Porto Pronto!

Just before I start, have a look at the view from my laptop this morning…

The view from the terrace of Camping A’Vouga

Thursday 16th May – Day 21

Into Porto

There is a travel writing cliché that says, ‘Lisbon is for partying and Porto is for work!’ This created the impression for me that Porto was going to be a dour industrial city; a sort of Derby of south west Europe. How wrong I could be.

Part of the reason for choosing our campsite in Vila Cha was that Andy had found it mentioned in a blog as really convenient for catching the metro into Porto and that the metro took dogs. One of the compromises you have to make when travelling in a fairly large, unwieldly  motorhome is that there are some places you just cannot take it, for example city centres; and one of the compromises you have to make when travelling with a fairly large, though extremely docile dog is that there are some modes of transport you cannot take, for example public transport in many parts of the continent. So, to find a great campsite near a pet friendly transport portal was amazing. 

Bright and early we all piled into our van for the short drive to the park and ride by the metro station in the car park for Vila do Conde retail shopping park (it has all the big names if you are interested). The Metro is a marvellous system, but it does suffer from and overly complicated ticketing system, even though we had been carefully briefed by the lovely lady in the campsite reception and were armed with coins (for some reason the Metro only accepts Portuguese registered bank cards) and the machine gave instructions in English, it took some deciphering. [Hint, title = trip.] The queue of similarly befuddled foreign tourists in front of us meant that we missed the first train, but the next wasn’t very long and was an express so only took 30 minutes instead of the 45 we had expected.

First on our itinerary was the Paços do Concelho to see the City Council House at the top of a very grand square and then on to see the azulejo that adorn the railway station. We had heard that Pinhão was supposed to be the prettiest station in Portugal, but the São Bento Station knocks the spots off it. All four sides of the entrance hall were decorated with scenes from Portuguese history by Jorge Colaço in the 1930s. That’s over 20,000 blue and white tiles.

So far, so ordinary city tour and it looked to be continuing as we walked up a hill to the cathedral we could see in the distance. the cathedral’s grounds marked leaving modern Porto and entering old Porto. The cathedral commands a great view of the river Douro and the higgledy piggledy streets and alleys that run down to the quaysides as well as the port lodges that cover the south bank, known as Vila Nova de Gaia. 

[Spoiler Alert!Katy and Holly, you might want to skip the next paragraph] 

Gaia used to be known as Cale and was abandoned in the eighth century when the Douro became the border between the Moorish controlled southern region and the Christian controlled North. In the ninth century the city of Cale was reconquered by Asturian forces and the two cities of Porto and Cale became Portocale, the embryonic country of Portugal. The newly acquired lands to the south were given to the knights who had supported Vimara Peres and they created the new town of Vila Nova de Gaia. Gaia’s more favourable (lenient?) taxation led to the major port wine manufacturers setting up their ware houses on the south bank where they remain to this day. All the major brands are not shy about advertising their presence and competing for the tourist Euro.

The stroll through the narrow back alleys on the way to the river was like stepping back in time, this area had once been the old port’s centre for drinking and prostitution but was now a photographer’s heaven, with photo opportunities at every turn.

We crossed the Douro on the double decker, 19thCentury bridge that was built by a student of Eiffel (of tower fame) and in its day was the longest single arch steel bridge in the world and then rode the cable car to the far end of the Gaia waterfront. Outside the old market building, now a street food court but off limits to dogs, there were loads of pavement cafes offering tapas and port tasting, so eager not to offend the locals, we took up the offer in at a little bar next door to a scooter hire shop that also had Segways with scooter embellishments.

Every Port Wine Company has a sponsored Rabelo (the traditional boats that used to make the hazardous voyage down the river from Pinhão with the barrels of wine) moored up along the quayside as floating adverts and occasionally used to race against each other. Most of them were a traditional, some would say boring, brown colour, but just at the end of the long line there was a jaunty yellow and blue painted Rabelo that belonged to our very own Quinta da Foz! (How many bottles of port do you have to buy before you feel ownership of a company?)

Our route took us back across the lower deck of the bridge to the ridiculously photogenic north bank and its rows of old terraced houses, past the Exchange towards the Livraria Lello also known as the Hogwarts bookshop! [Now you are interested Holly and Hannah, aren’t you?] JK Rowling taught in Porto in the early 1990s and she visited the bookshop regularly, so it is supposed to have influenced her descriptions of both the Hogwarts grand staircase and Flourish and Blott’s. It is certainly one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. Now it is so famous you have to pay €5 for a ticket to go in so we didn’t.

A desperate search for a bar that suited all our needs proved inconclusive, so we jumped back on the Metro and headed home after one of the most memorable days on the trip so far. Porto you get five stars from all of us!

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