Porto: muito obrigada! ›

A whirlwind tour of Portugal’s second largest city shows that there’s much more to see than fado and francesinhas

Like many Spaniards, we took advantage of the long Easter weekend to escape thepointy hatsand manic church bells. The destination? Porto.

panorama porto

First things first: Porto is beautiful. A hilly metropolis filled with tile-clad, low-rise houses and apartment blocks with terracotta rooftops, overlooking the river Douro. And all those hills means that you’ll leave the city with thighs of steel, especially if you climb the Clérigos Tower – one of the few main monuments to see. No, Porto is more of an “everything is beautiful” city – leaving tourists content with just wandering through the cobbled streets and stopping off for um fino and a Portuguese tapa every now and again to recharge.

Portugal is old. The buildings are old, some derelict but still standing pretty. The hotels are old, complete with suitably old furniture. But all this contributes to the unbeatable charm of the area. The capital Lisbon is very similar – everything is slightly antiquated, charming, fascinating.

One of the main draws of Porto is, of course, the tiles. Houses and churches covered in tiles, tile souvenirs, special tile-oriented tours of the city… If you’re a tile fan, you’ve hit the motherload. Rather than being geometric and brightly coloured, something that is often associated with, for example, Al-Andalus in Southern Spain, Portuguese tiles often depict historical events, predominantly in blue tones.

Sao Bento train station is one of the first places a tile lover goes to see in Porto. Nearing it’s centennial anniversary, Sao Bento offers huge, tiled portayals of historical events on each of it’s four walls, including the Conquest of Ceuta.

Sao BentoDetails of Sao Bento station

Culinary options are vast thanks to the city’s prime location on the Atlantic coast. There are no prizes for guessing what one of the nations most favoured dishes is. Cod and octopus are regular components of Portuguese menus. We also found that the Portuguese are big fans of…innards. Locals make sure that hardly anything of the animal is wasted – whether it be moelas (chicken gizzard stew),tripas a moda do Porto (intestines with beans in sauce) or papas (pigs blood, flour and odd-end cuts of chicken and pork). Please be careful with the latter, Spaniards, – don’t go thinking they’re going to serve you a nice bowl of crisps.

However we cannot touch on Portuguese food without mentioning the Bad Boys of West coast Iberian cuisine: thebifanaand thefrancesinha. Again, don’t go asking for afrancesain Spain either, people. Don’t make me spell it out!
The bifana is a glorious pulled pork sandwich in a small bread bun, whereas the francesinha is a heart-attack inducing sandwich layered with steak, ham and sausage, with melted cheese, and possibly a fried egg, on top and chips around the side – all covered in a tomato and beer sauce. Hungry? You’d better be if you want to attempt to eat one. Our tour guide attributed Porto’s most famous dish to Daniel da Silva who set out to take great food back to Portugal after a culinary tour of France in the 1960′s. His version of the croque monsieur was apparently spiced up with a hot gravy to try and make the Portuguese woman as sexy as their French counterparts.

franL: Francesinha – R: Bifanas, Papas de sarrabulho and um fino

And what goes hand in hand with Portuguese food? Why, Portuguese drink, of course! You may already know that Porto is famous for it’s abundance of Port wine. What a coincidence, eh? Wine country can be found just over the river Douro in Vila Nova de Gaia. Stroll over the Dom Luis I bridge and take your pick of breweries and bodegas each offering tours of their wine cellars with two or three samples of local port, for around €5. We chose Offley’s and opted for a tour in Spanish. The port samples sure made up for the fact that the tour was a little short. Multilingual bar staff, however, were able to give a fair amount of information about the various different ports.
Porto is also famous for its “green wine”. Special thanks go out to the barman who explained it is called this because the grapes are very young when picked –not because the wine itself is green.

All food and drink is cheap. A typical meal of abifana, a portion ofpapasand a beer will see change from a fiver. We also found out that the Portuguese can party as well as their Iberian counterparts with the clubs still alive and kicking in the old town until at least 6am.

