Getting lost in rush hour traffic isn’t necessarily the best introduction to a city, but it didn’t stop us falling in love with Porto almost instantly. We were firmly hooked and ended up staying for five nights with full on days from morning till late night enjoying the city. Sorry for not blogging during this time – the more you see and do, the more there is to write about and no time to write it.
We eventually found our way through the centre of town and followed a route taking us over the Douro river that slices Porto city on its north bank from Vila Nova de Gaia, universally referred to just as Gaia, on its south. The city is steep and deep and six bridges span majestically and dramatically high across and you can see the river join the Atlantic to the west. Multitudes of terracotta roofed tenements and churches, cottages and warehouses cling to the sides. Crossing the Infanta bridge was thrilling – our eyes popping out at the views in every direction.
Porto is layers of tiled buildings, metal lace balconies with dogs sleeping, washing hanging out. Grand buildings, ornate houses, some prime examples of art nouveau and art deco design … many of them surprisingly and forlornly left to decay. Past glories fading in the hot sun, decorated with rust, bindweed and graffiti. Ramshackle tenements whose attic windows are about to cave in through their roofs, but then in one corner of the building there is life – people still live in a part of it, there’s washing and children playing and a dark hole in the wall grocery on the ground floor.
Maps are difficult to follow because they aren’t three dimensional. There’s a lot of climbing involved, aided by outside elevadors, funiculars and an overpriced cable car. The huge steel double-decker Dom Luis I bridge has a traffic level and then high above a metro tram speeds across tracks in the middle – but you can walk on either side. It’s scarily high but the views are worth it.
Porto feels wilder, edgier than a European city and some of its tenement streets wouldn’t feel out of place in India. Meanwhile, its rickety vintage trams rattling along the waterfront and elegant art nouveau cafes evoke a wistful nostalgia for times gone by.
Port wine dominates this city. All the port in the world comes through here. Export shipping, maturing, bottling, marketing for trade and tourism – corporate big names and family owned for generations, mostly on the south Gaia side of the river where the big ‘port wine lodges’ are. You’ll know some of the names – Sandeman, Taylor’s, Croft, Cockburns. Can’t deny that the chance to try so many different ports was an attraction for us. At the tour of Taylor’s you got to see a real working operation not just a laid on for tourists representation like some of them, with the aroma of the huge barrels holding tens of thousands of litres, and a good quality tasting. We also enjoyed an early evening sojourn at the out of the way Solar de vinho de Porto, a port wine salon in an historic mansion with a rose garden terrace high above the river, with recommendations from the waiter. The list starts at around 1.50 euros a glass right through to hundreds per glass for a vintage taste.
We spent our days and nights drinking in the atmosphere, travelling the city on its trams and open top tour buses, walking its streets and bridges to see exquisitely tiled churches and central station walls, riding more trams, drinking of the many variants of its namesake drink, trying its foods and taking a blissful evening boat cruise beneath its bridges. Walking its bustling market, cats slinking in and out of railings, watching boys jumping from the bridge, riding the breathtakingly fast bus from the campsite, marvelling every time the driver managed to negotiate such narrow streets without calamity. On our last night we enjoyed the buzz and activity of a free concert on the river, watching the people of all ages out and about – very little drinking involved but a lively laid back feel nonetheless or because. When the road led us on from Porto, a little bit of our hearts remained there…