Parts 1 and Parts 2 can be found here and here!
Mr Fletche is excited to discover the city is still hidden under a blanket of fog when he wakes early the next morning. I roll back over in the nice comfy bed, less excited. Mr Fletche manages to walk the length and breadth of Porto capturing the early morning scenes whilst I get a lie in. Everyone’s happy. And by the time we’re ready to go down for a champagne breakfast to celebrate our 8th wedding anniversary, the fog has lifted and it’s a lovely sunny day outside.
There’s only a couple of people queuing up for tickets at the little blue ticket office opposite Livraria Lello and it was a good idea to get here first thing. I advise Mr Fletche that photography is not allowed, although we may be able to sneak a quick phone pic here and there. We hand our ticket to the doorman enter…and we’re immediately in a queue of people all with their varying types of camera to get a picture of that ornate staircase. The staff don’t seem to be batting an eyelid, so if you can’t beat ‘em…
As popular a tourist attraction as this is, first and foremost, it’s a bookstore. So I weaved my way around the pesky photographers (not Mr Fletche, but others who clearly thought that 30 selfies on the stairs were not nearly enough) checking out the wares. There’s something exotic about seeing familiar titles in a foreign language…. ‘The Girl on the Train’ becomes ‘A Garota no Trem’ in Portugese, or ‘La Ragazza sul Treno’ in Italian. There are books of Portugese poetry and coffee table books of the amazing street art that adorns the city. And there’s Harry Potter of course, all piled up in beautiful displays which tempt you to draw a book from the bottom of the pile and see if it will still stand (or was that just me?). It’s such a shame that the experience is slightly marred by the inconsiderate camera-wielding brigade, pushing and shoving to get the best shot, blocking the staircase (which is not a photogenic prop, it’s an actual staircase that people actually need to use to get between floors) – maybe the ban on photography I’d read about before we went should actually be enforced so that people that love books, beautiful interiors and Harry Potter can enjoy the experience a little more. (I smiled at the girl curled up reading a book on a chair, just like I would…until I noticed that it was all staged for a photo and the book was actually upside down…)
The tram from Infante to Passeio Alegre takes about 20 minutes, and it’s a pleasant if slightly boneshaking ride. I resist the urge to do my best Judy Garland impression, much to Mr Fletche’s relief. We alight at Passeio Allegre, which is right next to the promenade of Foz do Douro, where the river Douro meets the Atlantic Ocean. The temperature is well up in the late teens today, so after bundling up the last two days we find ourselves shrugging off layers in order to feel the Northern Portugal sunshine on our Vitamin D deprived skin.
We watch the waves crash up near the lighthouse, a local playing with her dogs on the beach and avoid the slightly annoying roadworks that are currently blighting part of the seafront. We have an extremely welcome beer at a bar overlooking Praia dos Ingleses, and it feels as warm as any mid summers day back here in the UK. It’s a wrench to move; we could sit here watching the waves lap the beach all day and resting our increasingly aching feet but we soon force ourselves to get moving again.
After lunch we continue our stroll to the most northerly part of the promenade – to the Castelo do Queijo. Castle of the Cheese. Here we can catch our Blue HoHo bus back to town…I knew it was a great idea getting the bus tour! Mr Fletche and I are intently studying our fold-out map for no particular reason when a lovely gentleman on a bike is concerned that we are lost and tries to help. He’s happy to hear that we know where we are and where we are going. We bid him obrigada and bom dia and catch our bus. This time we don’t bother with the headsets…I can live without the hiccupping woman singing to me today. We take the bus over to Vila Nova de Gaia, where it handily drops us off right by Sandemans. Tell us about your Port!, we demand. We’ve just missed the introduction of the next English language tour, but they let us tag onto the end anyway. The first thing that hits you is the smell. It’s heady and woody and makes you feel like you’re being embraced in a warm, dark, sweet-smelling, squidgy cushion.
Tawnys, Rubys, Vintage, White. We learn about all the port from a woman who’s dressed as ‘the Don’. We learn about cask sizes, and how long it is stored for, and how sherry and port are not the same thing although most people think they are. (Both are fortified wines meaning that they have distilled spirits added; however port does not complete the fermentation process before the spirit is added and therefore is sweeter with a higher alcohol content. Also, Port is from Portugal, sherry is from Southern Spain.) And then we watch a video which looked like some children’s educational film from the 70s before we get to the actual tasting bit. We all patiently wait with our two glasses in front of us while they tell us what we should be smelling and seeing and tasting, and then it’s ‘Saúde’! Knocking back two ports in quick succession is great fun, and makes it an easy decision to purchase our obligatory souvenir bottle of port from their shop.
