Nigel J. Ross
The long November 1st weekend was an ideal opportunity for a few days away, and the choice fell to Oporto (the second city of Portugal, not least because the Volareweb airline had just started cheap flights there. ) After getting back from work on the Wednesday (31st October), I had just over an hour to get some lunch and pack and dash off to get to Malpensa airport.
After a rush to get going, it was an easy, relaxing flight and it was easy to get from the airport into the city of Oporto (confusingly the city is also sometimes just known as Porto - as it is called in Portuguese - and I now understand the "o" is just the definite article in Portuguese, so "Oporto" is just like saying "The Port" ... which of course is exactly what it is). There is a brand new metro system in the city, and one line goes directly from the airport into the city, so that was really handy. I was a bit amused to realise that the metro trains they have are exactly the same model as some of the new trams in Milan, and on reading about the new system I discovered that it has been based on some existing tram lines, a small suburban railway network, plus some underground tunnels in the city centre to avoid the traffic and narrow streets. Whatever, it proved to be a very useful way to get around the city.
I went with a friend, Livio, and we soon discovered after getting out at the metro station nearest to our hotel, that although the distance from the station to the hotel was not very great, it was hard work getting there! The city is very hilly, and it was a steep uphill climb to the hotel, dragging our wheelie cases behind us. But we managed to find the hotel easily, and were shown into our enormous "triple" room, that was more like a suite. I almost had to shout from my end to make Livio hear me at "his" end! And it was also very reasonably priced ... a good choice (apart from the uphill struggle every evening to get back, though our calf muscles did become much firmer after the few days we spent in the city!). We managed to find quite a good few eating places near the hotel, that were no too touristy, which was good ... and that first evening we easily found a place for a good meal, so a good start to the holiday.
The Thursday (1st November) we mainly spent walking around the city, getting to know the place. Many places were closed as it was a bank holiday there, too. But it was a glorious day (as were all the others) and it was a real pleasure just to be out and about in the warm sunshine. The river front is a particularly attractive part of the city, and today it is no longer used as a port. The old historic centre of the city - now a UNESCO World Heritage site - is full of quaint old buildings tippling down the steep hillsides to the Douro river.Oporto, city centre and Douro river
Realising that most museums and places would be closed that day, Livio had been very enterprising and booked a couple of theatre visits. At 4:30 we went to see a show by the acrobats from the Circus of Peking (or should it be Beijing, now?). The enormous old (rather grand) Coliseu theatre was a spectacle in itself, but the acrobats were absolutely astounding. It's the kind of thing you've probably seen on TV, but of course better when it's live. There were so many acts, but some of the highlights included twelve girls riding around the stage on one single bike, jugglers even juggling with other acrobats, men jumping through high hoops and sumersaulting through the air. It was an excellent show. We then treated ourselves to a light evening meal in the "best" café in town, the olde-worlde Café Majestic (the fact that prices are very reasonable in Portugal really helped)! And then we went across the city to the newly opened Casa de la Musica, a spanking new concert hall, the pride of the city.Oporto, the Casa de la Musica
It's an "interesting" building, but seems to have been built more to impress by its shape than for functional purposes. The entrance is by a wide flight of steps with no handrails, and then inside it seems to be a maze of corridors and stairways. When we eventually found our way into the auditorium, I was disappointed to find it was just a very boring rectangular hall! We went to hear a concert by a Brazilian singer - Seu Jorge - who is supposed to be one of the top Brazilian artists of the moment, combining samba rhythms with a funky jazz style.
Seu Jorge started off the concert with three solo cover versions of pieces by David Bowie and others that were quite enjoyable. But then his band came on stage and then samba-funk started! First it was very loud, then half of the audience was standing up and dancing and blocking anyone else’s view, and then it was just so, so repetitive. Some of the songs went on for about ten minutes, but the last seven were just repetitions over and over again of the chorus ... the audience who knew his songs were joining in and enjoying it, and his backing group were having a great time on stage ... but a lot of the audience was not that impressed, as some rather dismayed faces showed. Also it started at 10 o'clock, but didn't finish until nearly 1 o'clock in the morning. And at that time public transport had finished, so we had to walk back to the hotel, which was about 30 minutes away, partly uphill. Not the best way to end a very pleasant first day!
