In April I took a long weekend solo trip to Porto in Portugal.
I knew from last year that I wanted to visit Portugal, and for a long time it seemed as if it wouldn’t happen, but things worked out. Initially when I thought of going, I did consider going to Lisbon…but only for a split second. Why? Because in my mind I can go to Lisbon anytime. And that’s a key component about when I choose to go somewhere solo; it has to be somewhere that I most likely wouldn’t visit again and is unique enough to be worth a visit. Porto fit the bill for me. Up until the moment I got there I didn’t know what I would be doing aside from making sure I visited the beach, and doing a cursory glance at the metro map to make sure I knew where to get off and get to where I was staying.
So arriving was pretty smooth. I stayed in Trindade and there was a direct line from the airport to Trindade station. At the airport I made sure I purchased a 72hr travelcard so to speak. It was €15 and allowed me to travel on the buses, metro, and other forms of transport for 72hrs from the time I first used it. As I was staying about 4 days, this worked perfectly for me – I didn’t really then have to worry about asking for tickets in the Portuguese I didn’t speak, and it was very cost-effective (I would have paid more than that if I paid individually each time).
Porto is the home and originator of Port wine. I’ll admit that I didn’t actually fully comprehend that until I got there and was told I must visit the wine cellars. I kept thinking ‘What’s so great about them?’ Doh. It is on the west coast of Portugal, known as Oporto to the Portuguese, and has one of the most beautiful coasts I have ever seen.
Highlights/Places to Visit
Ponte de D. Luís
A gigantic bridge with the most sensational views of the Rio Douro and the Porto wine cellars. It has two levels; on both levels pedestrians can walk across it, but on the lower level cars can drive and on the highest level were the metro lines. I lost count of the amount of times I went to the highest level just to look out over Porto or watch the Sun set (always with the yummiest purple sky!), which was easily facilitated by the metro station Jardim do Morro right next to the bridge.
I went on a highly recommended river cruise along the Rio Douro. There were several vendors doing them and I wasn’t going to initially because I thought it was a bit gassed, but after speaking to someone in a tourist booth who gassed me up, then gave me a deal on the cable car, river cruise, and wine cellar, I got involved. It was such a chilled experience – blazing heat, river breeze, and admiring the sites. Honestly by that point (my penultimate day), I’d already seen better than what the cruise had to offer from the bridge or just general random bus travels, but it was still beautiful. If you visit, I’d recommend making it one of the first things to do so that everything else from then on is a ‘wow’ thing.
Cais de Gaia
These were where the wine caves were, as the Portuguese call them, where the world’s best port wines are brewed. You could also travel to these caves via the Teleférico de Gaia (cable car). I visited the Quevedo Wine Cellar and had a taste of a sweet, semi-dry white Port wine which was amazing. To put this into perspective, I actually don’t like wine so for me to taste, then like this, it must have been good. Inspired by that little taste, I got a few takeaways. On the way back from the caves in the cable car, as it would happen, the ghost of Hurricane Katrina decided to test my faith in God, angels and man-made machinery, sending my car swaying precariously from side to side. One of those surreal moments in life where you’re forced to consider your own mortality, against your will, and pray the kind of powerful prayer that helped Elijah stop rain from falling for 3 years, in this case it was the wind. As it happened, the imminent threat of a diabolical death could not hold me captive, and I am here to tell you this tale. E se Jesu (Thank you Jesus in Yoruba for those who don’t know).
Matoshinhos beach. A stunning beach which stretched for miles down the coast almost all the way to the wine cellars. I was told that the walk along it was about 45 minutes, but of course I thought the guy I spoke to must have been exaggerating, and decided the first day I went there to walk all the way down to where the tram route started. The folly of youth. When I reached the tram stop, I was ready to give up like Hagar in the desert. It was blazing hot, and if not for the ice-lollies and ice-creams I binged on on the way down, I probably would have passed out. However, I did get to see the coastline in its entirety and it was sublime. Consequently, I went to the beach everyday :). I varied my route – sometimes I took bus if I wanted the scenic route, or metro if I just wanted to get there quickly.
This is a market but not in the sense that we traditionally think of markets. It was more like the Oxford Street of Bolhão with many shops down a long strip of road, pocketed with countless cafes selling Porto’s specials – cake, cake, cake. On a few occasions I bought a cake called Lanche (literal translation = ‘snack’) and I also ate a Bolo de Arroz (rice cake). The former you could get different variations of – tomato, cheese, ham and cheese. The latter looked like a magdalena cake but was far superior in taste.
