Have you ever come across random people on the street hitting each other on their heads with hammers — and getting away with it? Or tickling unsuspecting noses with long stalks that have flowers and garlic bulbs on them? Well, bizarre as that may sound, it is a centuries-old tradition that comes alive during the summer festivities in Braga, near Porto in north Portugal, every year.
“Rooted in pagan courtship rituals, it’s an old, fun-filled custom that youngsters still indulge in. Of course, the hammers are soft and made of plastic. They are squeaky too,” Filomena Alves, director of the Braga Tourism Board Convention & Visitors Bureau, told a visiting media contingent from the UAE last week. The press trip was organised by Emirates and the tourism authorities of Dubai and Portugal, following the launch of a direct flight by Emirates to Porto on July 2.
One of the oldest, yet liveliest, places in the world, Braga packs in 2,000 years of history and is a visual delight with its colourful street festivals, baroque churches, imposing 18th century houses and expansive gardens and squares. Home to Minhu University, it is also the country’s youth and sports capital.
WORLD HERITAGE SITE
Braga is just one attraction off Porto. The historical centre of Porto, which was classified as a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 1996, has so much to offer that one could spend days walking up and down its sloped cobbled paths to soak in its sights, sounds and flavours.
Whether it’s the row houses with narrow balconies and bright blue and yellow walls or magnificent structures like the Clerigos’ Tower, Palacio da Bolsa or the Sao Bento Train Station in Downtown Porto, the art and architecture of the yester eras remains intact.
A pop up at the mouth of the River Douro whose waters flow under six bridges, Porto makes for a picture perfect postcard. Rooms at waterfront hotels come at a premium, with double occupancy rates ranging from anywhere between 250 and 300 Euro a night.
On the other side of the river is the Vila Nova de Gaia Riverbanks where one can visit the fishing villages and view the imposing Luiz I Bridge that was famously designed by an Eiffel student.
The marina at Afurada, also on this side, offers some of the finest river cruises. “A trip on the boat is the most relaxing way to enjoy Porto,” says Patricia Carvalho, sales manager at Feel Douro, a yacht and cruise charter that caters to nautical tourism in the area.
Equally riveting is a tour on the Tram Porto Circuit, which is operated fully by restored vehicles of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The first tramcar line was in fact inaugurated on September 12, 1895. Tickets for a trip come for as little as 3.50 euros or 6 euros for two trips.
No matter how you experience it, Porto has a unique dynamic. And what better way to be educated about it than chatting up with the locals.
A native of Porto, tour guide Monica Nogueira, for instance, is a walking encyclopedia on Portugal.
“There was a time when everyone knew everyone else in Porto. If a neighbour disapproved of what I did, they would just walk into my house and reprimand me. But that has changed now,” she says.
At the Lavraria Lello, a bookshop from 1906 that still attracts millions each year for a feel of its majestic red staircase and other architectural wonders, Monica regales you about its more recent Harry Potter twist. “For long, Lello was a local bookstore with its landmark architecture as far as the Portuguese were concerned. But some years ago, a group of Japanese tourists wanted to know where the ‘Harry Potter bookstore’ was located. They had their reasons for asking as it was rumoured that Hogwarts staircase in the Harry Potter series was somewhat inspired by Lello’s stairway, just as Potter’s black cape was inspired by the black cape uniform that Porto students wear. J.K. Rowling, who was married to a Portuguese man whom she later divorced, is said to have spent a lot of time at Lello.”
The historical centres at the mountain villages can be explored leisurely on foot or on bikes. There are many rural tourism cottages in the region that provide packaged experiences.
The Douro Valley is where Portugal’s world famous vineyards are located. In fact, it is the only demarcated region for production and the best views again can be had from river cruises that also offer fresh meals and snacks which leave you rejuvenated.
Lovers of sports visiting the region can also make a stop at FeelViana on the Praia do Cabedelo as it is a great getaway with its pinewood forest and pristine waters.
While you’re at the Douro Valley, the D’Origem Olive Oil Museum is well worth a visit. The museum demonstrates the traditional way of making olive oil and visitors can directly interact with the producers and do tastings as well. The view of the entire region from the deck of the tasting room is spectacular.
WHERE TO EAT IN PORTO: 8 TOP PICKS
• Os Lusiadas: Specialised in fish and seafood, this restaurant is in Matosinhos, which is home to one of the major national fishing ports. Its famed seafood, including the jumbo shrimps, barnacles and crab, come straight from ocean.
• Puro 4050: This Medditerranean style restaurant on Ribeira serves the finest thin-crust pizzas. Popular picks here also include octopus and chestnut risotto and beef tataki.
• Adega Sao Nicolau: In Ribeira by the river Douro, this no nonsense restaurant serves the best cod cakes, besides chicken bordelaise and octopus fillets with rice.
• Flor de Lis Restaurant, Villa Foz: This property overlooks the Atlantic and its sophisticated interiors makes it a fine dining choice. A la Carte apart, its weekly-changing three or two course menus are highly recommended.
• Casa da Musica: Housed in Casa da Musica, this restaurant, this restaurant is known for its exotic starters like mackerel marinated in ginger sago and rocket ice cream and main courses like shrimp taglioni with spinach and cherry tomato.
• Feel Douro Picnic on the Boat: A highly popular choice as the relaxing boat ride comes with a table laid with fresh, large tomatoes, khus khus salad, melon soup, chicken and vegetable quiche and traditional egg yolk dessert with cherries.
• Feel Viana: The open restaurant of this hotel property in Douro Valley with its elegant décor offers great views and meals.
• DOP: Located in the Palacio das Artes, the stylish DOP has a signature cuisine based on traditional Portuguese flavours and is run by chef Rui Paula.
HOW TO GET TO PORTO
Emirates flies direct, departing from Dubai every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at 9.15am and reaches Porto at 2.30pm. Return flight leaves Porto at 5.35pm and reaches Dubai at 4.15am the next morning. Economy fares on the Boeing 777-200ER flight with scaled up services, ghaf tree interiors and access to free wifi and 4,000 channels on demand on the ice system, start from Dh2,795 (Economy) and Dh15,000 (Business Class) per person.
WHERE TO STAY:
Number of hotels to choose from in Downtown Rebeira and Douro Valley. AirBnB options too available. Double occupancy rates range from 100-300 Euro a night.
HOW TO GET AROUND:
Taxis, Buses, Tram, Boat, Cycles and cars on rent.