STOP. Have you read Part 1 yet? If not, click here! All caught up? Then you may continue…
I love a good free walking tour. We’ve done them in Bath, Copenhagen and a particularly good one in Budapest. So of course I researched and planned so we could do one on our first morning in Porto. We got up, had a leisurely breakfast ready to meet our walking tour at Praça da Liberdade at 10:45 (which seemed like a strangely late starting time). Only to look at my “itinerary for the day” (at 10am) to discover that the walking tour I’d selected started at 10am. I am no longer the planning goddess I once was. I research, I type it all up, and then forget to ever look at it again, relying on the memory of a long-ago Google search to guide us.
There is another, different walking tour at 11am, but you’re meant to register for that at least the night before. We decide to take a gamble on this one. But as we reach the meeting point at the end of Avenida de Aliados, we decide to take a gamble on an entirely different tour. The Hop on Hop off bus. Can you believe I’ve never done one of these before? And it turned out to be the best decision ever. Not because we got a thorough, engaging and interesting tour with a personal touch (like we would have done on that much-researched 10am walking tour). But because we got to sit down. And we got to tour the outer parts of Porto (that we wouldn’t have done on that much-researched 10am walking tour). Plugged in to our headsets on the bus, we were never quite sure whether we had passed the landmarks they were describing, or whether we hadn’t reached them yet. And the commentary was interspersed with some “interesting” Portuguese songs, one which sounded like the female singer had hiccups or was being tickled. But we did the entire circuit, passing Casa da Musica, Boa Vista and Serralves before coming along the coast. Mr Fletche abandoned his headset somewhere around Parque da Cidade but I persevered til I got my first proper glimpse of the River Douro and then went a bit mad taking photos from one side of the bus and the other. By the time we finish the circuit, we’re freezing cold and its started to drizzle so we wave our driver bye bye and go back to pop on additional layers.
By the time we head back out again just 10 minutes later it looks like torrential rain has hit Porto with puddles gathering – looks like we got off our open-top bus just in time. But luckily it’s the last bad weather we’ll see and the skies are starting to clear as we head down to the Ribeira. This is where our walking tour should have ended anyway so we’re pretty much back on plan. We weave our way down Rua das Flores, to Infante Dom Henrique, past Palacio Da Bolsa and Igreja Monumento de São Francisco. We then head down along some of those tiny narrow cobbled streets with overhanging buildings before finally emerging at Praça de Ribeira. We pick a touristy restaurant at random for a spot of lunch. We’re clearly not making the right choices at lunchtime so far, as today’s ham and cheese toastie is as underwhelming as yesterday’s tuna and egg sandwich. We eye up our neighbour’s francesinha, a traditional Porto meat and bread combination smothered in melted cheese and thick creamy sauce, surrounded by a wall of fries, and decide that we’re definitely not up for tackling this cardiac arrest on a plate any time soon. We value our arteries too much.
Brandishing our “Six Bridges River Cruise” tickets, we find the right boat, and we’ve soon set sail along the River Douro. There may be one famous landmark bridge in Porto – the spectacular Ponte de Dom Luis I – but there are five others to explore too, of varying levels of magnificence. A certain Mr Eiffel was responsible for the Maria Pia bridge. He went on to build a tower. It’s a good overview of the history and the engineering and architecture, particularly as the river Douro itself was so important in the transportation of the valuable Port wine cargo. And the sun has even come out. It’s time for us to cross the river on foot on the lower level of the Dom Luis bridge, and to discover the delights of Vila Nova de Gaia. The two cities share a river and a set of bridges but are separate municipalities.
And what is Vila Nova de Gaia most famous for? Port. Lots of lovely, lovely port. Famous names in the Port world are emblazoned in tall illuminated letters above the rooftops of the cellars themselves, most of which offer tours and tastings to the public for between 5-10 euro. We’ve already clocked Graham’s which is where we have booked our tour tomorrow. It is far far away in the hills, and we’re already considering cancelling and instead going to a lodge which is a little bit closer to home. I’ve been swayed by the subliminal marketing of Sandemans…is it because their figurehead “The Don” with his Portugese cape and Spanish sombrero is plastered on many of the walls? Or because they have a lovely waterfront terrace offering all manner of Port delights? Official tasting and tour is planned for tomorrow, so today we just enjoy our own selection from the menu. Mr Fletche is particularly taken with his Tawny Imperial Reserve, whilst I stick to a Ruby for now. Tomorrow we will find out the difference between the two!
We look longingly up at the upper level of the Dom Luis bridge – how do we get all the way up there, from all the way down here? Luckily, Gaia has a handy cable car which means that we don’t have to test out those steep hills just yet. It’s 6 euro per person, but it’s a fun way to soar over the historic wine lodges, wave to people in the rooftop bars and get a birds eye view over Porto, Gaia and the Douro. In fact you can see all the way out to the ocean from here!
The sun is starting to set behind the hills of Gaia so we get a few shots of the changing colours from the upper level of the bridge, dodging the occasional metro which shares the space with pedestrians. We return later on in the evening, trying to capture the lights reflecting in the water. We make our way down to waterfront level via stairways and slopes, cobbled back streets where tourists don’t usually venture, passing locals feeding cats on the streets and neighbours chatting noisily, a string of unintelligible (to us) Portugese sentences spewing forth. Once we’re down by the riverside we look for somewhere to stop for some dinner or a drink, but everywhere is strangely quiet. The one café that looks slightly inviting has about 12 waiters standing outside, clearly waiting to pounce on anyone that looks like they may want to eat..a particular bugbear of mine; the other is an Italian restaurant (and I take exception to eating “foreign” when I want to sample local cuisine). So we head back over to the Ribeira on the Porto side of the Douro.
It’s pretty much the same story on the other side of the river, although maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s so quiet – after all it is a Sunday evening at the end of November. Again, the restaurants that are slightly appealing are so empty that we fear a Marie Celeste situation may have occurred. I recognise Chez Lapin from blogger recommendations, and it is the only place that appears to be busy. So full in fact that we have to sit outside, but we’re snuggled next to a cave like wall and the heater has been brought so close to our table that our food may well continue cooking even when it’s on the table. The menus are unnecessarily difficult to handle (being made of wood and all that) and our waiter seems a little indifferent (maybe wondering why his restaurant has the misfortune of being the only busy one and therefore not getting to slope off early) but the food and wine is good – Mr Fletche has the swordfish and I go for the duck rice. We’re offered a post-meal digestif; there’s a 10 year old or a 20 year old port available – we opt for the cheaper, younger version but they’ve run out so they kindly offer us the 20 year old for the same cost…bonus!
At some point during the meal, fog has descended. At first I thought either a) my glasses were getting very dirty or b) my eyesight was deteriorating rapidly. The illuminated wine lodge signs across the river have now all but disappeared, and Vila Nova de Gaia is hidden somewhere behind the dense cloud. Mr Fletche loves a bit of fog photography (fography?) so we spend a little time along the Ribeira getting some moody atmospheric pics. We plan to stop for a quick drink on the way up to the hotel but everywhere is either closed, empty or geared up for diners over drinkers. The walking up the slight but constant inclines are starting to take its toll so we call it a night…Porto is good for the legs and for the liver!
Next up…will there be more fog? Will there be more hills? Will there be more port? (Please let there be more port…). Find out here!