Tuesday 31st March 2009, Vila Chã, Portugal
Today we have spent a really lovely day in Portugal's second city, Porto. It has a population of around 350,000. It lies on the coast about a hundred and fifty miles north of Lisbon and is famed throughout the world for the many producers and exporters of Port wine who are gathered along the bank of the river Douro opposite the old historic area of the city which is on the Unesco World Heritage list. With its dark narrow streets straggling down the hillside to the river, its red tiled roofs, old iron balconies, colourfully tiled house fronts, peeling paintwork, lines of washing festooning the streets and countless tiny cats sleeping or playing on flights of broken steps, Porto is much as we imagine Naples, but infinitely cleaner and safer. It is a city in which people are living their everyday lives although there are obvious tourist areas, particularly along the attractive river front area of Ribeira. In the streets of the old town, butchers deliver meat to restaurants wearing blood stained overalls, neighbours chat across the street, calling to each other from upstairs windows as they lean out to hang their washing, young men roar through the alleyways on motorbikes, and old men sit outside their local pasteleria together, seemingly with nothing to do but soak up the sunshine. Sometimes there are dark, tiny shops selling essential groceries and withered vegetables.
We came across a small, shady fish market where we watched a lady buy several octopuses, slithering them into a plastic bag, wet and oozing, to take home. Other fish were laid out for sale and we were almost tempted to try cooking them in our remoska. However, we'd have needed to carry them around all day so left it. Later we saw many hundreds of fish in the river frenziedly feeding at the town sewage outfall! Who knows where the fish are actually caught!
Porto is hilly! You are either walking very steeply uphill, or very steeply downhill. There are flights of steps all around the town and even a funicular railway and a cliff-face lift to carry people between the river and the top of the town. Really old trams struggle up and down the hills looking remarkably picturesque. We noted that Porto has two extremes of transport with its ultramodern metro and its trams.
The river Douro is spanned by several bridges but the main one is the huge, two level iron bridge designed by Gustav Eiffel. Cars cross on the lower level while at the higher level, seventy metres above the river, the metro now runs along the old tram route. The lodges of the port wine merchants lie across the river from the city, in Gaia, so we walked across the lower level bridge and climbed the street up on the far side. From there we had excellent views of Porto. No wonder it is on the Unesco list!
Down at river level again we explored several of the wine lodges. All the names are there, usually painted up in huge letters, easily read across the river in Porto. Sandemans, Cockburns, Calem, Croft, Grahams, Taylors, Fonseca and Ramos Pinto to name a few. Most offered guided visits with tastings, those right on the water front charging 4 euros each, refunded if you made a purchase.
We went up the cobbled hillside a short way and found Crofts. We had a thoroughly enjoyable and completely free experience starting with a chilled white port surrounded by huge oak barrels of maturing tawny port and old company ledgers. Then we were given an informative tour of the cellars, given a history of the company - which originated with a Yorkshire family, and finally offered further samples of Croft's ruby port. We were left to enjoy it for as long as we wished and there was no pressure to purchase. This was just as well as we have no wish to carry unnecessary bottles around in Modestine for weeks when we can buy it for much the same price back in England.
We felt very pleased with the world as we crossed the bridge back to Porto and climbed back up to the main city. On the way we passed the museum of Henry the Navigator, Portugal's famed explorer born in Porto in 1394. The third son of King John I he died in Sagres in the Algarve in 1460.
Throughout the day we have been hoping to find a supermarket, or indeed anywhere to replenish Modestine's larder which is beginning to resemble the cupboard of Old Mother Hubbard. We headed for the main shopping area but search as we might we have found nothing at all resembling a food shop. Pastelerias we have found by the hundreds. Indeed we have been reduced to buying filled chicken rolls to bring back with us for supper as it is the only food we've found to buy!
It was a very enjoyable experience though, struggling along the main street jam packed with shoppers. Porto underwent a deal of architectural change during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and there are many delightful shop fronts in Art Nouveau style. Needing a cold drink we chanced on the Café Majestic, listed as a "must see" sight in our guidebook. It was indeed something to be experienced. Inside the walls were hung with bevelled glass mirrors, chairs and benches were covered in embossed leather, the counter was dark polished wood and gleaming glass while windows were decorated with stained glass. Smart waiters in white jackets were calm and efficient. The clientele was either like us, trying it to say they'd done it, or were regulars with large purses and good taste.
It was hard to walk once we stood up! Our muscles had gone stiff. Perhaps we are not as young as we used to be but I'm sure we used to be able to walk around all day without getting tired! I was so weary I almost fell asleep on the crowded train back to Mindelo and our campsite and I've been very grateful not to need to be bothered with cooking tonight! We liked Porto so much we've decided to stay longer and return to explore some of the other parts tomorrow.
Below are a few general views of the city.
Wednesday 1st April 2009, Vila Chã, Portugal
We were back in Porto bright and early this morning. This time we got off the metro before reaching the centre and walked out to the gardens of what was once the Crystal Palace. (We are not the only nation to have had one.) On the way we chanced on an enormous, highly imposing monument commemorating the success of the Portuguese and British against the French here in Porto around 1808 and 1809. On the top of the column is a huge lion, representing the alliance, crushing an eagle (France) beneath his feet. Around the base are stirring, patriotic bronzes dramatically depicting incidents from the battle.
The site of the Crystal Palace is now a tranquil, pretty park overlooking the Douro River from high on the hilltop, the gardens gently terraced down towards the river. In the centre is a domed building – presumably for concerts and exhibitions, The public library is also to be found in the gardens and here we lingered, first to visit an excellent exhibition on Portugal and the Peninsula War, and later to use the internet and enjoy coffee in the library café. The exhibition was in Portuguese but we are amazed at how much we are able to work out now. There were several satirical cartoons of Napoleon; engravings of the Duke of Wellington, the Portuguese generals, and Napoleon; a display of manuscripts maps and paintings; printed accounts of Wellington's campaigns in Spain and Portugal; paintings, military uniforms, weapons and canons.
Later, returning down to the main town, we stopped off to look at another exhibition on Darwin and the origin of species in the University Faculty of Science. It wasn't terribly informative and seemed mainly to be an excuse to get the stuffed monkeys and parrots and trays of assorted bugs and butterflies out of the basement for an airing.
Since we have been in Portugal we have been promising ourselves grilled sardines. So today we stopped off at the municipal market and amidst the flower stalls we sat on rickety chairs at an even more rickety table and waited while the fish were cooked for us. The atmosphere added to the charm and the fish smelt and tasted delicious, even if the surfeit of tiny bones gave the impression that we were eating a toothbrush!
Having crossed Eiffel's iron bridge at the lower level yesterday, we decided to climb up through the town until we were high enough and cross over the bridge at the very top, alongside the metro trams. Walking out across the ravine we were rather nervous. Looking over the side from the centre of the bridge we were very nervous indeed! It looks a very long way down! From so high though, the views were even more spectacular. We even climbed higher once we reached the further bank, right up to the walls of the old convent where we could look down onto the top of the bridge.