Portugal is a small country but that doesn’t mean that it has not great contrasts in its geography and, hence, its people and customs. Travelling from the Algarve, the southern most region of the country, to Porto, the second largest city and capital of the north, in less than ten hours by train will give you some idea of its size. If you look at a map, you will realize it’s actually dwarfed by its neighbour, Spain. From my train window as we travelled from Portimao to Lisbon, the view was one of green hills, some cactus, palm trees, and miles and miles of orange groves revealing a rather dry climate. However, once we were past Lisbon, the geography began to take on a different look. I noticed the orange trees were being replaced by many other kinds of trees more reminiscent of Canada, which meant this area received more rainfall and was cooler. We were, after all never far from the Atlantic coast. As we got closer to Porto, I actually began to feel like I was entering a different country. The terrain was changing and so were the houses. Where had all those strange looking chimneys I saw in the small towns in the south disappeared to? Now the rooftops were orange-tiled with just ordinary chimneys.
Our entrance into Porto was dramatic to say the least. I instantly understood why the historic part was declared a UNESCO site in 1998 and why everyone we had spoken to about our itinerary for Portugal insisted that we visit Porto. I think the other reason for this advice was to sample the port wine for which Porto is famous. I will come back to port making later. Porto literally clings to the steep rise of mountains on the north side of the Duoro River. Our train approached it from the mountains lining the south banks of the river on the Villa Nova da Gaia side giving us a breathtaking view of both cities and the six bridges that span them. The whole vista was nothing short of spectacular!
To add to our excitement of seeing this old city, we got a taxi driver who waxed relentlessly about how Porto was the ‘heart and soul’ of Portugal and far more interesting than Lisbon which was merely the capital. He talked constantly with much help from his hands all the way to our hotel which did cause me to wonder if we would ever get safely to our destination, get settled in, and have the opportunity to find out for ourselves just how wonderful it all was.
After this hair-raising ride, we simply left our unpacking, and headed down the steep hill to the riverside while we still had the light of the setting sun. Miraculously we got down in about 15 minutes without a problem noting that this city, like most cities and towns we have visited in Portugal, is actually smaller in area than it looks because of how the numerous winding streets meander around the hills upon which the heart of the city rests. For the first time visitor, it can be confusing and frustrating especially if two people tend to approach the whole business of getting oriented to a new place in completely different ways. For example, my husband doesn’t believe in maps and refuses to even look at them. He uses what he calls his instincts and stops every five minutes to ask directions of those poor unsuspecting locals who in most cases can’t speak a word of English. In contrast, I do use maps to try and get my bearings and will only ask someone for directions if I’m totally lost. At this point, I won’t elaborate any further on the complications and arguments these two approaches lead to, other than to say that somehow we muddle through and eventually get to our destination all in one piece as happened that first night.
The next day did not turn out nearly so well. Hubby decided he must attend an Anglican church service to which he had managed to become a welcomed participant in their choir. While he was rehearsing, I found a nearby park to sit in and enjoy the sunshine. With the help of my map and guide book, I took this time to plan our day. After the service and armed with lots of instructions from the friendly parishoners on how to get to the places we had agreed to see, we set out to find the first one which was the Romantico museum. This museum is the re-creation of a 19th century aristocratic mansion so we chose to visit it thinking it would be a nice change from those which simply depicted Portugal’s history. The other incentive for putting a museum on our list of ‘must sees’ is the fact that all museums in Portugal have free entrance on Sunday.
Sadly, we never got to see the Romantico. After an hour or more of looking for it, we just couldn’t find it. According to our map and any person hubby could find who had even heard of it, it was nearby and very close to where we were. No problem, you will see it, they said. I forgot to mention this was another reason for my suggesting it in the first place because according to my map it was right on the edge of the park I had been sitting in. We did eventually find out where the museum was but only from a tourist information centre where English is spoken. It was in the area where we looked but enclosed within a large dome which we could see the whole time, but who would have thought? Certainly not us! I would like to think that we have both learned a lesson from all this should we ever decide to return to Portugal, and that would be that maps and asking anyone on the street can be useful, but not to ignore the tourist information centres and to be patient with some of them since they more than likely will have long lineups. We can’t do it all on our own, and we can save ourselves much aggravation (and quite possibly a marriage) by taking the time to seek out the people who are trained to help and most importantly have good English skills.
