Having had so much fun with my interesting adventure of travelling sustainably to the CoBeatParty Live (15–17 September 2022), I next decided to try my luck with attending the Porto Salsa Weekend (7–9 October 2022) travelling sustainably as well – though I was determined to do this shorter weekend trip only if it was possible to keep my total travel costs (travel, hotel, restaurants, the event and clubs, etc) within or under a £500 budget.
Did I manage that? Well, yes, though not without a few hiccups – but in retrospect, these worked out for the best, all things (including my present knee issues) considered. Despite the fact I only ended up having two full days in Porto, I still managed to pack in quite a bit of sightseeing, enjoy superb fresh seafood, etc with friends and of course do as much of the event venue and external dancing as I could manage, so it was definitely worth it.
Travel and booking/rebooking hassles
Alas, when I went to look at my sustainable travel options, there were no trains from London to Porto on the Trainline website; the only travel options were by coach, either with Flixbus – aka the Ryanair of coaches – or BlaBlaCar.
With stops and the Eurotunnel crossing included in the fares, each way would include an overnight journey of roughly 37.5 hours in total, at £159 in total. On the plus side, this was roughly the same or cheaper than a return airline ticket (once you add in baggage fees and seat bookings with EasyJet), and I did have a hefty book (Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall) to get through – so I persuaded myself it would work and booked.
I also booked for all three nights of the event, which was being partially held (for the evening dance socials) at the intentionally quirky, minimalist-concept Zero Box Lodge Hotel in Porto (part of the Zero Hotel group). However, due to some confusion in my booking, the only nights available were the Saturday and Sunday. So I then had to go back to update my coach journey booking with Flixbus, which was where the hassles began.
Though I’d originally booked to leave London Victoria Coach Station on the Wednesday night (or 00:35am Thursday morning, arriving in Porto midday Friday), I then tried to update it for Saturday – but this wasn’t on the ticket PDFs they sent, which confusingly still said Thursday.
So despite spending a whole day kitting myself out with gluten-free meals and snacks for the long coach journey, and making it to the station early for the post-midnight coach, the very rude coach drivers made me queue for ages until everyone had got on the still only half-full coach, then flatly refused to let me board, telling my husband in French that my ticket date was wrong, and I was therefore not insured for travel.
I then had no option but to go back home and see if I could get a cheap flight to Porto and use my still-valid return coach tickets to keep my costs down. Luckily, there was an EasyJet flight leaving Luton at 6am for £59.99 (no luggage or extras), though this meant streamlining all my dance, etc stuff into a single carry-on.
But in truth, despite my intention of travelling sustainably because of my intention to write an article on it, I at least arrived earlier than I would have done by coach, which gave me a full day of sightseeing in beautifully sunny, warm Porto!
When the enthusiastically Spanish-speaking cab driver dropped me off at the hotel, it felt a like I was entering a dead zone – as presumably everyone was still recovering from what I later heard was an excellent opening party at the vaulted port wine cellar space inside traditional restaurant and entertainment venue Herança Magna in Villa Nova de Gaia (below), about a 20-minute drive from Porto city centre. Most of the event attendees described it as their favourite night/venue of the weekend.
As it was too early to check in at the Zero Box Lodge Hotel, I checked my carry-on into a locker and then went to check out the hotel’s upstairs bar/lounge, site of the evening social dance parties.
This was a decidedly different rooftop terrace, with a low-level pool occupied by ancient Greek-style statues, canopied sunbeds and blue-and-yellow boat (actually, yes!), as below. If I hadn’t been keen to make the most of my sightseeing time, I might have enjoyed relaxing here – but if I ever stayed in the hotel again, I would.
I then headed off to explore Porto, taking the cabbie’s advice to use the narrow cobbled lane nearby to reach the buzzing Rua de Santa Catarina.
Here, I enjoyed my first pastéis de nata (below) – Portugal’s traditional custard tart, encased in flaky pastry – and watched a lively all-male street orchestra performing traditional music embellished with zany acrobatics (gifted photographer Olu Kongi was also watching and filming simultaneously, but I somehow missed him in the crowds).
Next I wandered into the stunning 18th century, blue-and-white-tiled Capela das Almas (Chapel of Souls) de Santa Cantarina (below and above) – one of Portugal’s most beautiful churches, near the Bolhão Station on the Porto line. While the inside is not nearly as striking as its exterior, it’s still worth a visit.
