Stage 2 – Porto

A port wine boat docked on the Douro.

So I didn’t make it out for one last beer and wander around Lisbon before sleeping. Partly because I was tired, partly because I knew I’d be making it back to Lisbon for an evening before I left the country. I contented myself with some reading and catching up on my TV. With decent WiFi, Netflix is a blessing for the weary traveler.

The next morning, I was woken by the sound of the traffic and the rain. Seriously heavy rain. The squalls that blow in off the Atlantic here are nothing to sneeze at. Thankfully I was awake early enough that by the time I was packed and ready to move out, the squall had headed off to dampen some other settlement, leaving behind only slick cobbles to deal with. One problem with my decision to make sure I got to the Oriente train station on time though was that the supermarket next door hadn’t yet set out its daily pastry selection. No custard tarts for breakfast – disaster!

Well, not so much a disaster as a delay. I’d judged the metro timing pretty well and made it to Oriente with more than half an hour to spare and opted for both sweet and savory for breakfast – a ham and cheese pastry and a custard tart, together with some water. That kept me going long enough for the 0939 train to show up and, as it turned out, a lot longer besides.

The train from Lisbon to Porto takes just over three hours, depending on the service you choose. This gave me time to watch some videos, finish a book, resolve a seating dispute amicably, snooze, and stare out the window at landscapes alternately flooded by the recent rains and dotted with orange and lemon trees. Give us a few more years of climate change and Ireland might not look too different. Soon enough though, we were crossing the lazy waters of the Douro and pulling into Campanha Railway Station.

Rather than figure out the city’s metro, I decided to take a stroll through town to the vicinity of my AirBnB lodgings. First up the Rua de Pinto Bessa, then reconsidering and switching to the Rua do Heroismo. The streets were filled with gorgeous buildings, many decorated with the same kind of tiles I’d seen in Lisbon but not all of them in good repair. Porto is a much smaller city than Lisbon though, and I reached my destination pretty quickly. I was staying on the Rua Formosa, but since check-in time was a few hours away and there were several hours of rugby to watch, I figured that Clube Porto Rugby would be a good place to wait the intervening hours. Sadly, I hadn’t checked the opening times, and Clube Porto Rugby wasn’t opening until after the England-Ireland game was over.

Needing another option, I did some online research and started heading southwards and downhill towards the river. There were several bars that might be open, and this being St. Patrick’s Day, I figured some of them would be showing the Ireland game. As it happened, I made a fortuitous find in the form of Ryan’s Irish Pub on Rua do Infante Dom Henrique. It was empty enough at that stage that I was able to grab a seat in sight of the TVs, but with an hour to go before the game the space started filling up. I watched the Italy-Scotland game in the company of a couple of England fans, but by the time of the main game’s kickoff, the pub was heaving, most of the crowd Irish and not a few wearing face paint.

You can check the score elsewhere, but suffice it to say that it was as solid an Irish win in England as there’s been, and a Grand Slam to go with it – only the third in Irish history. Watching it in the pub really helped the experience, though I had only crisps to keep my energy up and couldn’t resist a glass of Gulden Draak, one of my favorite beers, once I found out it was on tap. I allowed myself five minutes of celebrating once I was done, then headed out, empty of stomach but happy of head, to check in.

Fifteen minutes walk brought me up to Rua Formosa again, where the host Samantha gave me the keys and suggested a few options for eating and sightseeing over my stay. Following her suggestion, I headed to Santiago Francesinha for the former, but as it turned out it wasn’t opening until 1900, so I had time to wander first and maybe build up more of an appetite. In fact, I already had enough of one of those, so I grabbed some snacks, healthy and otherwise, and water from a corner store, and went walking. First a lazy stroll downhill until I reached the waterfront. The Douro was lazily flowing by and the sun setting, so I got to enjoy the bridge-festooned view, but I eschewed the option of pausing for a drink and heading on, turning west along the river’s course, the lights of the port wine makers bright on the distant waterfront.

Porto’s waterfront is fascinating and multilayered, and as much as I’d liked Lisbon, I liked the more intimate, immediate feel of this smaller city a lot more. One thing that both cities have in common is a lot of verticality, and when I’d walked enough west, along the quays and through narrow alleys, I turned north and started climbing not streets but steps, passing a couple of stray dogs heading the other way. It was good exercise, taking me past the Campo dos Mártires da Patria as I looped around the town. Eventually though, I found myself back at Santiago Francesinha not too long after 1900 and more than ready to eat.

