13 Aug - Shiny tiles and cobbled streets V5
The wind blew on Thursday too, so nobody left the marina at Leixoes and we went ashore in the rubber boat to discover the city of Porto instead. It’s a brisk walk round the edge of the busy port of Leixoes to the market at Matosinhos where you exchange a couple of shiny coins for a seat on the bus into Porto. The 500 route runs along the coast, through typical seaside suburbs with names like ‘Praia de Ingles’. At the entrance to the River Douro, the scenery changes significantly. There is one of those low slung Portuguese forts which seems to hug the topography rather than dominate it, but suddenly you are into a fine river with boats on moorings, tree-lined quaysides interspersed with tiny sandy beaches, a glimpse of a high bridge with brightly coloured rooves beyond, and houses covered in glazed tiles.
Porto from the bus
The architecture is the biggest surprise: in Spain, they mercilessly knock down the old buildings and replace them with functional but faceless apartment blocks. Not here: not much extends above five storeys, wrought iron railings guard every window, begonias blossom on every sill and the low doorways invite you into a cavernous granite interior. The rooves are terracotta, the walls either colourful tiles or whitewash – or both. It’s very attractive.
Echoes of San Francisco?
The city centre is a couple of miles up the river, looking across at the vast warehouses of the port lodges with their names proudly painted on hoardings reminiscent of the Scottish whisky distilleries of our 2016 adventures. Porto is a mix of fine merchants houses, church spires, leafy squares, cobbled streets and trams. And tourists… but not in the density that I remember in Barcelona, for example. The river dominates, but everywhere you look there is a surprise: a family crouching in a darkened doorway, a bucolic scene in those blue-painted tiles on a wall, a narrow street climbing into the sky, a smart boutique, a glimpse of the water, or the azure blue sky.
Not your average railway station interior…
The bus took us to the railway station, which is famous for its tiled interior. Suitably impressed, we wandered forth and spent the rest of the morning meandering through the cobbles streets. We crossed the bridge on the high level and then took a cable car down into the port of Vila Nova de Gaia where we had a lunch appointment at Graham’s Port Lodge. It has a wonderful location overlooking the city and we enjoyed one of the best meals of the trip so far here: the traditional ‘tasting menu’ with accompanying wines – six of them. By the end, my cheeks were slightly numb, but the combination of food, wine, port, jolly nice people and a beautiful location was pretty much… perfect.
Graham’s Port Lodge restaurant
It reminded us of the Louis Vuitton-owned Ardbeg Distillery on Islay, but Graham’s restaurant and marketing suite seems more sophisticated (and reassuringly expensive!). We enjoyed ourselves over lunch so much that we missed our 4pm tour, but they slotted us into the next one without a murmur. To be honest, the tour itself was not as interesting as the whisky distilleries, but the history and the story of port, Britain, the Douro river, the vineyards in the mountains and (jn this case) a dynamic Scottish family, the Symingtons, made up for the rather straightforward presentation of manufacturing the sticky red stuff. I have not bought any yet…
Proof that we did make it to the tour…
On Friday, we finally made it into the marina. We celebrated with a ‘clean ship’ day and made plans for the rest of our stay here.
Saturday, we returned to Porto to see more of this fabulous city. The Palacio de Bolsa is actually the Chamber of Commerce and not a palace at all. Its status reflects the unique blend of port, cod and trade that made this such a powerful city on the Iberian peninsula. It is still the industrial capital of Portugal and until 1997 it has its own Stock Exchange in the Palacio. The merchants of the city, dominated by the port producers, clearly had an unusual relationship with the dictator Antonio Salazar, who ruled Portugal for over thirty years until his death in 1968. Aligned with Franco on many issues, he seems to have had a reasonably positive influence on the country overall. It’s interesting to reflect then, on Portugal’s relationship with Britain. Often touted as our oldest ally, I’m not aware that they have helped us that much since the Peninsular War against Napoleon (although Salazar did bring them into NATO) but the alliance is clearly a commercial one: Portugal lies on the key trade routes to the Mediterranean, the Far East and the New World (particularly in the age of sail, when ships did exactly what Escapade is doing and would have called here for water and essential supplies – with port being a staple part of the Royal Navy’s diet for several hundred years). The building is very impressive and as clear a statement as you could wish for that the city was prosperous, confident and open for business…
Inside the Palacio de Bolsa – a room built to impress Middle Eastern customers
Lunch was a less glamorous affair than our last effort at Graham’s Port Lodge: we found a tiny café in a narrow cobbled street providing suckling pig sarnies and salt cod in various combinations, lubricated with Galician beer. Delicious and all for under €20. Later we visited the 13th century church of Sao Francisco, with its extraordinary gold interior – 200kg of gold leaf adorns the columns and ceiling. I struggle with this: on the one hand, the benefactors wanted to glorify God and we all need cheering up, so why SHOULD it be dull and uninteresting inside? On the other hand, surely the money could have been spent improving the circumstances of the needy?
The Dom Luis 1 Bridge over the Douro at Porto was designed by Gustav Eiffel’s company
In the afternoon, we meandered. It was splendid, although irritatingly we seemed to find small, cheap launderettes at every corner. Don’t they own washing machines here? We sat in a bar and watched some students performing lively folk songs to some bemused tourists. We crossed the bridge back into Vila Nova de Gaia, planning to visit the Ramos Pinto Lodge, but it shut at seven so we pushed inland and found a tiny restaurant off the tourist track selling basic Portuguese food at a basic price. We devoured an octopus between us and caught the last bus back to Leixoes.
Café culture and community singing…
Sunday was a maintenance day. Self maintenance and some major surgery on the teak deck in the cockpit. We plan to spend the next couple of days sitting in a hire car, so the caulking should have time to go off before we sail for Lisbon.
The verdict on Porto? It fully deserves its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a great location for a 3-day city break. Highly recommended!