Sunday 14 October 2018

Picturesque Porto

Wednesday 12 September to Thursday 13 September 2018

We had always planned to stop at Porto en route to southern Spain, but when the chance came up to coincide our visit at the same time that our friends Mike and Marisa were there, it was an opportunity to good to miss. 

So, even though we were still in northern Spain, we planned our visit using public transport. It was really easy too, we just had to get to Combarro and catch the bus to Pontevedra. From there, catch a connecting bus that took us directly into Porto city centre. And, it was only €25 euros each for a return ticket. Boy could we learn a thing or two about public transport. Considering Combarro is a small fishing village, to be able to get from there to Portugal in 3 1/2 hours was a bit mind blowing. 

With coach tickets and accomodation booked, we headed off to Porto and wow, what a time we had.

Firstly, the bus journey was amazing.  Our route took us in and out of the Rias, so we got to see much more of Ria Pontevedra and Ria Vigo than we could have ever seen had we gone by boat.  Going through the little villages seeing people go about their daily business was fascinating (people watching at its best!) and the scenery was stunning.  Even when we got out onto the motorway the scenery was breathtaking, particularly going through the mountains and over bridges that connected one hill to the next. The 3 1/2 hours flew by.

Mike and Marisa met us off the bus and our induction into Portugese life started.  So much to see and do with so little time, where to start. I know, with two men with healthy appetites, it had to be food and drink so we headed off to a cafe nearby.

To say the Portugese have healthy appetites would be an understatement .We ordered what I thought would be light lunches, but all meals are served with rice and chips. That's not either/or, that's both! There was so much food on the table that even the men were defeated. We also had our first introduction to Vinho Verde (green wine) which is a speciality of Portugal.

Vinho Verde is not a grape variety, but the name of the area producing the wine. The name literally means green wine, but translates as young wine as the wine is usually released within 3 to 6 months of the grapes being harvested.  And it's not green! It comes in red, white or rose and has a slight fizz to it and is quite addictive.

Having been fed and watered, we headed off for our tour of Porto.

Ever since we first met Marisa, she has been passionate about Portugal and her home city of Porto and after spending a couple of days in the city, we could see why.  She was an excellent tour guide and took us to places that showed off the city at its best.

We visited churches with frontages adorned with beautiful blue mosaic tiles and the Sao Bento train station which has amazing murals made out of the blue tiles.  

Santo Ildefonso Church
Porto Cathedral, Santo Ildefonso Church, Clerigos Tower, Sao Bento Train Station
The blue tiles are one of the most emblematic representations of Porto's history and culture. Originally imported from Spain during the 15th century, the Azulejo tiles can be seen all over the city.

One of the best examples of how the Azulejo tiles were used to tell stories is in the Sao Bento train station where the main hall is covered in over 20,000 Azujelo tiles.  Created by Jorge Colaco, the tiles tell a story of important moments in Portugese history.

Sao Bento Train Station

From there we walked through pretty little narrow streets in Ribeira, with houses painted in an array of different colours. At times it was like we had been transported back to a different era. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, Ribeira is gradually being restored to the grandeur it once had as an important shipping port.

Narrow streets and Ribeira rooftops

We climbed up steep hills and stone stairs through narrow alleyways so that we had the best views of the Ribeira with its teraccota tiled rooftops and the river Douro. As we were lucky to have glorious sunshine, the views showed Porto at its finest.

One of the must do things when visiting Porto is to take a walk on the southern side of Porto known as the Vila Nova de Gaia.  On the main frontage overlooking the river Douro are the port houses and the best views of the old houses of Ribeira that adorn the waterfront.

River Douro and the Rabelo boats

View from Dom Luis I bridge

Established in the 17th century, Port received its name after Porto where it was brought to market and shipped for export to other countries. It was mainly transported to Porto on Rabelo boats which are flat bottomed boats, necessary for navigating the fast flowing waters of the upper Douro.  Examples of these boats exist today along the river Douro, with each port house having a replica bearing their name.

Whilst we were in Porto, we saw first hand the emergence of fog, slowly creeping up the river Douro. We had heard many stories about how the fog can linger for days at a time on the Portugese coastline and be the curse of many a sailor and ship so to see it happening in front of us was quite something especially as there was a yacht race taking place at the same time!

Fog creeping up the Douro

No visit to Porto would be complete without mentioning the bridges. Porto has 6 bridges, with the most famous being the Dom Luis I bridge.  Built in 1886, it connects Porto city with Vila Nova de Gaia.  It has two levels, an upper level for light rail and pedestrians and a lower level for general traffic and pedestrians.  I declined walking across the upper level, even though I knew the views would have been amazing I don't think my vertigo would have agreed, so I settled for a nice stroll across the lower level.

Porto Bridges
The lower level is also where local children and teenagers follow a long tradition of jumping off the bridge into the river Douro.  Watching this for the first time was literally heart stopping, wondering if they had made it safely.  The cheering and applause from the spectators (mainly tourists) smoothed my worried brow!

Marisa took us out in the evening to a restaurant owned by a friend she went to university with. It was absolutely wonderful and gave us an insight into Portugese living.  The hospitality and food was excellent (and so much of it) and we enjoyed more Vinho Verde. 

Whilst in Porto, we stayed at the Red Cross hostel.  Mark had booked the accomodation and initially I was very sceptical.  I'm to old to share a room with a bunch of back packers and had muttered something about finding a decent hotel if necessary.  However, I was completely gobsmacked when we arrived and were shown to a huge double room with built in wardrobes, dressing table and chair and all the other luxuries you would find in a good hotel. And it was 32 euros, although we did leave a donation to the charity as well. 

Not bad for €32
Mark and I both fell in love with Porto and wished that we had more time to explore further, so it's definitely on the list of places to revisit (maybe for Mike and Marisa's wedding!).

It's hard to describe the sensory stimulation we experienced in Porto but if you close your eyes and imagine the sound of a city, the contrasting shapes of narrow streets and open plazas, the colours of a paint box and the smell of good food cooking that's what Porto is like. 

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