Which was just as well, seeing as the speciality of the house, the Francesinha, was no small meal. A thick sandwich containing steak, sausage, ham, and cheese, topped with a fried egg and yet more melted cheese and surrounded by fries and a lake of sauce, it demanded a certain amount of care and attention, as well as effort, to clear from the plate without destroying one’s clothes. Seeing as I hadn’t eaten much during the day though, I even had room for some apple crumble and ice cream afterwards. Price-wise it was more than reasonable, and by the time I left, the place was heaving with hungry customers.

Before I decided what to do next, I wanted to go for a bit of a stroll, so I headed down Rua de Passos Manuel until I got to the Rua de Santa Caterina shopping street. I followed this north and uphill until I got to Rua de Gonçalo Cristavao, which took me west to the Praca da Republica. Why check out this area? For a potential place to go running the next day, as the Rua da Boavista that leads off it goes all the way to the coast. The next morning would see whether I felt up to it.

I took a more meandering route on the way back, but when I hit the City Hall, I spotted the beginnings of the Rua Formosa and decided that the time had come to rest those weary feet again. I took myself all the way back to the apartment and despite a brief attempt to check out a bar that turned out to be closed for a private party, eventually set myself to rest and recuperate instead. For a brief encounter, Porto had been more than appealing. Now I had to see whether it would have much to offer me on a Sunday.

(Tempus continues to Fugit…)

I woke early again, this time from a dream in which Ozymandias from Watchmen was repeatedly kneeing me in the back. Odd. I suppose it’s probably a flashback to some worries about back discomfort I had before the holiday, which thankfully have completely fled. Except in dreams. I wasn’t sure about running, due to a dodgy stomach and some rain, but I eventually decided to go for it, and I’m glad I did.

As on the night before, I headed down Rua Formosa, then up Rua de Santa Caterina, until I got to the Praca da Republica, where I could turn onto Rua da Boavista for the long straight run to the coast. Again, I wasn’t sure how far I’d be going, but seeing as Rua da Boavista in this direction is mostly a long, shallow downhill, it wasn’t the most stressful run. Even once I reached the coast, with the wild waves of the Atlantic battering against black rocks and coarse sand beaches, the wind wasn’t a problem so much as the sun and the haze of the early morning were.

I curved to the south towards the mouth of the Douro, where heavy-duty breakwaters kept the river and the ocean separate. From there, I had another turn to the east, back along the riverfront, towards the Ponte de Arrábida, which loomed over the narrow gorge of the river as a massive concrete arch overhead. (Giving me ideas for a role playing campaign I’ve been thinking of. Hmm.) There were trams and cyclists and other runners, as well as fishermen lining up along the river, but when I hit 16km and faced the climb back up to the apartment, I decided that a nice walk would be the better part of valour.

Back at my place of abode, I got to rest and shower and generally feel a bit more human while preparing for a day in Porto. As I rested, the sun came out, so when I ventured onto the streets things were warming up nicely. I dropped into a supermarket to grab myself water, freshly squeezed orange juice, and a selection of pastries for breakfast (for under €5 total), then headed downhill and towards the Douro. The Ponte Dom Luis is the upper part of a two-level bridge that carries both pedestrians and some of Porto’s metro trains (yes, the metro goes above the road) and it offers fantastic views of the city and the river. More, there’s a cable car down to the Vila Nova da Gaia waterfront from the southern end of the bridge, and having walked and run plenty over the previous few days, I decided to avail of it.

Dropped down to the waterfront, I had a particular reason for being here that loaned direction to my steps. The most notable feature of the Vila Nova da Gaia is the range of Port wineries that line the banks, presumably because this is where the barrels of wine would land from further up the Douro valley centuries ago. Given the number of riverboats with barrels on board, some of them may still do so. I was aiming for the Ferreira Cellars, one such winery, and I spent a pleasant hour in the cool caverns carved into the riverside hills and the warehouses above. Getting to sample some excellent Port wine (white, tawny, and ruby) at the end was an excellent bonus and put me in an even better mood when I headed out into the sun again.

Back up the cable car, this time having a car to myself, and over the bridge, I headed north into the heart of Porto, towards the Rua das Carmelitas, where Livraria Lello stands. Having checked out the oldest bookshop in Lisbon, I now had a chance to view one of the most beautiful in Europe, after purchasing a ticket in the shop a few doors up the street. With its swooping staircase and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, there’s something of the Harry Potter about Lello, and that connection is played up by the number of Potter books on sale. The only drawback to the place is the crowds, but the fact that the entrance ticket also counts as a book voucher in the shop makes a visit that much nicer.

