Gluten Free Family Travel: Porto Revisited

It was with both excitement and a bit of sadness that we returned to Porto to end our trip. I have to admit that while I really loved every place we visited in Portugal, Porto is the city that really stole my heart. It's small enough to really explore most of it on foot, the Douro is mesmerizing, and Villa Nova da Gaia is right across the bridge where the port cellars are located. What more could a girl want from a city?

It was actually kind of nice to go back the second time because we had already visited most of the sights we had wanted to see the first time we were there, so this time we had a much more leisurely visit. We also chose an AirBnB in a different part of town, on Santa Catarina street. That area is much more modern and well connected to the metro.  We arrived in late afternoon and just settled in for the evening. The apartment was on the 5th floor of a building with a large patio, so we sat outside and watched the sunset before turning in early for the night.

Day One

My youngest son turned three! We woke up to a rousing round of Happy Birthday before sitting down to a special birthday breakfast. We decided to postpone a proper party until our return to France, but we still wanted to make sure his day was special! We took the kids to buy their Portugal souvenir, matching Ronaldo Portugal jerseys.

On the top of my wish list for Porto was to visit the Livraria Lello, the historic bookstore that is widely considered by many to be the most beautiful bookstore in the world. It is also rumored to be an inspiration for J.K. Rowling when writing the Harry Potter books. Since it has become such a popular tourist destination, you now have to buy a 3 Euro ticket to get in. The upside is that if you buy something, they subtract the ticket amount from the purchase price, which makes sense since I'm sure many people just go in, gawk, and then leave without making a purchase.

The bookstore is pretty from the outside, but that's nothing in comparison with the grandeur of the interior. The shelves are stacked floor to ceiling, and what a ceiling it is! Everything is made from wood, with gorgeous carvings and designs. The main attraction for most is the staircase in the middle of the store that leads to the second level.

The staircase branches off halfway, so you can climb to either side of the second floor. Looking up, the stained glass windows of the roof allow natural light to filter in. The old fashioned light fixtures add that something extra to the whole experience.

On the top floor is the old cash register, located beside the tiny cafe. Even the kids found the bookstore fascinating, and we ended up making a few purchases, my favourite being the Portuguese cookbook I bought. After a quick peek out the window to the crowds below, we made our way to the register on the first floor and then back out to the street.

A view of the lower level of the bookstore, taken from the staircase.

We had promised the birthday boy some ice cream, so we walked down to Praca da Liberdade and enjoyed two scoops of ice cream at one of the cafes with a patio overlooking the square. After purchasing their souvenir jerseys, we spent the afternoon exploring the less touristy side of the city.

After dinner, we hopped on the Yellow Metro Line for a ride over the Ponte Dom Luis I. The bridge, built by one of Gustave Eiffel's students, offers unbeatable views over the Douro and the city. Our plan was to watch the sunset over Porto from the lookout point on the other side of the river. It didn't disappoint. The sun blazed orange and red just before setting, and then left the sky with a lavender hue before turning dark. The lights in the city sparkled under the night sky. It was one of the best moments of the entire vacation.

Day Two

Our last full day in Porto before leaving for France was a lazy one, except for the packing. We took the kids to a local park in the morning to blow off some steam, and picked up some new soccer moves while we were there! The kids were fascinated by the groups of retired men seated at the tables in the park playing cards, and we watched them play for a while before continuing on our way.

Part of traveling with a gluten free kid is always making sure there's something safe to eat, so we typically pack snacks while traveling. We hopped back on the Metro and visited the Corte Ingles, a large department store with a full grocery store in the basement. They have an excellent selection of gluten free items, including things I have not yet seen in stores in France. We picked up some muffins for breakfast (no dishes left over!), some snacks for the airport and plane, and a few things for me to take back to France.

When we pack for travel, depending on how long the voyage is, we pack anything from just a few snacks to an entire meal. This time we packed apples, peaches, and grapes, sandwiches, and cookies. The flight from Porto to Paris is just under two hours, so that was enough. There are typically at least a few gluten free options available in most airports, but it's nice to have stuff on hand when the kids get hungry.

Our last tourist activity was to take the cable car that travels along the Douro. We bought a round trip ticket, and then just relaxed as we enjoyed the bird's eye view of the city. We even caved and bought the tourist photo they take of you when you get into the car. It was only 5 Euros, and it's one of the few photos from vacation that include the whole family!

Final Thoughts on Portugal

Portugal blew me away. I knew there were great things to see and do there (obviously, or I wouldn't have booked a three week vacation!) but I was unprepared for just how much the country would impress me. I don't know exactly what I had been expecting, but the reality far surpassed my expectations.

First, the people. The Portuguese people are warm and friendly, and we felt welcome everywhere we went. Also, I was surprised at how many people spoke two and three languages impressively well. I live in Europe, so I know that Europeans typically speak more than one language and are used to conversing with tourists in a language that is not their native tongue, but almost everyone we met was fluent in English, which is not as common in other countries. Many people I have met in France or Italy have enough English to say a few words, but outside of tourist areas or those working in the industry, there aren't as many who speak English well.

Although my husband does speak some Portuguese, if he got stuck the person would inevitably ask French? Spanish? English? and be able to respond in any of those languages in addition to Portuguese. I always try to make an effort to speak to a person in their native language while traveling, but I was still impressed by the high level of fluency in foreign languages, even when we were speaking with people not in the tourist industry.

Second, although I know that Portugal has a rich history and many interesting sites, until I began researching where to visit I didn't realize just how many historical gems there are. We spent three weeks traveling to four cities and I still have a wish list a mile long of other places I want to see. Sintra, Monsaraz, Beja, Braga... the list goes on. Typically when I return from a place I'm satisfied to leave it off the list of return destinations for a few years, but I left Portugal wanting to see more, right now!

Third, the food. It's true that in terms of gluten free awareness Portugal is not as aware as Spain or Italy. It was difficult to find restaurants that were well versed in what gluten free actually meant. However, many traditional Portuguese dishes of meats and fish are naturally gluten free, and we had no trouble finding safe dishes for my son to eat. There are also a few chains of grocery stores with gluten free items, so we didn't have too difficult a time feeding my son safely.

Portuguese food is simple, but so full of fresh ingredients that it's packed with flavour. I became a convert to sardines and cod, mainly because when caught and cooked within a few hours, the taste and smell is so very different from fish that isn't as fresh. Local fruits and vegetables add colour, and the desserts are unbelievable. There are some gluten free desserts as well, including a traditional rice pudding that I can't wait to make once the weather turns.

It's always fantastic to see new places and meet new people, but when a destination truly touches my soul the way Portugal did, I feel truly blessed. Obrigada, Portugal.