I initially thought the blue-and-white azulejos tiles covering the church exterior and were unique, but later observed that many other of the city’s most famous churches and buildings – including the Baroque-style Igreja de Santo Ildefonso church (below, centre) located at the junction of Rua de Santa Catarina, Rua de 31 de Janeiro and Rua de Santo Ildefonso, and Porto’s achingly beautiful late-19th São Bento railway station (bottom row) – also featured this signature style.
Though most of the church azulejos depict religious and Biblical scenes, such as St Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata, the train station’s whopping 20,000 tiles depict scenes from Portugal’s history, including its colonial conquests in the New World and elsewhere.
While trying to make my way through the occasionally quite steep streets to the River Douro, I entered the large square overlooking it, which contains the impressive 12th century Sé Catedral de Porto (top three rows below).
Billed as Porto’s most important religious building, this national monument is sited at the highest point of the city with excellent views over the city, and its architecture features successive Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque styles. Its cloister, the Casa do Cabildo, contains the Cathedral Treasure – a collection of important artefacts, including silk vestments from the period of its exclusive trade with China and some of the world’s first printed Bibles. The cloister and terrace leading to it contains azulejo tiles depicting Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Baroque granite staircase and a sumptuous Chapter Room ceiling depicting 14 allegories of moral virtues.
After a brief linger here, I ended up following a lane that took me via the Casa-Museu de Guerra Junqueiro (lower two rows below) – house museum of 19th century Portuguese poet Guerra Junqueiro – which I decided to investigate. Having become curious about the Portuguese azulejos, I wondered whether these blue-and-white tiles were, like the equally famous Dutch Delftblau pottery of the 17th century, a result of its trade monopoly with China, but I subsequently learned their origin dates back to the Moorish occupation of the 13th century.
After this brief sojourn in the museum, I finally made it to the stunning, double-decker, wrought-iron arched Dom Luís I Bridge (below) with its spectacular views over the busy Douro – Porto’s answer to the Seine – and of the equally impressive, modern arched-concrete Arrábida Bridge in the distance. Porto, known as “the city of bridges”, has six bridges – the most of any European city.
Both bridges join the busy historic Porto city centre with the newer Villa de Nova Gaia municipality, but the Dom Luís I bridge, designed and created by the school of Paris’s Gustave Eiffel, was clearly a firm tourist favourite, with buskers – even a couple posing for wedding pics – galore!
While I could have happily stood on this bridge watching the numerous boats and barges sail the alternately sun-glittered and fog-shrouded Douro as it bisects the city and heads out to the Atlantic forever, its 45m height did make me a tad nervous (as did the fact the Porto Metro also traverses the bridge amid its largely pedestrian traffic).
While my original intention was to get on the famed Telerifico de Gaia cable cars for an even more spectacular view of the Douro, one look at the scarily steep, Batalha Cliff-hugging Funicular dos Guindais railway was enough to put me off.
Also, as I was also beginning to feel in need of a late lunch, I carried on over the bridge to the Villa Nova de Gaia side, which features the sprawling, circular, clifftop-set 17th century monastery and UNESCO heritage site Mosteiro da Serra de Pilar and the palm-shaded Jardim do Morro (Moorish gardens), with breath-taking views of the Douro, which I would have loved to visit.
There were loads of other people sunning themselves in the park, and I also ran into fellow salsa tourists Arnaud Badem and co, which reminded me I would need to get back in time for the evening social at 5pm.
With that in mind, I grabbed a seat at open-air terrace bar Esplanada do Teleférico – Jardim do Morro and enjoyed fabulous views of the Douro while quaffing an Aperol spritz and some seafood tapas. The hungry/pesky seagulls made it very entertaining, though!
Now on to the salsa parties – and more amazing meals
Thus suitably chilled and fortified, I returned to the hotel to register and move my stuff into its funky minimalist wood cabin-style rooms and get ready to join the afternoon social, which was already in full swing by the time I arrived.
With great live sets by DJs Dmitri Matalka, Karlus, Vincent Amiche, Anael McManus, Ricardo Silva and Shems, and a large-enough, sofa-filled space to accommodate the eager dancers and those resting between dances, it was a great start for the rest of my weekend dancing.
After this invigorating social, I joined fellow salseros Melanie from the Netherlands and Crystal from Singapore – both of whom had also been at the CoBeatParty Live in Barcelona – on a quest to eat some of the city’s famed fresh seafood. Melanie led us to the Ostras e Coisas restaurant in the city centre, where we also overheard some beautiful open-air singing from an outdoor choir on the way back.
As soon as we entered the restaurant and spied its large spread of fresh-caught seafood (below), it was clear we were in for a treat, which was certainly proven with our shared first-course starter of Zamberini scallops – truly some of the best I have ever had. I was also grateful to Crystal for suggesting I sample white port.
