I’m not going to lie here. Before last December, I had never heard of Porto Alegre before. In fact, if Australia wasn’t drawn to play the Netherlands in the southern Brazilian city in the World Cup, I probably still be pretty ignorant as to its existence.
Porto Alegre was a bit of a funny place to start a trip to Brazil. If we had been in the country for a few weeks or months and were heading southwards on towards Uruguay or Argentina, it would have made a lot more sense.
But that’s sometimes the beauty of travelling and following a tournament, exhibit or festival. Sometimes they take you to places you never would have looked at twice. Back in 2012 the Dutch were drawn to play all three of their group matches at the European Championships in Kharkiv, Ukraine and Paul ended up growing quite fond of the place.
And that’s how we found ourselves with two days in Porto Alegre. One was reserved for the match and associated revelry, with another completely without plans. So off we strolled, with no plan except for a little map our taxi driver from the airport had given us the night before.
Straight away, we realised why our guidebooks and Wikitravel articles had compared the city so much to Argentina. Even though I’ve never set foot in Brazil’s southern neighbour, the vibe felt European rather than South American. I heard no samba nor saw anyone playing footvolley. People drank wine, not caipirinhas. And nobody was wearing Havaianas, either.
But it was nice for a wander, anyway. It’s quite a strange thing to fly for fourteen hours and be surrounded by buildings that look European, people who look European and all speak a language that is European. Sure, Porto Alegre is multicultural, but not in the way that the rest of Brazil screams multiculturalism. Here most people can trace their family trees back to Germany or Italy, which makes for some quirky history.
I mean, it just blows my mind that people can be Brazilian yet would cook pasta each night for dinner or own a set of lederhosen. (I’m sorry, I do know that most normal people find all this utterly boring but I’m fascinated by it all.)
But there were things that reminded you of where you were. The palm trees outside the churches, the distinctly Portuguese tiled streets and the kids wearing the distinctly yellow and green football shirts were just a few of the giveaways.
We wandered around oooh-ing at the requisite colonial buildings but generally just soaking up the feeling of being in Brazil. This was the first day I’d ever been in South America, my sixth continent and the one I’d always seen as the most foreign and far away from everything I knew in Melbourne.
Being so close to Argentina had its benefits, too. We realised quite quickly that English wasn’t widely spoken in the country (which made for an interesting check-in at our hotel the night before) but Spanish certainly was. I used my travel Spanish everywhere in Brazil, but nowhere more so than in Porto Alegre.
Plus, their food was pretty tasty, too. We stumbled upon a churrascaria around lunchtime, and having heard of them before, we thought, ‘why not?’
Why not, indeed. Over the next couple of hours we were served twenty different meats at our table, from filet mignon to sausages and from duck to thick cuts of ham. I’m not a big carnivore by any stretch of the imagine, but when in Rome, hey?
There was one man who came around a couple of times with something really delicious; I even ordered seconds, they tasted that yummy. After perhaps my eighth piece of small, tender bits of meat, the couple at the next table enquired as to what exactly they were.
All of a sudden, the server had perfect English. ‘Chicken hearts,’ he replied cheerfully.
That’s when I decided that I was pretty full.
So should Porto Alegre be on your Brazil itinerary? Yes and no. We had a nice couple of days in town, but the city probably had an extra buzz to it due to the influx of World Cup visitors. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to visit, but if you’re heading overland between Brazil and either Uruguay or Argentina, it’s a good little pit-stop. The people are friendly, the palm trees sway (even in the winter) and the cuisine is top-notch.
Just don’t ask what any of it’s called.