“The ancient handsome litter of the sea front had possessed its own significance, its vivacity and its charm. A spirited collection of abandoned windlasses, the ribs of forgotten boats, the salt wasted, almost translucent gallows on which the fish had once been dried, the sand polished sculpture of half buried driftwood.” Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’
Once again the coastal weather didn’t cooperate with our beach plans and we woke to a thick sea mist that seemed to hang around like a wet blanket. The hotel clerk apologised several times as though he was personally responsible for this and reluctantly told us that most likely it would be like this all day.
No beach for us today for sure.
Instead we left the hotel and walked along the north bank of the River Ave until it met the sea and then we turned north towards the city of Póvoa de Varzim about three miles or so away.
On the way we visited the fish market of Vila do Conde and passed the now abandoned timber fish drying trestles where traditionally cod from Newfoundland was salted in preparation to be transformed into bacalau.
The trestles and the drying frames have all gone now and only the rotting skeletal timber supports remain but with a bit of imagination it is possible to see what it must have been like; a beach full of white fish facing south and glinting madly in the sun rather like a modern day solar energy farm.
On the side of a derelict fish preparation warehouse there was a mural, a painting showing just how this place once looked with women workers attending to the precious fish.
Ocean fishing is a hard job. It used to be a whole lot harder.
Generally when we think of fishing we focus on the brave men that put out to sea, sweating, straining; blistered, burning, bleeding, bruised; grunting, groaning – dropping their nets; heaving, hoisting, and then bringing in their haul and returning worn out, beat and battered back to beaches.
A tough job – I wouldn’t want to do it and I wouldn’t want to do the job of fishermen’s wives either because I imagine that was equally as demanding. They might not have put out to sea or battled with the nets and the ropes, the rough seas and the weather but they had their own arduous tasks to perform just the same.
Before the men set off to work the women had to help them prepare, maybe a bit of patching up here and there, wounds to stitch, bandages to apply and then pack up some food and drink to take with them.
Next the really arduous job. While they were out at sea they had to sit and worry about them returning safely and when they did they were thankful but now there was more work.
While the men hauled the boats away from the surf onto the beach the women dealt with the catch, gutting the sardines, descaling the mackerel, separating the flesh from the bones of the cod and hanging into the sun prior to salting and all the premium fish expertly prepared for market.
And then they had to go to market to do the negotiating and the selling.
When they had finished all of that they had to start mending nets digging the sand for juicy bait and harvesting slimy seaweed and drying it to sell to inland farms as fertilizer.
Oh, and I almost forgot, the housework, preparing food and looking after the children.
I mention this because everywhere in Portugal there is street art which is based on the lives of fishermen and women and for a country which didn’t grant equal rights until 1974 the art celebrates fishing men and women in equal measure and I was pleased to see that. Women so often get overlooked in these matters.
The depiction of women and fishing has changed though. These two contrasting examples are first from the city of Ovar (at the Railway Station) and the second from the city of Póvoa de Varzim.
The first is a tiled wall from about fifty years ago which shows a traditional image of a glamorous, smiling woman who looks rather like Sophia Loren, someone a fisherman would be delighted to return home to after a tough night at sea and the second is a modern sculpture that depicts a group of fishwives that you wouldn’t want to bump into down an alleyway on a dark night. I suspect that the second is probably a more accurate depiction..
Póvoa de Varzim turned out to be a much larger place than I had imagined, it is the seventh-largest urban centre in Portugal and was once home to the country’s largest fishing port. It is still important to the fishing industry but now predominantly for processing and canning. The story of Póvoa de Varzim is rather like that of Grimsby in England, the town where I live.
Eventually we reached an agreed turning around point, found a beach bar for a drink and then as we walked back the mist began to reluctantly clear and the sun made the odd shy appearance.
It didn’t clear completely until we arrived back in Vila do Conde so with the sky now blue and the sun in all of its glory we walked the centre of the old town, the market (gone now for the day) the Cathedral, the Convent and some more of the Aqueduct. I was glad that we had returned to Vila do Conde, I liked it here.
Later the hotel arranged some car hire for us on the following day, it was a lot less fuss than Europcar and quite a lot cheaper as well. The next day we planned to drive to Guimarães and Braga.
