~christmas eve at the barton fink hotel~

December 24th, 2008

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We began Christmas Eve day with breakfast at the Barton Fink Hotel (aka Grande Hotel de Paris), an incredible labyrinth ghostship with massive banister staircases, floor upon floor of guest rooms with libraries and sitting rooms decorated in a jumble of faintly dilapidated 1900s furniture.

The view from our window showed abandoned buildings all around, wild kitties prowling over the rooftops. The bells from the nearby church were lovely and the bedding was surprisingly nice. The light in the rooms however was basically gaslight; the few permanent were residents from the gas light era.

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lights at full blast. now i love some mood lighting, but…

Breakfast in the drawing room was insanely lavish: crepes, almond cake, flan, plus all the usual (ie meat, cheese, omlette, yogurt, muesli, fruit). It was as though the menu, like the furniture, was left over from its 1880s heyday. Through the windows the sad winter garden, crumbling stone fountain, abandon buildings, but…flan for breakfast!

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Christmas cakes, including pao-de-lo–baked in paper and sold by the kilo.

In truth we began the day with an absurd argument concerning–well, what it was actually about was budgets and navigation and suitcase schlepping and language issues and arriving in a surprisingly uncomfortable place (both city and quarters).

To travel well is to be flexible, without expectation, willing to roll with what comes your way. Something like life. In life however we aren’t generally trying to cover 6000 km in 16 days. At the end of those long days you hope what awaits you is reasonably reasonable, or at least not a dropkick into a heart-wrenching episode of the Twilight Zone.

Emboldened by flan we headed out on to our street, Rua da Fabrica (street of bookmakers) to see what a fresh day might bring.

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The most lovely thing we did was walk across the Dom Luís Bridge (designed by a partner of Eiffel in 1881) to Vila Nova de Gaia in the late afternoon where we found a wall to sit on with an enchanting view of the Douro River, and on this day a children’s choir accompaniment of chistmas carols. The whole city was closing shop for the holiday. From our perch it looked something like a music box winding down.

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View from Dom Luís Bridge.

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Rabelos, traditional boats stacked with casks of port.

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Dom Luís Bridge and Serra do Pilar monastery.

Being cafe kids, we did manage to find one restored Belle Époque joint, Café Majestic. Alfonso, perhaps steeling us against disappointment (or still a little cranky), said when approaching “well, it’s not too majestic” and then happily ate his words along with a splurgy lunch of duck.

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Restored Belle Époque Café Majestic.

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I had a traditional soup trio, including a fish soup (it’s growing on me), and Caldo Verde, made of kale. The cuisine of Porto also features cod, lots of cod, often salted (Baccalàu). I had it once and I have to say I think the texture suits it best to fish and chips.

The desserts of Portugal seemed to all be egg-based, some with more appeal than others. We shared a classic Toucinho de Ceu (bacon of heaven) inspired by the table next to us tucking in, however, I found it to be much like undercooked yolk-y meringue. Still it was a fine lunch in a lovely atmosphere and a welcome bougie break.

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the holiday lights (as Ali said, “like tears”).

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At night lower Porto and the Ribeira area is sad and spooky, like walking through an empty stage set on a theater’s dark night, or as though the whole city up and left in mass exodus. The eeriness has a certain appeal, but the despairing poverty and decay does not. We were glad to be leaving.

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Main ingredient in the cities signature dish tripas à moda de Porto .

In my research I had read the prideful northern expression “Lisbon plays, Braga prays and Porto works“, as well as Porto citizens righteously calling themselves Tripeiros–tripe eaters, dismissing the Lisbon citizens as Alfacinhas–lettuce eaters.
Surely, Lisbon will be better! we agreed and fell into dilusioned slumber of sugar plums, feral kitties, and theatrical entrails.

p/s An incredible looking bookshop I learned about later is Livraria Lello.

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