We see our Blue Bus looming outside just about to leave the bus stop and make a run for it out of Sandemans, swinging their signature yellow bag around and waving our arms with abandon at the driver. Incidentally, “stop” in Portugese is “pare”. This may have been useful to know beforehand but the driver kindly lets us on anyway. We’re getting our money’s worth out of our bus tickets, our only complaint is that they don’t run later in the evening. This would make the thought of going out at night much more pleasurable when you don’t have to think about those hills. We get off the bus at Torre dos Clerigos – if we’ve been lazy getting the bus then its time to get those thighs working now. At around 240 steps, it’s not the tallest tower we’ve climbed by far (hi Florence!) but it’s relentless and there’s no handy rest places…it’s up and up and up and up. The port we’ve imbibed this afternoon certainly doesn’t help my energy levels at all.
We’ve probably come when it’s relatively quiet but it’s a very small space up there and it’s hard to manoeuvre round to see the other side. Any busier and I can imagine it would be quite claustrophobic. The views are nice from up there, but I wouldn’t make it a must-see simply due to the lack of space at the top. The best views are those that include the tower as part of the skyscape, from the upper level of the bridge at Vila Nova de Gaia for example, or from the Cathedral terrace.
By the time we get back to the hotel, the feet are aching and an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction (cheap Primark undies, elastic issues) has left a nasty chafing rash where you don’t want a nasty chafing rash, making me walk like I’ve lost my horse. Still I gamely apply a bit of hand cream to the sore bits, slap on a skirt and limp on out for our anniversary meal. I had booked a restaurant right near our hotel, but it was at the back of what was essentially a demolition site and I was a bit wary (incidentally, Trip Advisor reviews are still raving and telling me that this is a hidden gem so maybe I made an error in not trusting my initial research). So we headed back down to the riverside, me grimacing with every painful step for multiple reasons.
One of Mr Fletche’s colleagues had recommended a restaurant – but following the theme from last night, it was practically empty. Instead we headed a couple of doors away to Bacalhau. Bacalhau is another popular Porto dish – and is essentially salted and dried cod, served in any number of weird and wonderful ways. It’s also the name of a lovely little traditional restaurant overlooking the river. The menu was limited and centred primarily around its namesake dish, so that’s what we ordered – two different kinds of bacalhau. Mine sadly wasn’t to my taste, as I’m not a fan of unfilleted fish; luckily Mr Fletche was kind enough to swap mine for his tempura fillets on an egg, potato and onion base although he confessed that his original choice was much nicer than mine. The staff were friendly and hospitable, and the restaurant was lovely, in a great location, but I didn’t feel like this was a special meal worthy of an anniversary dinner. Although me feeling a little bit under the weather and internally weeping at the thought of walking back up the hill one more time didn’t help.
I feel much better the next morning – thankfully as I wasn’t looking forward to sitting in a small aeroplane seat with blistered inner thighs. But sadly, it’s time for us to leave Porto. At times I’d wished we’d stayed a little closer to the river as this is where we ended up spending most of our time – but the shorter trek back to the metro station from our location was definitely a bonus. We load another single journey each onto our Andante card, and the metro is soon whisking us back to Francisco sa Carneiro airport for our easyjet flight home.
Porto is one of those cities that is full of surprises. It has beautiful buildings, amazing street art, wine lodges, quirky transport options, stunning bridges, a lovely riverfront, spectacular churches, plenty of parkland and green space, a natural mix of traditional and modern architecture…oh, and its 20 minutes away from beaches and the ocean. We had two and a half days that we spent doing completely different things, and we could easily have spent another day or two using Porto as a base to see some of the other Northern Portugese cities such as Braga and Guimarães, or travelling to the source of our new favourite tipple, the Douro Valley.
The city was quiet at this time, and we probably had a different experience than if we’d gone at the height of summer, when I can imagine the bars, restaurants and cafes of the Ribeira would have been buzzing well into the evening. We probably missed out on some little gems simply because a lot of places were empty or closed, and we probably didn’t have the best foodie experience. But at the same time it was nice to wander around without being in a sea of tourists shuffling from one must-see attraction to the next – only Livraria Lello came close to that.
I hope you’ve enjoyed following our weekend break to Porto…there will be a more condensed “Guide to 72 hours in Porto” on the blog very soon!