There’s nothing left to say about Porto other than to reiterate the beauty of the city. Whether it be a stroll along the Douro, sampling local cuisine, becoming a wine connoisseur or partying all night with the locals, there’s no shortage of a plan – and all of it enchanting. And if you’re struggling with the language, a very wise man told us to try speaking Spanish with a Russian accent.

Top sites:
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- The Wild Walkers free walking tour – let a local show you the sites and recommend good restaurants! Meet everyday at 10:30am and 3:30pm in the town hall square.
- The Clérigos Tower – Great views of Porto, Vila Nova de Gaia, the Douro and the Atlantic Ocean. Rua Senhor Filipe de Nery.
- Get themetroto coastal town Matosinhos for fresh fish. Try surfing at the schools on the huge beach.
- Wine sampling in Vila Nova de Gaia – Choose from dozens of bodegas.
- Livraria Lello – Beautiful bookshop reminiscent of the wand shop in Harry Potter. Ornate wooden decoration and stained glass windows (above). Rua das Carmelitas 144.

Até logo Porto!

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The Benidorm Syndrome ›

A quick jaunt around Benidorm’s main stretch confirms the worst: despite the 2 hour plane journey, you’ve somehow landed in a bizarre alternate dimension of the UK – and the only difference here is that you’re burning to a crisp under the Spanish sunshine.

Neon signs and Union Jack bunting guide you through the “English quarter”, an area just a few minutes’ walk from the main Levante beach. Bars pride themselves on having imported top-notch British drinks, such as Carling and Bulmers, while others classily boast that their €3 fry ups offer “REAL bacon – None of that Spanish shite”. Welcome to the British ghetto.

223016_10150571994675085_219194_n“Typical Espanish”

Think big, burly men in vests, reddened from several days (and pints of John Smiths) under the Mediterranean sunshine; hen parties, more than likely with some sort of penis paraphernalia strapped to them, screaming “OI OIIIIIII!!” and berating their LAD stag-do counterparts; brigades of pensioners on mobility scooters, clogging up the promenade before leaving their vehicles in a specially designated mobo parking area, complete with night watchman. It truly feels as though you’ve wandered into a warped, British dimension. Focusing on all the worst bits of Britain.

Row after row of British themed bars offer cheap pints and even cheaper portions of home comforts. After all, who wants to try any Spanish food and drink when they’re on their jollies? Apart from sangria, of course. “Aye, I’ll have a pitcher of tha’ for mesen – make sure it’s got some orange in it for one of me 5 a day. And I want a sparkler an’ a paper parrot. Ta, love.” – says an obese 40 year old lady sat on the terrace of the Benny Hill Bar. You’re more likely to hear a mish mash of the UK’s roughest accents than a single Spaniard.

A random pop in to the British capital of Spain last weekend confirmed that, even in early Spring, twat-tanned Brits are out in force. Levante beach was particularly bustling and promenade bars were bursting at the rafters while twenty-something’s danced the day away and downed pints of vodka Red Bull.#yolo

This is the precisely why the term “Brit Abroad” was coined. Think of a stereotypical British tourist and what have you got? Socks and sandals? A drunk twenty year old girl spread eagled on the pavement at 8 o’clock after downing too many Jägerbombs? A group of Lonsdale-clad young men with love bites on their necks ordering “7 pints of snakebite, mate” from a bewildered Spanish waiter?
The residents of Catalan town Salou know this scene all too well as British university sports teams arrive by the plane load every year during the Easter break to enjoy sun, sea, sand, sex…sambuca, barfing on street corners,balconing… “Salou Fest” is often met with mixed views – some locals dread the mayhem that the bank holiday brings whereas many business owners welcome the extra cash in an otherwise low season. Other areas, such as the Costa del Sol and Balearic Islands, are also “plagued”.

In fact, one source from Calpe said that local Spaniards actually enjoy sitting on the beach and watching young Brits drink themselves into a stupor in one of the main Benidorm bars, Tiki Beach. I hear Sunday afternoons are particularly raucous and highly entertaining.