As a general rule I am happy to recommend anywhere in Portugal – not this public bench in Tomar however…
The following day we were leaving Porto and taking the metro to Vila do Conde. We thought it might be a good idea to hire a car so I used the Internet and booked a vehicle through Europcar , who in my experience are usually quite reliable and efficient and arranged to collect it from Porto Airport on our way north.
We had a final couple of hours in the city so we took a walk around the local area near to the hotel, a park, a convent and a church, quite different to the busy centre and then approaching midday we made our way to Trindade metro station.
It took about thirty minutes to travel to the airport on the Bombardier Flexity Outlook low-floor dual-carriage ‘Eurotram’ and it stopped every few minutes to pick up and drop off more passengers and it stopped fifteen times before we reached our destination.
I thought using Europcar with an office in the airport arrivals hall would be easy but I was about to be disappointed. There was no office, just a reception desk and after waiting around for an eternity while the desk clerk dealt with a difficult customer we were directed to a shuttle bus to drive us a mile or so off site.
When we got there the office was ram-jam full and there was a forty-minute wait to get to the front of the line and during this time my patience tank was completely drained dry. Eventually it was my turn to sign documents and pick up keys but I became uneasy about this simple process when the clerk began to shake his head and sigh.
It turned out that I had reserved a car using Europcar.com when I should have used Europcar.co.uk so I had made a reservation that is only for people from North America. OK, so what, I suggested that he just amend the booking and we could take the keys and be away. So he tapped away at his keyboard and scratched his head and told me the price would be higher, almost 50% higher and he was unable to explain to me to my satisfaction why citizens from the USA and Canada could get a better rate for hiring a car in Portugal than those from Europe.
I was so angry that I told him to poke it, reported the news to Kim who was unhappy about this unilateral decision and then we made our way back to the metro station where we queued for thirty minutes to get a ticket to get to Vila do Conde. Kim was beginning to overheat. It was like waiting for Vesuvius to erupt!
Another thirteen stations later we arrived in Santa Clara and negotiated a steep climb up a pot-holed cobbled street to our hotel, the Santana Hotel and Spa. We had been here before so we knew all about it and we especially liked the restaurant but bad luck hadn’t finished with us today and the fine à la carte that we were looking forward to had been replaced by a tourist buffet menu and I began to sense another disappointment coming our way.
As I didn’t have a bucket of cold water to hand it was probably best that we spent some time apart right now so while Kim stayed in the room and went to the spa I took a walk down into the town.
My plan was to climb the hill on the other side of the river to the Santa Clara Convent which was once the largest in all of Portugal but is now no longer used for its original purpose and after spending some time as a prison is now rumoured to be being converted into a Pousada hotel, which is the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish Paradors.
Next to the convent and snaking north away from the town are the extensive remains of the Aqueduto do Convento, a sixteenth century structure that was built to supply water to the Convent. At four kilometres long it is claimed to be the second largest in Portugal after Lisbon but I have been to Tomar and their aqueduct is measured at six kilometres.
I am not taking sides, I am just saying!
To put things into perspective the longest Roman Aqueduct served the city of Constantinople and was two hundred and fifty kilometres long. The largest existing aqueduct in the world is the Thirlmere Aqueduct in North West England built between 1890 and 1925 and running one hundred and forty kilometres over and through hill and dale of the English countryside in pipes, streams, tunnels, dams and aqueducts.
The United States has the largest ‘water tunnel’ with a storage capacity of five hundred and fifty billion gallons and providing fresh water to the New York City’s eight million residents. Also in the US, the Central Arizona Project allows passage of water from the Colorado River to central and southern Arizona and at five hundred and forty kilometres it is the largest aqueduct ever constructed in the United States.
I admired the views from the Convent, walked a section of the aqueduct, found a mini-market for supplies and when I judged it safe to return to the hotel I walked a weary walk back up the hill to the Santana. Oh how I wished that I had got a car!
Evening meal didn’t turn out to be too desperately disappointing and over an overflowing plate and a jug of cheap wine we made plans to go to the beach in the morning.
Only Mad Dogs and Washing Lines Go Out in the Midday Sun…
The clothes now wave that hang upon
the tired old line that stretches from
a leaning pole to a rusted hook
left here now for folk to look.
Every garment pegged and spaced
each shirt and sheet carefully placed
along the line the socks will run
until they dry in the scorching sun.