Next door was lunch. Or at least a snack that stood in for lunch – the Amarino ice cream store, where I enjoyed a roseate ice cream cone that took some care and attention to avoid dripping all over me before I could eat it. While perhaps not the healthiest option for lunch, this was a holiday after all, so I felt some justification. After that, I wandered for a while, first to the twin churches of Igreja do Carmo and Igreja das Carmelitas, which are ornate enough on the outside and utterly baroque on the inside, with gilded wood carving everywhere except where there are over-the-top depictions of saints and the Passion. If the churches in Northern Ireland were this full-on, growing up as a Catholic would perhaps have been a lot more entertaining.

Anyway, ups and downs through Porto took me at last back to the apartment, where it was time for a brief siesta. I had vague plans for the afternoon but nothing that needed to be accomplished immediately, so taking a break to rest my bones and consider my next move seemed wise (also appealing). A last few hours left in Porto, then back to Lisbon tomorrow on the train.

(The march of time goes marching in…)

Out of the apartment and into the sun, I headed back towards the Ponte Dom Luis and the quick hop across the river. This time I didn’t take the cable car down, instead opting to weave my way along steep cobbled streets, occasionally becoming the human component in a traffic jam, on my way to the waterfront. I wanted to see if there were any options for a riverboat tour along the Douro, but it turned out that Sunday is not a good day for that kind of thing, even when the weather is good, and I had to content myself with some churros, which were just a little too stale and chewy to be nice.

Back across the river then, this time walking along the lower tier of the Ponte Dom Luis, and along the waterfront on the northern side of the river. Things were busier here, though no better on the boat tour front, and having no particular plan to follow, I shrugged my shoulders and started climbing. This took me first to the Urban Market, one of those large interior spaces now given over to craft stalls, though in this case the large interior space was mostly closed off, whether permanently or just for the day it was hard to tell.

Climbing, though, seemed to be the way to go, and seeing as my usual modus operandum in a new city is to find the tallest building I can and get to the top of it, there was only one place to go. Not only does the Clérigos Tower (the bell tower of the Church of the Clerics) stand on top of a hill, but it’s also extra tall and open to the public. Thankfully it hadn’t closed for the evening when I reached it (night-time climbing is an option at this site) and I was soon hot-footing it up some increasingly tight spiral staircases to get to one of the best views of Porto. It was a little early for sunset, but I still got to enjoy panoramas of the city on all sides, once I’d waited for people posing for photos on the narrow balcony to finish what they were doing anyhow.

Down below, the tower had some rooms explaining the order of the Clerics and the importance of the architect, who it seemed had a hand in a lot of Porto’s major edifices and was a key part of the reason why the city leans towards the baroque whereas Lisbon favours the Romanesque. In fact, the church itself was well worth a visit, as its approach to the baroque was notably restrained and heavy on the pink marble, creating an interior both warm and imposing, under an oval dome. Definitely my favorite church among those I’ve seen on this trip, and the chance to walk around the upper galleries just added to the experience. I’m not entirely sure why there was a series of “World’s Greatest Furniture” exhibits scattered around the place though. If they’re going to put seats everywhere, it’s a little cruel to weary travelers to tell them they can’t sit down.

It was food time at this stage, and deciding that cheap and cheerful was the object of the day, I headed to the nearby Steak’n’Shake. Truth be told the shake part was the more appealing, and just as well: the burger I got and the shoestring fries were adequate, but the milkshake was thick and tasty (though why do people use sweetened cream as a topping? Why?!). It gave me a chance to sit down, and seeing as some rain had started just before I arrived and was only easing as I left, I figured that returning to my abode was the best choice. I wound my way back to Rua Formosa, briefly checking out a Fnac store in a fruitless attempt to find some items I needed, then settled in to rest and write this.

It’s not that late yet, and there’s a craft bar just a few doors down where I’m planning on having a couple of beers in a little while, but really the end of this holiday is now in sight. Tomorrow morning brings a trip back to Lisbon, and the next day brings a flight back to Ireland. Which will hopefully be devoid of snow when I get there: for the second time in as many weeks, the country’s been visited by the Snow Queen, and while it may please tiny fans of Frozen, I imagine it’s getting old for their parents at least.

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