It’s less than 2 hours flight from Bristol to Porto. It took us longer to get from Birmingham to our Bristol hotel the night before. We’ve flown from Bristol three times now and got lost travelling down there every time. Our case emerges unscathed at the other end (still not learnt how to travel carry-on only but at least we have learnt to pack two people’s stuff in one case now) and we look for the metro station. This involves us unnecessarily taking a lift upwards when we actually need to be going downward. It doesn’t bode well when you can’t find your way out of the airport.
We do eventually make it to the metro station, where handily placed employees handle the ticket machines for us discombobulated tourists. We get our Zone 4 single journey trip loaded onto a blue Andante card (€1.85pp single + rechargeable Andante Card €0.60) and head for the platform to catch the Violet Line E Metro to the city centre. Unsurprisingly it’s a busy trip, and we spend an uncomfortable 30 minute journey wedged up against a door and against our fellow passengers.
We emerge at Bolhão. No matter how long I spend planning a route from station to hotel, we will almost always emerge from underground with no idea which direction we need to go in. One of those beautiful churches with all the blue & white tiles is ahead of us, and my instructions say that we should turn left but somehow left takes us in what quickly appears to be the opposite direction. So we do an about-turn, back to Bolhão, back to the church, where we find that the road we wanted was right behind us when we emerged.
We drag our suitcase down Rua de Santa Caterina, take a right, take a left and finally the dark, smoked glass façade of the Hotel Teatro is in front of us. I can’t find the door, but Mr Fletche soon identifies the correct entrance and we’re in the very dark and atmospheric lobby. The hotel arose from the old Baquet Theatre, and follows the theatrical theme through with spotlights, film reels, rails of costumes and lots of dark brown velvet décor. Our room is not quite ready, so we enjoy our complimentary glass of port (what else?) in the dark brown velvet bar. We’ve only had a croissant for breakfast so we’re already feeling a little tipsy.
We’re soon unpacked and ready to go out and about. I’m armed with a (loose) itinerary, and we’re ready to tackle those famous Porto hills. We head first to the 18th century Church of Saint Ildefonso at Batalha Square, our first opportunity to really examine those beautiful blue and while azulejos up close. We can’t do any more sightseeing on an empty stomach, so we pop into a small café where we have a distinctly below average sandwich. Porto has some strange sandwich combinations. Chicken and pineapple? Tuna and egg? Still, it fills a gap for now. We should have held out for the Majestic Café; however there is a queue out the door when we pass so we don’t get to check out the famed café this time around. It’s like the Porto version of Betty’s Tea Rooms in York.
It’s back to Bolhão and the 19th century Capela das Almas with its ceramic façade depicting cheery scenes such as the death of St Francis of Assisi. From there it’s a stroll to the rear of the Câmara Municipal do Porto. It’s typical of us to approach the flagship building of the Avenida dos Aliados by the back door, but this means that we emerge around the corner into this fantastic open space, a boulevard lined with trees with a pedestrianized central promenade, flanked by beautiful buildings. We’re a week too early for the Christmas decorations but it means we get to see the unadorned avenue. It’s impossible not to meander away from the avenue, and we find ourselves in different squares, with the buildings all of different heights and different colours but somehow all complementing each other beautifully. This time we sneak upon the Igreja do Carmo from behind – and an impressive behind it is too as the side wall is entirely covered in an intricate blue and white azulejo panel.
The snaking queue outside one of the stores on Rua das Carmelitas suggests that I have found the location of Livraria Lello …we decide to leave this bookshop until a slightly quieter time. I chase the photo-taking Mr Fletche around Praca dos Clerigos before deciding that now would be a good time for a drink. Base is a great terrace bar, surrounded by trees and twinkly fairy lights, with cosy benches and seating, blankets and cushions. There’s chillout and funk music playing, and it reminds me a little of our favourite bar of the summer, the Garden Lounge in Zadar. The temperature is dropping though, so we decide to make our way back to the hotel to layer up before continuing our exploration.
Now adorned with additional clothing and gloves, we take the short walk from our hotel to the Sao Bento railway station. No, we’re not catching a train but there are more of those beautiful azulejos in what must be one of the most eye-catching railway stations in the world. We amble down Rua das Flores, and then continue ambling. A bar/restaurant called As 7 Maravilhas catches our eye; we’re not ready to eat yet but we’re invited in for a drink on one of the sofas in a small, eclectically adorned back room near the kitchen. Mr Fletche is happy that he can try a Portugese craft beer, as he’s already a little tired of the Super Bock on offer most places. The food smelt good, and I wish we had come back here to eat at some point. Not that our food choice on night 1 turned out to be a bad one.
We managed to get the final table available at Casa Santo Antonio, a small tapas (petiscaria) restaurant near Torre dos Clerigos that I’d seen recommended by a number of bloggers. The food choices were simple – order small dishes from the menu (English menu outside only!) or trust the staff to bring you a selection of dishes until you say stop. Willing to try foods we wouldn’t normally order, we placed ourselves in the hands of our waiter. The standouts were the starters without a doubt – sardines served in a spicy bean salad, and the goats cheese drizzled with honey. There was “chef-style” chicken for a main course, along with cod au gratin (they love their codfish in Porto, served in many different styles). And we managed a slice of cheesecake to finish off. It’s cosy and cheerful, the wine was good and it was inexpensive (although it would probably be easy to just keep eating and drinking while the bill tots up).
We were surprised how quiet the area was, for 9pm on a Saturday night the bars around Rua Galeria de Paris and Rua de Candido dos Reis were almost all empty. Maybe we were much too early for the party people of Porto? So we settled for a cocktail and some people-watching at Livraria da Baixa, a bar masquerading as a bookshop. I say people-watching…this was mainly the strangely sadistic pleasure of watching a number of cars being towed away. I also enjoyed the music, if 30 years out of date. We leave our first night in Porto behind, with the strains of Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” ringing in our ears.
For Part 2 click here! More port and more hills!