Considering Porto is the home of port and I had never even heard of the white version, it was the perfect aperitif for seafood, being sweeter and less heavy than the traditional ruby-coloured variety. Clearly, if you had a longer visit in Porto, you could enjoy savouring its many varieties with port wine-tasting excursions.
We then returned to the hotel for a rest and got ready to go out to the Saturday salsa party at Muxima Bar, a popular Afro-Latin bar in Vila Gaia de Nova (shown below before it got packed out).
I have to say that while this venue would normally be a fantastic dance space – apparently, it’s a favourite regular dance haunt of co-organiser Rui Jorge Nascimento (he agreed to help host the Porto Salsa Weekend event after DJ Sérgio Riberio suggested it) – but with a significant proportion of the 250–300 people who attended the weekend event swelling the venue, it was really too crowded for most of us to really enjoy ourselves dancing until the last hour or so.
However, the cocktails were truly amazing (despite having to queue for ages to get them), and I enjoyed dancing al fresco in the small patio area in front. There was also an upstairs gallery area, but I never made it up there as the stairs were also crowded, so I can’t comment on what that was like as a dance space.
After a decent lie-in following our return in the wee hours, I woke on Sunday morning to a fairly cloudy, heavily overcast and somewhat drizzly/rainy day.
While my friends and I had intended to meet for lunch at the famed Belle Epoque-/Art Nouveau-style Majestic Café (below) on the Rua Catarina – one of the places Harry Potter author JK Rowling was inspired by when she lived in Porto in 1991 – it was sadly closed on Sunday, so we opted instead for a very healthy (and exceedingly tasty) lunch at Honest Greens (below).
While they went off sightseeing in the Ribeira, I did a bit of shopping and resting ahead of the afternoon social at 5pm.
This late afternoon/early evening’s social dance session was one of the highlights of my brief time in Porto, with some truly excellent live sets from DJs Karlus, Shems, Patrick El Clasico and Portugal’s own finest DJ, Nuno Melo.
As it was hot inside – in every sense of the word! – I also passed some time cooling off outside under the awnings, where I had some very interesting exchanges with fellow salsera and Portuguese native Daniela Martin, who explained how the reams of US and other expatriates eagerly buying up places in Portugal had made the costs of living soar beyond reason for many Portuguese, ultimately forcing many to move to cheaper locations further out of the city centres and coastal areas. This conversation in part inspired the poem below on Porto.
I would have gladly stayed and enjoyed several more hours of exuberant dancing to these awesome DJs’ sets, but they finished at 7pm before to leave a break before the evening party at Portugal’s longest-running salsa club, Salsando (below).
Considering the number of steep streets and staircases I’d traversed the previous day, with the weather change making my knee ache, I decided to bypass this one as I also had an early morning coach to catch (it was also the only coach from Porto, so I could not afford to miss it). But from all I have since heard and can about it (as can also be seen in the club’s YouTube video), it was a great night – I’d definitely plan not to miss it in future.
I then decided to just got get something to eat and chill out, but though I considered eating at the downstairs O Carnicieiro restaurant in the Zero Box Lodge Hotel, it seemed way too busy to grab a seat – though it was amusing to sit in the lobby and watch people jumping on its dollar-filled bed in the ‘Big Bad Bank’ (see pic bottom right pic below, with one of their signature box-style beds loaded with dollar bills and fronted with a window – obviously a popular choice for photo ops!).
So, instead I just went to grab dinner nearby – but as many places were closed (it being Sunday), I simply went into the nearest open bar-restaurant, which provided an ample veal steak frites dinner and some excellent ruby port.
I was very sorry to have to leave such a buzzy salsa party and beautiful city, but I was nevertheless very grateful for even such a short experience of it.
Something about this arty, intriguing and deeply romantic city, with its air of failed colonial grandeur, has well and truly got into my veins – so I’m certain I’ll be back.
There aren’t any details available yet about Porto Salsa Weekend 2023, but do look out for what’s sure to remain a popular event – and hopefully it won’t be too long (God willing) before I see you on a dance floor again!
5 thoughts on “Porto-ohohoh!: Reflections on my recent salsa travels #2”
Wow I’m exhausted just reading this. I enjoyed the mix of travel details, dancing and the history and culture of the area. Also the poem.
Hahaha – I get the exhaustion! Even though it was tough doing all those hills and stairs, it was totally worth it!
Certainly a very interesting and informative and well written piece
Jane, thank you so much for capturing our memories in word and picture so well! Looking forward to make some more memories with you…