On the Friday we started the more proper sightseeing experience. The city is famous for its river views, its port wine cellars, its baroque buildings and its blue-tiled facades for buildings and churches. One of the first blue-tiled buildings we saw was a music shop (music bookshop).Oporto, the tiled music bookshop
We started off by climbing to the top of the tallest and highest church tower in the city to get a bird's eye view of the place. It gave us an idea of exactly how the city is located close to the estuary of the Douro river, in what would have been a wonderful safe haven in case of storm. Of course the river is now to narrow for modern boats, and there is a more modern port a few kilometres away. The modern city extends as far as the sea, but we didn't actually go there ... though we could have done if we'd had a bit more time!Oporto, River Douro
We then explored some parts of the centre. The river is spanned by six bridges, but one of the oldest and most famous is a two-level iron structure built by one of Eiffel's pupils (Eiffel himself also designed another bridge in the city, but his pupil's work outshines his). The bridge is a fascinating structure in itself and affords wonderful views of the city centre. Today the top level takes the metro, which pops out from the hillside to cross the river at this point. The lower level is used for local traffic, but it is particularly useful for pedestrians.Oporto, two-level bridge over the Douro river
We then went to visit one of the port wine cellars. The grapes are grown on the hillsides of the Douro river, quite a bit inland. The area has a particularly mild climate and is particularly suited for the grapes used to make port. Originally the grape must was transported by river down to Oporto, where it was matured in the oak barrels in the wine cellars, before being shipped out to the rest of Europe and beyond. Today the transport is mainly by road. However, the port cellars are still in use and some of them have tours, visitor centres ... and of course free tasting sessions. So we enjoyed a tour (and a taste)! We toured the Sandeman cellars, one of the most famous ... and also the one that involved less climbing up a steel hillside!
We rounded off the day (after the drinking session, of course) with a visit to the Cathedral! The building itself is not particularly attractive, but it has interesting cloisters with a partly-tiled upper level.
Oporto, Cathedral cloisters
Oporto, tiling in the upper cathedral cloisters
The next day (Saturday), we visited the Seralves modern art gallery and park in the morning. The temporary exhibition in the art gallery was not very enthralling, but the park was very pleasant, and it was warm enough to eat lunch outside on the terrace. Overall the gardens and some of the sculptures in the gardens were much more interesting than those in the gallery!Oporto, Seralves gallery and gardens
Back in the city centre, we visited some of the baroque churches the city is famous for. The facades often have wonderful blue-tiled ("azulejos") decorations, and the insides have some grotesquely elaborate gold-plated decorative parts. Pictures give a much better idea than words!Blue "azulejos" tiles
We finished off the day with a guided tour of the former stock exchange. All the guidebooks said this was a must, but we were a bit unsure whether it would be so interesting. However, we took the guidebooks' advice and were very glad we did. Now Portugal's only stock exchange is in Lisbon, but in the past Oporto was as rich, if not richer, than the capital, and had a thriving economy, mainly based on the local wines and trading of other commodities with the colonies. The stock exchange was also the showcase for the city's businessmen and the "gentelman's club" for the rich merchants of the city, and the building was suitably ornate and impressive. The trading hall is a vast domed area, but it was the other rooms that were most impressive. Some were really overdone, such as the ballroom with its pseudo-arabic decorations. Unfortunately photography was not allowed, but it was a memorable visit!
We were a bit unsure of what to do on the last day, the Sunday, as we had almost the whole day (our plane didn't leave until 8 in the evening). We could have walked around the city further, visited a museum or art gallery and/or maybe gone down to the coast to walk along the seafront. Instead we opted to take the train inland (60 km away) to the old historic city of Guimaraes (which will become European cultural capital in 2012). And we were very glad we made the choice. It is a charming city, with an almost totally unspoilt centre, more or less as it would have been around 400 years ago. It is much simpler in style than the "magnificence" of Oporto, but very quaint.Guimaraes, the main square
As well as wandering around the centre, visiting the local museum and admiring churches and other historic buildings, we also walked up to the Ducal Palace and the old ruined castle, considered to be the birthplace of modern Portugal (the castle is where Portugal's first king was born in the early 1100s). The walk round the castle battlements afforded wonderful views, but it also was rather hair-raising as there was no protection from long drops on either side!Guimaraes, church and palace
Our choice of restaurants for our evening meal took some real hunting down, and in the end we had to engage the services of a boy (and pay the tip). We wondered if the young local kids remove the signs to some of the lanes and restaurants to make some money from the bewildered tourists! But it was well worth finding the Tamsna Riad, despite the fact that it was at the end of a smelly dead-end lane. The restaurant area was in the open portico-ed courtyard of the majestically restored palace, and we had an excellent meal of olive and humus patés and baked tomatoes topped with crumbled cheeses for starters, followed by stuffed sardines with potato cakes for the main course, and a wicked “tutti-frutti” compote to finish off with. After the meal we were treated to a guided tour of the other floors: a large lounge area, an art exhibition, a shop selling local craft items and finally the very high terrace with fantastic views over the whole city.Guimaraes, castle
The place was so interesting we only just manage to catch our return train back to Oporto ... we would have been really in trouble if we'd missed it, as the following one was two hours later! But we got back to Oporto easily, picked up our luggage from the hotel and got to the airport without any further ado. It was a good flight back, but it was late when it arrived in Milan (since Italy is an hour ahead of Portugal). By the time we got off the coach at the Central Station, it was about 12:45, and then we had a tremendously long wait in the queue for a taxi! So it was about 1:30 in the morning when I got home, and later than that when I got to bed.