Wait, What Country are we in?

On a bus to MadridThanks to something called the Schengen Agreement, most of Europe is essentially like one big country for travel purposes.  Completely open borders.

Of course, it’s one thing to know that theoretically, and it’s another to be sitting on a bus and realize that you crossed over into an all new country and didn’t even realize.  Because that’s exactly what happened to me recently — I was riding on a bus from Porto to Madrid (a punishingly long nine hour bus ride), and I was expecting some kind of cursory border check.  Anything at all.  But nope.

It’s super bizarre to be travelling to another country and crossing the border is essentially like traveling to another province in Canada, or to another state in the US.  No passport check, nothing.  I’m sure there was some kind of “welcome to Spain” sign, but I guess I missed it.

Saved by a Random Food Festival (or: The Greatest Pork Sandwich I’ve Ever Had)

Food in the parkSo here’s a thing that happens a bunch in Portugal. You’ll head to a restaurant, all excited to try whatever dish they’re known for; you’ve walked a few kilometres to get there, and oh, what’s this?  Yeah, they’re closed for the next three weeks.  Apparently Portuguese chefs love to shut down for the month of August.

This recently happened to me (for the third or fourth time), and so I was wandering around looking for something to eat.  I very quickly (and fortuitously) stumbled on a park that just happened to be hosting the Porto Food Festival.

Look at all that pork

The most compelling booth featured an older guy expertly dismantling a suckling pig and turning it into tasty-looking sandwiches; I can’t say no to a delicious pork sandwich, so I ordered one.

I’m not 100% certain about this, but I’m pretty sure that this sandwich can grant wishes.  That’s how magical it was.

This is the stuff dreams are made of

It was so good.  The pork was amazingly tender, with the perfect amount of unctuous, melt-in-your-mouth fat.  It was perfectly seasoned with just a little bit of salt to bring out the rich, porky flavour; sometimes pork can be a little bland, or if it hasn’t been freshly prepared, can taste a little gamy.  This was neither of those things.  It just had a really clean, immensely satisfying pork flavour.

They were also ridiculously generous with the crispy bits of skin; usually in a sandwich like this you’ll get a few pieces, but here the crackling was abundant enough that it was practically in every mouthful.

Apparently this booth is run by a restaurant that’s been roasting pork since 1983 called O Zé Pacheco.  All it takes is one bite to tell they’ve been at this for many years.  It was phenomenal.

Trying Port Wine in Porto

The outsideThere are certain drinking-related things you have to do when you go to a country: if you’re in Scotland, you have to drink some Scotch; if you’re in Ireland, you have to drink some Guinness; and when you’re in Porto, you have to have to drink some port wine.

Though if I had any foodie cred left after admitting that I like McDonald’s, I’ll lose it now: I’m just not all that into wine.  It’s fine, I guess, but I can’t say I fully understand the appeal.

Still, I decided to get into the port wine spirit; I headed over to the Taylor’s port cellar for a tour (Taylor’s is one of the oldest producers of port wine — they’re currently celebrating their 325th anniversary).

The tour costs 12 Euros, lasts a bit over an hour, and includes two sampling glasses of wine.

A bunch of barrels

It was an interesting enough tour, though the audio guide features more minutia on wine production and the lineage of the various founders of the company than any reasonable person needs.  It’s also self-congratulatory almost to the point of parody.  But… there’s wine!

Yes, at the end of the tour you wind up in a bar next to some fancy gardens (which includes a peacock just standing around relaxing), and they serve you two glasses of port wine — one white, and one red.

Just a peacock, chillin'

They were… winey?  Extremely winey? Actually, no — these were pretty different from any other wines that I’ve tried.  They were intensely sweet.  The white was comparatively subdued, but the red was pretty much a sugar bomb.  It was basically like drinking boozy grape juice.  Being less of a fan of wine and more of a fan of things that are sweet, I actually quite enjoyed it.

White and red

However, I should admit that I have an absurdly low tolerance for alcohol. For the sake of my dignity, I was going to say that the two glasses of wine left me a bit tipsy, but let’s not mince words; I was full-out drunk. The winding, hilly cobblestone streets that surround the cellar suddenly became treacherous. I didn’t fall over, though there was a mishap involving a sloped sewer grate that could have very easily ended in injury, either physically or to my pride (or, most likely, a bit of both).

Porto Subway Oddities

SubwaySo here’s a weird thing about the subway system here in Porto: it seems to be run on the honour system.  There are no gates anywhere; there are machines to load up your swipe card with the fare for a ride, and there’s these little card scanners around each station that (I think) you’re supposed to swipe before you get on a train and when you transfer, but that’s it.  I’ve never actually seen anyone confirming that passengers have paid their fare. It’s weird.

I’m constantly paranoid that some gruff, no-nonsense ticket-checker is going to scan my card and it’ll turn out I did it completely wrong. I’ll try to explain that I paid a fare, but of course the guy speaks no English. I’m not entirely sure how this would end for me, but not well I’m sure.


The other oddity is that, in a lot of stations, there are multiple lines that converge, and often the trains from the different lines will all arrive at the same platform. So you have to be careful about which train you’re getting on (even if you’re at the right spot!) or you’ll end up in the wrong place.

I mean, come on. That one seems designed solely to screw with tourists.  Of course I wound up on the wrong train at one point. How could I not? (By paying attention, you’re probably thinking. Shut up, you.)

On the plus side: phones get a rock-solid signal, even when the trains go underground, so that’s nice.

A Cheesy, Saucy (and Delicious) Mess

So goodIf you were under the impression that over-the-top gut-busting meals are the sole domain of the United States, prepare to be proven wrong, sir.  Because here in Porto, there’s an insane sandwich that’s just as artery-clogging as anything you’ll find at the carnival.

