Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Portugal - Day 2, Porto

When we had been on the boat we had seen a military procession on the Porto side of the river with a lot of men and women in Napoleonic military uniforms parading through the streets, demonstrating drill and letting off canons and now that the parade was over they were spilling over the river and into the cafés and bars in Vila Nova De Guia. We were surprised to discover that these were all English eccentrics who enjoy dressing up in nineteenth century uniforms, re-enacting Peninsular War battles, letting off guns and getting pissed. There were all sorts of regiments here including some Green Howard’s but I couldn’t spot Sean Bean amongst them.

The reason that they were here was because in two days time (12th May) it was the two hundredth anniversary of the relief of Porto by Arthur Wellesley who entered the city in a surprise attack across the river from Vila Nova De Guia and routed the French troops who were forced to retreat east back towards Spain.

We were finished now with Vila Nova De Guia so 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 in a small square with brightly coloured furniture and umbrellas and we sat in the sun and had a glass of beer before continuing with our walking tour of the city.

Porto's undulating topography means that there's a view lurking round almost every corner and as we continued to climb away from the river until we reached a terrace outside the City’s Cathedral where 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 behind 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 district around the Cathedral was full of busy streets and monuments to past achievements, and the lined with houses built like layers of a cake then crowded together with a maze of small twisting alleys in-between.

Outside the Cathedral main door there was a lot of wedding activity as a smart groom waited for his bride to turn up as the guests were all arriving and going inside. Weddings have a different effect on men and women. We are sceptical and ambivalent while women go weak at the knees and become overcome with the romance of the occasion. The Bride was waiting around the corner in her sleek black limousine and making last minute mobile phone calls and the girls wanted to wait around and see her arrive but there seemed no urgency about the occasion so we had to give in and move on. And a good job too because Micky and I had a lucky escape when a seagull sitting on a nearby lamp post emptied its bowels over a car that was too close for comfort and if we had been a couple of metres closer would have spoilt the afternoon and certainly required the emergency purchase of replacement clothing because although a bit of bird excrement on your shoulder is supposed to bring good luck there is a world of difference between a little bit of sparrow dropping and a full arse load of seagull shit.

From the Cathedral we started to walk back towards the metro station passing by the San Bento railway station, which we couldn’t visit because there was a wedding reception being prepared (probably the same wedding) and then through the Praça da Liberade with a statue of King Pedro IV and impressive neoclassical buildings flanking it on either side and at the top the City Town Hall looking splendidly important.

Back at Trindade there was only a short wait for the tram to take us back but it was busier tonight and we had to stand for half the journey until the passengers began to drop off the further we went out of the city.

It was still sunny when we arrived back at the hotel and it was perfect to sit in the late afternoon/early evening sunshine on the hotel terrace bar and enjoy a cool beer as the sun went down and thoughts turned to evening dining arrangements. Across the river there was a good view of the Santa Clara Convent and the extensive remains of the Aqueduto do Convento, a sixteenth century structure that was built to supply water to the Convent which was once the largest in all of Portugal but is now being converted into a Pousada hotel, which is the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish Paradors.

We ate in the hotel again because the food was good, the prices were reasonable and there didn’t seem to be many alternatives nearby. Sue and Christine were getting over their seafood salad incident and boldly choose a tuna fish salad, which they knew was safe because Kim had had it the previous night, Kim had fish, Micky had meat and I had a wonderful cod fish pie – the speciality of the house.

Later we retired to one of the hotel lounges and opened the first bottle of port and played some hands of cards. I had too much port and being a bad loser got upset about not winning and went to bed but the others stayed on long enough to see two sets of newly weds arrive and get thoroughly confused about finding the hotel reception. There was a lot of wedding activity and we put that down to the fact that there must have been a special honeymoon deal on Saturday nights at the Hotel Santana.

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