224635_10150572025110085_4588513_nSticky Vicky’s bare arse

We know that some of the main draws of holidaying in Benidorm are 1) cheap flights to Alicante, 2) dirt cheap drinks, 3) sunshine and 4) the round-the-clock entertainment. “Entertainment” – if that’s how you wish to define a 70 year old pulling random, absurd objects out of her guff. I know the employment situation is bad right now in Spain, Vicky, love, but I think it’s about time you quit your day job. Cheap accommodation in an undeniably British environment only adds fuel to the loutish fire.

The latter is something that is recognised by hit British television series Benidorm. Quite satirical in content matter, the ITV comedy focuses on several British families that frequent the same high-rise hotel complex year after year. However ultimately heart-warming and hilarious, there’s no deviating from the fact that Brits Abroad and the phenomenon of holidaying in such resorts is turning into a bit of a laughing matter.

BENIDORM_ITV_2014The cast of Benidorm outside the 4 Star Solana Resort & Spa

The difference between Benidorm and nearby town Altea is so great that it’s pretty hard to believe that the Mediterranean hotspots are ten minutes – and not worlds – apart. The glaring neon lights, Chubby Brown impersonators and yobs in Celtic tops make way for quaint cobbled streets and a much more relaxed atmosphere in the charming, coastal, white-washed village of Altea. Although still home to a large amount of British expats and a popular destination among holidaymakers, Altea has retained its charm and hasn’t given in to the high-rise aesthetic and boozy personality of nearby Benidorm, despitequintoscosting exactly the same price.

551589_744590070609_1479574716_nAltea

Nobody wants to be a party pooper, but eating a bacon butty and washing it down with a cup of PG Tips on holiday seems like such a waste and it just goes to show that the Little Englander is alive and kicking. Why not try the local food? Why not make an effort to get to grips with local culture? Why can’t expats who have lived on the Costa Blanca for 20 years not speak Spanish? Or why won’t they? Ignorance and laziness springs to mind.

But at what point does a holiday become ironic? We know what kind of people frequent Benidorm; we’re aware of their habits and we even know, thanks to TV programmes likeBenidorm, that it’s alright to have a laugh at ourselves every now and again. Who’s to say having a steak and ale pie in the Yorkshire Pride has to be a huge no-no – especially for expats like yours truly who dream of days of gravy past? By all means, get away from your 9-5 and go on a little bender, but, for the love of God, lay off the lager for just one day and go and do something that makes the most of your time in SPAIN, yeah?

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Holy Week traditions in Spain: More sinister than the Easter bunny ›

Easter in the UK means two things: 1) a long weekend and 2) the inevitable onset of nausea after eating one too many Lindt chocolate bunnies. In Spain, things are a little different…

Don’t be alarmed if you’re confronted by an army of solemnly marching locals, shuffling along to the beat of a drum, dressed in what can only be described as aKu Klux Klan uniform. There, I said it. And don’t deny that you haven’t thought it too. But what does it all mean?

At university we had it drilled into us that Catholicism is still very predominant in Spain. Despite the illusion that the cura, marujas and relentless call-for-mass church bells may give you, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of youths here are not avid churchgoers. But many religious traditions are still driven forwards by older generations – traditions like that in the video above. This sombre procession, that’s somewhat bizarre to foreigners who happen to come across it, is something that I jokingly like to call The Pointy Hat Parade.
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They are in fact called nazarenos or vestas, local Catholics who take part in Holy Week festivities along with the rest of their repenting brotherhood (hermandades and cofradías). A path is followed, passing by churches, cathedrals and main squares and viewing points with each brotherhood wearing a different colouredcostume consisting of penitential robes and a large, pointed hood. Despite possible risqué connotations, I’m told that the latter has nothing to do with the KKK and shares no link whatsoever to  lynchings and/or the burning of crosses.

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My housemates made some memes about me because I got locked out of the flat til 10am last weekend.

Expats Blog living in Valencia