware.

We started with a tomato and mozzarella salad, nicely dressed with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar. More Italian than what you would expect in a typical Portuguese restaurant. Jo stayed with the Italian theme and ordered spaghetti Bolognese. A rich sauce that seemed, if our memory serves right, very close to what we encountered in Bologna last year. This was not the Italian-American version where the tomato sauce overwhelms everything else. A pleasant surprise.

I went for the special of the day, which was seafood stew. It consisted of a huge pile of shellfish — shrimp, mussels, clams — and a large fillet of sea bass. All was nestled in the thin, slightly spicy tomato sauce that you find everywhere in Portugal. There were a couple of boiled potatoes in there as well, which, I guess, is what made it a “stew.” It was all perfectly prepared and, at $17, I thought it was a real bargain.

It left a good taste in our mouths about Portugal.

4 thoughts on “In which we meet the heart of Porto

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