This magnificent creation is called the francesinha; I ate it at the Cafe Santiago, which is (rightfully) famous for its version of this particular sandwich.

It’s a ham, bologna, sausage, and steak sandwich — that alone sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  But they’re not done yet.  The whole thing is topped with a fried egg and draped with melty cheese (that’s strategically placed to cover the egg white, but leave the runny yolk exposed).  Oh, and then they douse the whole thing in gravy and surround it with a ring of fries.  Why?  Why the hell not, that’s why.


It’s pretty magnificent.  I mean, how could it not be?  It’s an indulgent pile of meat, melty cheese, and gravy-soaked bread.  All of the meats are quite tasty, particularly the zingy sausage, though the steak is a little bit tough (which is probably my only real complaint about this thing).

The gravy — which kind of reminded me of a spicy version of Swiss Chalet sauce — really brings it all together.  And the fries are handy to help soak up all that gravy, because there’s a lot of it.

McDonald’s Around the World: Portugal Edition

McDonald'sMaybe it’s because I’ve been going to the place since I was a kid, and thus have fuzzy childhood memories, but I like McDonald’s.  I don’t eat there a whole lot, but every time they add something new to the menu, I feel compelled to check it out.

Here in Portugal they have the usual assortment of burgers, chicken sandwiches, and salads — the most interesting thing is their take on the bifana, called McBifana (natch).


It’s alright, I guess.  They replace the sliced pork of the original with two pork burger patties; most of the flavour comes from the surprisingly garlicky sauce that they slather all over it.

There’s definitely nothing wrong with it, though at around four Euros it’s almost double what an actual bifana costs.  Considering that the real deal is more substantial, tastier, and cheaper, it’s hard to justify ordering this thing.

A couple more thoughts after the jump.

Holy Crap, Look at that View

Good stuffI’ve eaten at restaurants with a nice view before, but I’m pretty confident that this one takes the cake.

It’s called Cantina das Freiras; it’s run by a local Catholic organization, and it’s one of those places that’s impossible to find if you don’t already know about it.  Here’s a picture of the alley you’ll find it in (it’s the first door on the right — note the complete absence of any signage indicating a restaurant is here):

Yes, there's a restaurant here

You go up a few flights of stairs, order your food cafeteria-style, then you’re free to carry your tray outside and take in the magnificent view.

I just pointed at the tray of the lady in front of me and asked for the same stuff (this is the sort of thing you have to do to save yourself the indignity of staring blankly back at a person after being asked something in a language you don’t understand).

Okay food, great view

So I wound up with a piece of pan-fried fish, some pretty basic potatoes, and a salad.  The food was fine, if nothing particularly special, but it was only €6.50, and did you see that view?  That alone is reason enough to come; the delightfully affordable food is just a bonus.

Check out some more pictures after the jump.

I Ate a Kebab Sandwich from a Vending Machine

Grab and GoI was walking back to the Airbnb the other day, and I passed a storefront that was just three vending machines in a small space — two were pretty standard (drinks, chips, etc.), and the third had a variety of hot sandwiches like fried chicken, burgers, and the one I tried, kebab.

Two thoughts immediately crossed my mind:

  1. This can’t possibly be good.
  2. I need to try it.

I justified it by telling myself that I could write about it on this blog, but let’s face it — my morbid curiosity would have compelled me to try the vending machine sandwich regardless.

Choices, choices

I selected what the machine called “Kebab de Vitela” (I wasn’t about to try the burger or the fried chicken sandwich.  What do I look like, an idiot?); the machine counted down from 24.  Something about it was vaguely threatening.

I was then invited to open a small door and retrieve a puffy, piping hot plastic bag containing my dinner.


It was a sad looking sandwich, but I held out hope that it would taste better than it looks.

Yeah, not so much.

The flavour of the meat was actually fine, surprisingly enough — certainly, it’s not anything that anyone would ever classify as “good,” but there wasn’t anything off about it.  Considering that it’s a vending machine kebab sandwich, I’m going to call that a win.

No times a million

It was the texture of the meat that made this as disgusting as you’d fear a hot vending machine sandwich would be.  I’m not even entirely sure how to describe it, other to say that it fell into the horrifying no-man’s-land between crunchy and chewy.

The yogurt sauce that was so prominent in the picture was entirely absent.  I probably dodged a bullet there.  As for the bun, it was pretty microwavey, but basically fine.

All in all, not a great sandwich.  And yet — if I come across another vending machine selling hot, incongruous food, I’ll probably try it.

There might be something wrong with me.

Tasty Eats at the Time Out Market

The Time Out Market in Lisbon is one of those places that you’re pretty much obligated to visit as a tourist; a gourmet food hall curated by a group of journalists, with the idea being that all of the few dozen or so stalls are offering above-average food.

After a lot of wandering around and hemming and hawing (the abundance of delicious looking food makes it an indecisive person’s nightmare) I settled on bacalhau rice with clams from a booth called Miguel Castro e Silva.

Bacalhau — dried and salted cod which is then rehydrated to serve — is basically a national obsession here, so I knew I’d have to try it at least once.  In this dish, it’s served with a risotto-esque rice along with a handful of tasty clams.

It’s quite good — the rice was swimming in a rich broth, and the whole thing had a really intense seafoody flavour.  There was only a small piece of bacalhau here, but it was flavourful with a great flaky texture; it and the clams complimented the rice quite well.

It was solid, though at €12.50 (about $18.50 Canadian), it was a bit on the pricey side for a dish that didn’t quite knock my socks off.