Porto is a popular tourist destination not just for its wine, but also because of its many historical buildings. Being located in Trindade as I was, I was within walking distance of mostly all of the great architectural edifices, buildings, stations, and cathedral. So some of the places I ended up visiting were Câmara Municipal do Porto, Torre dos Clérigos, São Bento station, Sé do Porto, etc. One funny story: on my penultimate day, as I was languishing on the front steps of Câmara Municipal do Porto (below), catching that last bit of sun to make sure I tanned enough so that when I got back people would be able to tell I’d been on holiday (you all do it, don’t judge), I ended up in a conversation with a Portuguese man, also catching the sun. As you do. It was a very popular spot for doing that. Thing is, he knew no English, I knew no Portuguese, yet somehow we managed to have a 2 hour conversation overwhelmingly supported with expressive gesticulation, the about 10 Spanish words I know and the 5 he knew, a little French when my English wasn’t getting the point across and I was hoping it was similar to the Portuguese equivalent, and at times mutual acceptance that this particular line of conversation was definitively going to be lost in translation. However, we managed to talk about the weather, Brazil, travelling to Spain and France on fake ID cards (don’t ask), what happens if you don’t have your Portuguese documents, age, family, siblings, the best places in Porto and my braids. I learned a few words in Portuguese to add to the sole three paltry but staple sentences of my stay “eu não entendo” (I don’t understand), “obrigada (f)” (Thank you), and “fala inglês?” (Do you speak English?), and he learned a few words of English to add to the handful he already knew. Words which we probably both forgot immediately after. I know I did. But you know, I felt cultured and sophisticated for having persevered. A bit more than a tourist. I think ‘tourist’ is like a dirty word these days…like ‘illegal immigrant’. Anyway, he was actually a very funny guy.
One thing I noticed in Porto is that café’s were pretty much every other shop, and breakfast is coffee…with cake. Cakes are everywhere. It’s like Percy Ingles galore. It was the only piece of junk I could find in that place apart from McDonald’s (sweets and crisps were as rare to find as precious stones, very frustrating). Ergo I think it’s fair to say that the consumption of cake is an integral part of life there. Obesity isn’t though. Most of the indigenous peoples (anthropologists please let me live) were skinny. I have no pictures of the cakes I’m afraid, I’m that person in England. When I’m abroad, I re-invent myself.
Like I mentioned before, my Portuguese didn’t extend past the essentials and I was actually hard pressed to find any English speakers except from at tourist points…and in McDonald’s. In McDonald’s they all spoke English. You know when you don’t even attempt to ask if they speak English, you just order like you’re around the corner from your house not even trying to speak perfect English to help them understand better? Yep. They had the advanced level linguists up in there. Nevertheless, the lack of English speakers wasn’t really a problem. As long as you know where you’re going and keep your wits about you, it’s very easy to get around. Due to the liberties my travel pass afforded me and pretty much for the sake of it, I decided to visit the very outskirts of Porto, kind of like going to Dartford or Middlesex, and I was fine getting about without having to speak to anyone to ask for directions. Obviously the further out you go from a centre, the less diversity of different language speakers you will find. Sometimes people would speak to me in full-blown Portuguese (say for instance in a supermarket queue) and I’d endure that painful moment of tourist-specific imbecility as the person addressing you comes to the realisation that you don’t comprehend, and unbeknownst to them their conversation has been a soliloquy for quite some time. I really hated that feeling. Especially as people were quite friendly and liked to chat. Some would even then try ‘Do you speak Spanish?’ as a last-ditch attempt (there being a few similarities but not much), but alas I was destined to disappoint in that regard too.
Yay or Nay
Most definitely a ‘yay’. Porto was sublimely picturesque, calm, friendly, and full of lots to do and see. In fact it really reminded me of Valencia which I went to a couple of years ago. Same kind of vibe. As I was only there for short while, I really did as much as I could in that time and to be honest I liked it better that way. But you could easily stay there for a week and not be bored. There is an abundance of places to sit down, relax, and eat, and friendly people. Plus it has one of the easiest to comprehend and effective metro systems I’ve seen in a European city, which makes it so easy to get around.
I haven’t added descriptions to the pictures as that was quite frankly going to be long, but hopefully from the text you can work out what they are. If not, I will be releasing most of them in stages on my Tumblr www.iseeicatch.tumblr.com, so if you have an account, follow, or follow @iSeeiCatch on twitter where they will be tweeted.