We assumed upon arriving in Porto Alegre that following our stay we would write some sort of post along the lines of 5 best things to do in PA or How to spend a week in PA etc etc etc. The city is a major urban hub and has a population of nearly 4.5 million, and as such we assumed it would have more than enough to occupy us for our stay. But after a week of near constant rain so heavy that we were virtually housebound, an unexpected flat move mid-week due to a cockroach the size of a mouse, and two consecutive days spent killing time in the local shopping mall (we are not mall people), we started feeling like a post about what not to do in Porto Alegre would be more appropriate.
Porto Alegre is not on most typical traveller routes. It is the capital of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, and the region has more in common with Uruguay and northern Argentina – think cowboys, vinyards and rolling hills as opposed to the white sand beaches or Amazonian forays that are more often associated with Brazilian tourism. The state has a more temperate climate than its northern neighbours, and given it is still winter in these parts at the moment, it was pretty cold for a lot of our stay.
When booking, we (erm, James) had made the dubious decision to stay for a week, in order to break up our journey from Barra da Lagoa where we had been previously, to the mountain resort of Gramado where we are now. Upon our arrival, we quickly questioned this decision. As a tourist, there really isn’t that much to do.
We don’t want to be negative about a city that we know little of. And it is fair to say that the weather was so unkind it made getting to know it a real challenge. But while we grew fond of Porto Alegre, it was no coup de foudre. Although there are signs of hidden beauty, in the architecture, in the Old Town, a lot of the downtown area feels a bit gritty (unfairly emphasised by the relentless grey rain). We were warned before arriving that it has a reputation for being quite dangerous, and while we never felt unsafe, we were wary, as there is definitely a bit of an edge. We were also often stared at, and not in a warm wanting-to-get-to-know-you way, which grew tiresome after a few days.
But as the week wore on and the weather gradually improved, we managed to get out and see more of the city. There is a great public market in the historic centre which is the city’s oldest market and an important historic landmark, with loads of locally sourced fresh produce (veg, fruit, meat, dairy) as well as handcrafted goods. There are a few interesting districts to walk around, such as the classy and upmarket Moinhos de Vento where we discovered delicious craft beer, the hipster Cidade Baixa with great coffee chops which apparently comes alive at night, and the up and coming Bom Fim with its architecture, graffiti and distinctive urban edge.
In hindsight, a week was definitely a smidge too long. But regardless, it will always be remembered as a special week as a family. Perhaps it was because we were inside so much more, we got to spend real quality time together, focusing on each other as opposed to going out and seeing something. Perhaps it was because the first flat we were in (pre-cockroach) was so tiny that we were effectively sharing one room at all times, which was intimate and cozy and which Amber seemed to love. Perhaps it was also because James became the ultimate hero dad, taking on the cockroach to protect Amber and I, laughing in the face of what had previously been a debilitating fear of anything insect.
Whatever it was, it will be remembered as an enjoyable week, getting an insight into a city that few people get the opportunity to visit, and seeing real life Brazil, as opposed to the tourist havens which are on most people’s hit list. That in itself made it valuable and worthwhile.