We were beginning to wonder if had been a good decision to stop over in Porto, we had been to the city twice before a few years ago so we were only really going to do the same things again and after breakfast we stepped out and started to do exactly the same things again.
It was rather cloudy and there was a mist off the river, everyone was wearing jumpers and top coats and I confess that I was a little chilly in shorts and polo shirt as we walked to the centre again following more or less the same route as the day before.
Our route took us to a busy square in the shadow of the Torre de Clorigos, the tallest tower in Porto and likely to remain that way for some time because there is apparently a building regulation that prevents anything in the city being built higher.
This is rather like the city of Budapest where no building is permitted to exceed ninety-six metres which may seem a rather random number but is due to the fact that this number has symbolic status in the country because it was in 896 that Magyars first came to the area and the Hungarian Kingdom was begun. Also like St Louis in the USA where no building can be built higher than the Gateway Arch.
In the shadow of the Tower were two rather interesting shops, the first was the ‘Fantastic World of the Portuguese Sardine’ where visitors can buy a can of fish in a tin which is gaily decorated with their birth year.
They looked good, I took a picture but didn’t buy one because they were about five times more expensive than in a simple tin in a supermarket back home and for something that is only going to end up in the recycling bin anyway.
Next to the Sardine emporium was a small café which sold only two things, port wine and fish croquettes which turns out to be a specialty of Porto and on account of that priced accordingly.
The historical centre of Porto is a declared UNESCO World Heritage Site and we were now approaching one of the six bridges across the River Douro, the Ponte Dom Luis I, which is an iron bridge, designed by a student of Gustav Eiffel and built on two levels. From the top elevation pedestrians wander dangerously along the tram tracks scattering periodically when one approached from either side. There were unbeatable views of the river, the old town and Vila Nova de Gaia, a sister city to Porto on the other side of the river.
On the other side of the river we took a cable car from the top of the bridge and then walked through narrow streets of near derelict houses where some families were hopelessly hanging onto impractical occupation that must surely end soon and down to the riverbank that had good views back across the other side of Porto. We were now in the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, which is where the city’s famous port lodges all have their cellars and sit side by side next to the river.
On the water were flotillas of Rabelos, which are traditional sailing boats that used to transport the wine in barrels from the vineyards up river and now redundant these little boats are left here bobbing up and down in the water simply for the benefit of the tourists.
Our cable car ticket included entry to a port lodge and a glass of port and determined to take advantage of anything that is free we made our way to the lodge.
We sat and tried a white aperitif port and then not wanting to wait half an hour for the English tour joined a party of Portuguese for the twenty minute walk through the barrels of ruby and tawny port and the cellars full of bottles special reservé and vintage wines.
We learned that under European Union guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labeled as Port and it is produced from grapes grown and processed exclusively in the Douro region. The Douro Valley was defined and established as a protected region or appellation in 1756, making it the third oldest defined and protected wine region in the world after Tokaji in Hungary and Chianti in Italy.
The wine received its name Port in the latter half of the seventeenth century from the city of Porto where the product was brought to market or for export to other countries in Europe. Actually there are no port lodges in Porto but an after dinner Vila Nova de Gaia just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
This was all very interesting stuff but what we really wanted was to get to the tasting and we weren’t disappointed when at the end of the tour we were given three generous glasses of port in the hope that we might buy some more from the shop.
I call this picture ‘A study in Denial’!
And so we made our way back across the river, stopped for a while at Praça de Ribiera and then climbed the steep hills back towards our guest house stopping frequently along the way to sometimes observe the architecture, sometimes to admire the washing lines but always looking for a picture opportunity.
Eventually we stopped in a small palm fringed square filled with sunshine and a garden of remembrance and I was interested in the statue of a soldier and a roll call honouring Portuguese war dead in the First World War.
I didn’t know that Portugal fought in the First World War but is seems that they came into action in Africa where they were in conflict with countries that were at that time part of the German Empire. I had learnt something new today.
Later we returned to last night’s restaurant but it was closed (there was a pattern starting to emerge here) so we found an alternative which although not as good was quite acceptable and we reviewed our two days in Porto.
On reflection we agreed that although we had enjoyed it we had perhaps squandered two days because in that time we could perhaps have gone somewhere different. Aveiro perhaps?
A shame that we were thinking like this because next we were off to another place where we had been before – Vila do Conde.