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Have Bag, Will Travel
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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.
Like all public buildings in Ovar the train station is decorated completely in blue and white tiles with scenes depicting the railway and regional life from a hundred years or so ago. This is quite a regular thing to do in Portugal.
In our haste to get to the hotel at Furadouro we had missed them when we arrived three days earlier but we had a fifteen minute wait now for our train to Porto so we had the opportunity now to take a proper look. They are a bit damaged, chipped and cracked and faded and in urgent need of repair in some places but they created a nice little diversion while we waited which was a lot more interesting than standing around reading the train timetable.
It took no more than forty minutes to reach the city of Porto and on our final approach to the rail terminus at São Bento the train crossed the River Douro close to the Ponte Do Maria Pia a railway bridge (no longer used by trains) built in 1877 and with a design attributed to Gustave Eiffel. If we thought the Azulejos at Ovar station were impressive then we were simply in awe of the tiled main entrance hall of São Bento where there are approximately twenty thousand azulejo tiles depicting various historical scenes from Portuguese history.
Late morning in Porto it was hot and busy and I now faced the moment that I had been dreading for the last hour or so when I would have to break the news that the Alvares Cabral Guest House was about a mile away from the railway station. Kim was not impressed and her mood didn’t improve any when we started to climb a steep hill away from city centre. There was a lot of complaining and I confess that I had forgotten that Porto can rival Lisbon for being rather hilly.
The situation improved no end when we found and approved the accommodation and with long walks, heavy baggage and endless hills forgotten we stepped outside and made our way to the city after taking a detour to find a recommended restaurant for later and a stop for a drink in a busy little market square still some way from the city centre.
Our plan was not to try to do too much today, after all we had been to Porto before, twice, so we didn’t feel that we needed to rush our return visit. Despite this we found ourselves being drawn ever further down towards the River Douro and before we knew it we were at the main tourist area – the Ribiera, once a working class area of Porto but now a thriving tourist honey-pot!
Here there are small shops and traditional bars and cafés side by side with derelict and decrepit buildings with rotting timbers, peeling paint, rusting balconies and tired facades trying in vain to disguise years of neglect and so many washing lines that laundry could almost be a national pastime. The road channels were grubby and the buildings were grimy but it wasn’t without a certain charm and the defiant message from the residents seemed to be “Come and visit us if you like, we know it’s untidy but this is the way we like it!”
Having almost by accident found ourselves by the river we now faced a long climb back to the hotel. Next to the most famous bridge of all in Porto, the Ponte Dom Luis I, designed this time by a student of Gustave Eiffel we chanced upon a set of steps which took us back to the top, near the Cathedral and very close to São Bento station from where we would now need to reprise our trek back to the hotel.
Later that day, after we had sat for a while in the garden and rested we made our way to our chosen restaurant. It was an out of the way sort of place but busy with local people so we were encouraged by that and although it seemed quite full the staff hastily rearranged the furniture and found us a table in a cramped but private corner that we shared with some Italian visitors.
The menu was difficult to interpret and the staff struggled to explain it so I resorted to annoying fellow diners and enquiring of them what they had chosen and what they were eating. I forget what we selected but I do know that we enjoyed it.
Unlike the Italians that is because what we didn’t select was the local speciality of Porto, the Francesinha, which is a massive sandwich made with toasted bread, wet-cured ham, smoked sausage and steak and then, if all of that isn’t enough, covered with molten cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce all of which contains an average persons calorie allowance for an entire month – and then some. I think they had chips with it as well!
Francesinha means Little French Girl in Portuguese and it is said to be an invention in the 1960s of a man called Daniel da Silva, a returned emigrant from France and Belgium who tried to adapt the croque-monsieur to Portuguese taste. It doesn’t look very much like a croque-monsieur to me, I can tell you!
I rather like a good croque-monsieur but it has to be in France and it has to look like this…
I tried a Francesinha once on a previous visit to Porto and I vowed then that I would never ever do it again! Quite frankly the only time that I would be forced to consider it is in preference to being tortured by the Russian Secret Service or if I had to make a choice between Francesinha from Portugal or Poutine from Canada.
Which would you choose…?
Other than Francesinha or Poutine which food dish would you nominate to avoid?
Here are some prompts…
Hardware Store, Peso Da Regua, Portugal
Arriving in Peso Da Regua we parked the car and walked into the town which had interesting shops and houses with colourful tiled walls in bright blues, greens and yellows.
There were some of those old fashioned hardware stores that you rarely see in northern Europe anymore with merchandise spread across the pavement and items for sale hanging from string and hooks from the doors and windows. we ventured inside and there was the smell of chemicals and oil and we poked around the dusty shelves and baskets of special offers and then feeling obliged to buy something selected some cheap tea-towels and having made our purchase nodded politely to the man behind the counter and left.
In the morning there was a huge improvement in the weather and as we sat by ourselves in the breakfast room sunlight flooded in through the large windows so we finished quickly so that we could start our drive north towards the glacial lakes of the Zamora Province.
As we descended towards the Douro there was a change in the landscape as we entered the vine growing terraces of the grapes that produce the famous port wine. At eight hundred and ninety seven kilometres the Douro is the eighth longest river in Western Europe (the eighteenth in all of Europe) and flows first through Spain and then Portugal and meets the Atlantic Ocean at Porto.