The historic town of Porto is Portugal at its charming best, it is classified as a World Heritage Site by Unesco and quite rightly so. Staying at a chateau in the suburban town of Alfena meant that we were roughly about 30 minutes from the city centre. The chateau came with two bedrooms, a den, living, dining areas, kitchen and luxurious en suites. In the compound was a swimming pool that opened up from the living room, tennis courts, garages! The energetic and vibrant owner stayed on the estate in a different building. Apart from the facilities we had access to on the estate were a chicken farm, a vegetable garden, an aviary, and a chapel, all built in the 1500s and equipped with a date-stone in etched in Roman numerics. Sebastian, our host took get efforts to keep us comfortable, and interestingly spoke over 11 languages except for English! So we played charades with him and sometimes with the use of IPAD translations conversed with the man aged over 60 but didnt look past 40. Taking it easy in life sure has its perks! His equally lovely wife indulged us as we posed for pictures in their living room that looked nothing short of an antique museum. Despite the distance the unique experience of staying at the beautiful location with warm hosts more than made up for the hard access. Self-driving to the city seemed like a great idea till we bumped into traffic snarls at Porto!
The train from Alfa to Porto’s Sao Bento station is easy and convenient. Having read much about the Portugese art on the walls of Sao Bento I kept my eyes peeled to take in the art. The blue art work on the walls is very Portugese and soon realised that the whole town was decorated such. Walking through the streets the European proportions catch one’s eye. But by large there is a difference in execution. As buildings huddle next to each other the narrow cobble-stoned streets show great respect to the pedestrian, the ‘Tripeiros’ as Porto citizens are called rarely honk at a slow-coach pedestrian! It served me well as I kept staring into the facades of the buildings that looked completely different from each other in their make. Though there are several references to Haussmanns Paris, the facades of each building are treated much differently making the entire street much like a rigmarole. Possibly the sailors of Porto travelled far and wide, absorbing much of the places they travelled to and later put their unique experiences onto the facades of their homes. The patterns on tiles, the design of grills or even the treatment of balconies varied door to door. Add to the fact that all the buildings seem to reflect the attitude of the people and have no qualms of showing off their signs of ageing, whilst taking it easy!
The closeness of the River Duoro, the river of Porto and the Atlantic Ocean are reminded on the streets of Porto by lovely sea-gulls showing off their magnificent wing-spans. A friend likened them to crows of India, but witnessing their white soaring wings against the blue blue sky I wouldnt have the heart to say so!!
On a rocky terrain the hike up and down the city has one burning up all the Portugese diet on the menu. And the crisp winter air does turn one’s nose a bright red. But the walk down to the river is worth the walk infact, doing a walk-about is extremely rewarding as the sights of the city unfold. On the other side of the river is the Cais de Gaia or the district of Gaia. The new, hip neighbourhood of Porto. While taverns and cellars dot the river-side, the famous Porto wine is brought in from the Douro Valley and watering holes along the river do their bit in promoting the Portugese culture. A couple of boats line up along the river to showcase the transportation. A river cruise of the Douro can allow one to appreciate the rocky texture of the city from afar. Their seems to be an order in the chaos. Several bridges or ‘Ponte’s’ connect the two river banks on several levels. By now I realised that the Portugese learnt very well to use their terrain in their cities. Porto the second largest city after Lisbon shows one way of dealing with the terrain while Lisbon exhibits another.
At the cellars one gets to taste a myriad of Portugese wine that are segregated into levels depending on the drinker. The wine-tasting experience is completed with a card specifically personalising an individual’s taste. Wondering why Porto wine is sweet I got a rather disappointing answer. I mean I was certainly looking for something more fancy than the, “its mixed with brandy”! Well with that the charm of Porto wine broke for me but nevertheless my fellow travellers seemed to love the wine. Even for a teetotaller the whole experience of a wine cellar was rather dreamy and exciting. The four steps to tasting the fermented grape juice is a whole science in itself and a rather bright career choice I am told.
Along with the watering holes in Cais de Gaia are restaurants that play up to the hype and even better than that roasted chestnut sellers on the street. They were for me the best things I got to eat in Portugal. The roasted chestnuts are sprinkled with salt and make for excellent snacking variety in the cool winter sun. For lunch I stuck with buttered boiled veggies and french fries. Well my only other choice was the ever so available cheese omelette, but give me french toast, give me boiled eggs am so not an omelette person. *crinkling my nose* And yes the amazing varieties of cheese. At this point I may well warn you to administer the amount of cheese cause you may end up with an aversion after the trip.
Taking on the convenient Red Bus city sightseeing tours, speeds up one’s trip time and allows you to see more or atleast choose your sights. Cafe Majestic, the museums and shopping can easily be covered on this bus. Next up was the Casa de Musica, the building by Rem Koolhaas for the performance arts. Koolhaas provides a major plaza in front of the building where teens and young people skateboard, bicycle and exhibit revolutionary skill level and control on anything with wheels. On the same plaza a music teacher orchestrates an impromptu performance with students of all ages and all kinds of instruments. The passing and stopping crowds including us made for an enthralled audience. I loved the building and did a bit of snooping indoors. Koolhaas rocks the interiors with stainless steel and engages the world outside through breaks and frames in the building.
Driving by the new part of the city, there are many houses that catch one’s attention, most probably built by the legendary Eduardo Souto de Moura. No prizes for guessing who my new favourite in the architecture world is. The sense of scale, proportion and measure is explored extremely well and walking through his buildings one can see how he deservedly was given the Pritzker Prize.
The beach had hardly any takers, given the cool waters but did make a setting to sit by. The most amazing thing to do in Porto is to take a walk, in the Park, on the bridges, on the streets, in the pavilions, across the museums, the galleries and possibly everywhere you can! Its one of those places that can largely be covered by foot and where you dont want to be stuck in a snarl, especially given the terrain! The museums usually hold events, the museum of wine had a special tasting event when we were there and getting hold of free passes may be a good idea.
Each morning and almost always when hungry I would say go for the egg tarts, they may not be as good as the one’s in say Macau, or even Goa, but they probably are original! Sometimes the fusion versions in good taste so much better I tell you. Same in the case of (Indian) Chinese 😉
The train service from Porto to Lisbon is fantastic and like the Husband rightly pointed out they use the technology that keeps the cabin straight irrespective of the bends or angles!
Porto is much like any heritage town, so full of surprises and so full of amazing people. It may be one of those places that could be captured much better in a picture, cause words just dont seem enough!