Finally frustrated and thirsty, we decided to abandon this idea and go for the next one on our list which was the Majestic Cafe described in my guide book as “belle epoch coffee house, just the place to enjoy cakes and scones”. This sounded wonderful to both of us so off we went full of anticipation for what was ahead. Unfortunately, it was further away and more complicated to find than I had anticipated and to cap it all off, the place was closed because it was Sunday! By this time hubby’s mood was getting worse by the minute and any good deeds he might have prayed about in church had quickly evaporated. As for me, I was more than ready to quit my job as tour guide and give the thankless task to him. Because we were famished by this time, we sat down at the nearest sidewalk cafe which was advertising tapas (sandwiches) and a drink for 3,50 euro. This was the best luncheon deal we had found in all of our almost four weeks here, and it was also delicious! At last something good had happened. At this point, I made my resignation as tour guide official and gave the responsibility to him for the remainder of the day.
This new arrangement worked for both of us resulting in our day taking a turn for the better. We continued on exploring a couple of the larger more ornate cathedrals in the centre of the city, admiring the carvings of saints and angels, the gold statues, and beautiful tiles. Almost every building in Porto has some kind of tile work on it. The old train station was probably the biggest surprise having the interior entirely covered in tiles depicting scenes from Porto’s colourful past.
The next day, Monday, turned out much better. In fact, I would rate it as one of the best we’ve had since coming to Portugal. Waking up to a beautiful sunny day with a warm breeze, we set out for Vila Nova de Gaia, the home of the port wine trade. We walked across the Ponte Dom Luis I, one of the six bridges spanning the Duoro. This bridge was designed by a pupil of Gustave Eiffel and is constructed in two levels. We walked over the lower level which gave us easy access to the riverfront of Vila Nova with gorgeous views of Porto across the way.
There are many port lodges lining the riverside of Vila Nova with Sandeman’s being the number one choice for every tourist and tour bus due to its familiar logo of a man wearing a Spanish sombrero and black Portuguese cape. Because we like to be different and go where the tour buses are not likely to go, we chose to go to Graham’s, and you can guess why. This loja, the Portuguese word for warehouse, sits away from all the rest on top of a hill overlooking the town. In spite of the steep climb, we were so glad we made this one our choice. We were not only met with the most incredible view of the river with the two cities on either side, but also the friendliest staff imaginable. Our guide for the cellars and host of the tastings was Isobel, a lovely young lady who conveyed to us and four young lads from Holland, the history of port making in Portugal and the intricacies of its making in impeccable English. Curiously, many of the loja have English names and that is because many of them were originally started by the British as early as 1790 when their supply of port was no longer available from France. It was then that George Sandeman saw this opportunity and build the first one in Porto because the region just east of here was perfect for growing the kind of grape needed to produce the same quality as that which was produced in France. Today port production is a thriving business in this region.
After our tour, we were treated to three different tastings: a deep red port which apparently was Winston Churchill’s favourite, a vintage red, and a delicious tawny. Three small drinks was enough to go to my head, and since there was a restaurant on the premises showcasing tasty looking tapas at an affordable price, we opted for two a piece as our lunch. While sitting on the terrace with our tapas, wine, and a view to die for, we had the good fortune to meet two interesting couples: one from Germany and the other originally from the US but now living in Germany. What is it about good wine or port that always brings out interesting conversations? In the end, we both agreed that all of this combined to make our trip to Vila Nova a memorable one which more than made up for our previous, better to be forgotten day.
On our return to Porto, we were faced with several options as to how to cross over the two level bridge. We could have used a cable car for 5 euro each, or the metro train for one and a half euro, or walk back across on the lower level from whence we came, or take a funicular up to the higher level at a cost, of course, or lastly dare to climb up the cobblestone street leading on to the higher level to not only walk across for free, but also have the best view possible. We opted for the last because we already had spent enough money for this day, and we were glad we did. Making stops along the way helped, and viewing the port scenes from such a height for the last time made it all seem much more worthwhile.
Taking the time and making the effort to go to the northern part of this picturesque country was a wise decision. Portugal seems to be a country divided into three main parts: the south along the Algarve which has become famous as a haven for Brits and many other tourists escaping from the harsher climates of their countries, the centre which has the historic capital of Lisbon, and the north which the Portuguese claim is the cradle of Portugal. It was the north that produced the country’s last and longest ruling dynasty, the second largest city of Porto, along with Lisbon, and to give birth to and play a prominent part in the Age of Discovery – that era when many of their seamen set out to explore and find new lands such as, Brazil, India, parts of Africa, and Malacca in Malaysia. These discoveries provided them with untold riches of gold and gems to furnish their churches and palaces which we are looking at today as tourists. Furthermore, the north has provided the world with the grapes and facilities to make the finest port in the world.