Friday, 30 January 2009

Portugal - Day 2, Porto

In the morning there was another very sharp frost but the good news was that this meant another blue sky and an impressive sunrise over the River Ave. The hotel room was warm but the public areas were chilly, inadequate electric heaters were working to full capacity and the staff in the breakfast room were wrapped in woollies and fleeces and looked thoroughly cold and miserable. The man at reception lamented that it might be all right for us but for him it was painful to be so cold. I think he must have thought that we had come from the North Pole or something.

Outside was even colder and the roads were icy and treacherous but we weren’t driving today so this didn’t really matter except that there was a steep hill down to the river that was a bit difficult to negotiate. We crossed the river and trusting Kim’s instinct turned right to where she assured me would be the metro station. I was not convinced and after a while overruled her and made us turn in a different direction. Kim’s navigational skills are quite weak but on this occasion she was absolutely correct and when we stopped to ask for directions we were sent back the way that we had come and for once I was forced to acknowledge her superior sense of direction and at the second attempt we found the station and much to my embarrassment it was exactly where she said that it would be.

Although she was good at navigation this morning she wasn’t much help once we arrived at the station and we had to seek the assistance of a local lad in purchasing a ticket from the automatic machine and used all of the available six minutes before the tram arrived in going through the instructions, buying a ticket and then getting it validated and only just completed the procedure before it pulled into the station. It took about forty-five minutes to travel to Porto on the Bombardier Flexity Outlook low-floor dual-carriage ‘Eurotram’ and it stopped every few minutes to pick up and drop off more passengers. It was an impressive metro that was only started in 2002 and continues to be expanded and enlarged today and it stopped twenty-four times before we reached our stop at Trindade in central Porto.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Porto because it is one of the most industrialised districts in Portugal, and Maia, one of Porto's satellite cities, has the largest industrial park in the country. I thought it might be a bit grim but although I didn’t know it I was about to experience the wow factor! Based entirely on Kim’s earlier navigational fluke I allowed her to choose the direction to walk and she headed downhill and south where she confidently predicted that we would find the river. First we walked through the Praça da Liberade with a statue of King Pedo IV and impressive neoclassical buildings flanking it on either side and then we reached a busy junction and Kim took us south again on a road that took us to the City Cathedral, which is the oldest and most important building in the City.

From the terrace outside the Cathedral there were good views of the city and we were at once struck by the huge contrasts. Alongside modern hotels and banks there were houses that looked desperately poor with rotting windows, balconies that looked perilously unsafe and through the windows 1950s kitchens and old fashioned furniture and it was clear to see why (according to Eurostat) Portugal is the nineteenth poorest country in the European Union (out of twenty-seven) and easily the poorest in Western Europe.

The historical centre of Porto is now 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 there were unbeatable views of the river, the old town and Vila Nova de Gaia, a sister city on the other side of the river. The Douro is the eighth longest river in Western Europe (the eighteenth in all of Europe) and flows through Spain and Portugal and meets the Atlantic Ocean here at Porto. It was simply fabulous walking across the bridge, the sun was shining, the river was a glorious shade of deep indigo blue and the tiles on the coloured houses on either side reflected the sun and made everywhere look cheerful and happy. On the balconies of the houses people were opening the shutters and allowing the sun to fill their homes with welcome warmth following a cold night.

On the other side we walked through narrow streets of derelict houses where some families were hanging onto 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, but that was before the river was dammed in the 1950s and 1960s to prevent flooding in the city and to create hydro-electricity. Now the wine is brought to the City by road in tankers but that is not nearly so romantic or picturesque and these little boats are left here bobbing up and down in the water simply for the benefit of the tourists.

All of the port lodges have a museum and guided tour and we choose the first that we came to, which happened to be the Cálem port lodge that had a visit to the museum, a guided tour, port tasting, and all for only €3 each, which was exceptional good value for money. Under European Union guidelines, only the product from Portugal may be labelled as Port and it is produced from grapes grown and processed in the Douro region. The wine produced is fortified with the addition of a Brandy in order to stop the fermentation, leaving residual sugar in the wine, and to boost the alcohol content. The wine is then aged in barrels and stored in caves, or cellars, before being bottled. 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 from the Leixões docks. The Douro valley where Port wine is produced 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.

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 two generous glasses of port in the hope that we might buy some more from the shop. We didn’t because we wouldn’t have been able to get it through airport security but we did consider going around for a second time.

Instead we crossed back over the bridge to the Ribiera district which used to be the commercial centre of Porto but is now an up market tourist centre with gaily coloured houses, quayside restaurants and the highest prices in the City. Actually they weren’t really so bad and we choose to sit at a table at the edge of the pavement and were surprised at how few people were taking this dining option in the warm midday sun. Soon more people joined us and it gradually got warmer and warmer and I had to take off layers of clothing just to stay comfortable and we enjoyed a nice tuna salad and a bottle of wine for a very reasonable price.

After lunch we walked along the quayside and wondered what was going on over the river on the other side where there appeared to be some sort of noisy festival and then we walked back into the city through shaded streets and made for the Torre Dos Clérigios, which is a church with the highest tower in Portugal at seventy-six metres high and two hundred and twenty-five steps. It had been a long time since we had climbed our last tower in Trogir in Croatia so we bought some tickets, went to the top and admired the expansive views over the City.

After that we decided that it was getting late so we made our way back to the metro station stopping briefly on the way for a drink at a pavement table before going back to Trindade to catch the tram. During the day something had been puzzling me because all of the clocks seemed to be an hour behind and even here at the station the displays said four when our watches said five. I thought that this was strange so asked an official who confirmed that it was indeed four and smiled when I showed him my watch and suggested that it was five. It turns out that Portugal uses the same time as the United Kingdom and that we had been an hour ahead of ourselves for the last two days, this explained why it was still light at half past six last night, why they were surprised when we turned up for dinner an hour early, this was why the breakfast room was empty earlier today and also why it was so cold when we left the hotel this morning. This was a most disorientating experience and one thing is certain, I will never make a Time Lord!

Eventually the train arrived and we got on board and found a seat. At one point along the route the train followed the route of a small road and on the trackside, behind a stone wall there were two women and one had just finished having a country wee and was pulling her pants up and showing off her ample backside to all of the passengers on the tram. I can imagine her friend was reassuring her that she would watch out for cars and was keeping an alert look out over the wall and down the road but both were completely oblivious to the tram full of people passing only a few metres away behind them and getting a full view of her exposed wobbly cheeks.

Our horological error gave us an unexpected extra hour and we were glad of that because it had been a busy two days and when we got back to the hotel this gave us time for a rest before going down to dinner in the hotel dining room. This is unusual for us as we usually prefer to dine in the streets but the hotel was some way out of town, it was cold and anyway it had a good menu and for a four star hotel the prices were very reasonable. We had a second excellent meal, my grilled hake was especially good, and we reflected on two excellent days before going to bed.

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