Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Portugal: Porto, City of Food and Wine

Gustave Eiffel's Dom Luis I Bridge, as seen looking toward Porto from the Vila Nova de Gaia side.
 The top level of the 1880s bridge is used only by pedestrians and a light rail line.
 The bottom level is for pedestrians and vehicular traffic
   Although I had never consumed much port wine nor particularly enjoyed it when I did, I've long been interested in Porto. Perhaps it's the combination of geography and wine: grapes are grown upstream along the banks of the Douro River. Much of the wine that comes from them is taken downstream to Porto to be fortified as port wine, which is then exported worldwide. Not all the Duoro wines become port; there are reds, whites and roses sold as regular (unfortified) wines. These, especially the reds, I have liked for a long time.
     Porto is also intriguing because trade in port long ago made the town very wealthy, wealth that can be seen in street after street of baroque buildings. Areas to explore include both sides of the river, the city itself on the Porto side and the other side (Vila Nova de Gaia, which is not part of the city of Porto) with its port wine lodges -- if you drink port you'll recognize a few of the names -- and a gondola that provides amazing views of both sides of the river and the iconic Dom Luis I Bridge that connects them.

For the itinerary of our April 2017 Portugal trip
and links to hotels, click HERE

     Despite its steep hills, this compact city of about 300,000 is quite walkable. We were there April 7 to 11, a Friday to a Tuesday. On that Sunday morning we took a bus to see the celebrated Casa da Musica, the modern auditorium designed by Rem Koolhaas. We bought tickets to return that night for a 9:30 concert by British jazz pianist and singer Anthony Strong.  From the auditorium it was a long but pleasant enough walk to the Serralves Contemporary Art Museum. Unfortunately, a Miro exhibition there was so popular that the lines were extremely long. We gave up on getting in and instead kept walking until we reached the city's beachfront area, Foz do Douro (mouth of the Douro),where shady streets lined with the homes of the affluent slope downhill to beaches, rock outcroppings and oceanfront restaurants. We found a place for lunch -- grilled octopus is always a good bet in Portugal -- and walked along the beach before taking an old-fashioned streetcar back to the riverfront near our hotel and the Luis I Bridge.

A few notes of a fado performance
  at Casa da Guitarra in Porto.    

       We stayed at 6Only, a 12-unit guesthouse, convenient to the upper lever of the Dom Luis I Bridge, to the funicular that goes down to the riverbank and the bridge's lower level, and to the Casa da Guitarra, a guitar and music store that presents fado performances daily at 6 p.m. in a concert format in a small listening room across the street from the store.  We had missed out on fado in Lisbon, so we were happy to have a chance in Porto to attend this performance with two guitarists and a singer. The guitars are plucked, not strummed, and the vocalizations can seem almost operatic at times. The performance was delightful, though this music is traditionally melancholy; lyrics often reflect resignation to the poverty and premature deaths of fishermen and seafarers, as well as a longing for something better.
     Since we are tourists, we did two very touristy things. We took a doubledecker Yellow Bus tour of the city, and we took a boat ride on the Douro.  Both were enjoyable.  Earbuds aboard the bus let you hear about what you're seeing, but loudspeaker narration on the boat, in Portuguese and English, was incomprehensible.
     Porto is like Disneyland for drinkers. Besides the port tasting rooms, there are sidewalk cafes on both sides of the river and, in Porto, well inland, too.  One we particularly enjoyed was the Wine Quay Bar (click HERE),  on a walkway above the riverfront promenade, where we stopped in a couple of times.  The menu is tapas and, as always in Portugal, the ham is a good bet, as are the cheeses. The wine list is good, too.  It offers indoor seating, but the best seats are along the walkway out front, looking out over the river. Especially in the late afternoon, sea gulls are a menace, swooping down to steal bread and other foods right off your plate. The staff hands out water pistols but I never saw anyone actually deter a bird with one. We suffered two raids (the staff replaces the stolen food) but declined the offer of a table inside. As it gets later, the gulls aren't a problem.
      A similar spot is even closer to the river, a bit upstream on the other side of the Dom Luis I Bridge (still on the Porto side), called A Bolina (click HERE).  Again, red wine, ham, cheese and happiness, which seems to be what Porto is all about. The lifestyle here is a thing of beauty: interesting venues for live music, sidewalk cafes, riverfront strolls, amazing architecture, beautiful beaches, and, of course, wonderful food and wines.
      On the way from Obidos to Porto, we pulled off the highway at the town of Alcobaca to visit its famous monastery, which was completed in 1153. Its church, 350 feet long and the largest in Portugal, is severely plain on the inside and made of huge blocks of granite. The church is the final resting place of King Pedro I, who died in 1367, and his wife, Ines de Castro. The young Pedro's father, Alfonso IV, disapproved of Pedro's romance with Ines and may have been unaware that they had secretly married when he ordered her murder in 1355. When Pedro assumed the throne five years later, he had Ines posthumously recognized as a queen. When Pedro died after seven years on the throne, the two were reunited: both now rest in beautifully carved tombs at the front of the church.
     Here are some photos from Alcobaca, then photos from Porto.
The unadorned sanctuary at Mosteiro de Alcobaca. Only about the first third
of it has seating.  

The 14th-century tomb of Pedro I.

The monastery's domitory. 

The monastery's refectory.

The church facade at Mosteiro de Alcobaca.
A port tasting at Portugal's oldest port maker, Kopke. A different chocolate was suggested for
each port. Jane preferred the tawny, which reminds me of Madeira wine, which I like,
 without being as good. I preferred the fine white port so much that I came home with a bottle of it.
White port is consumed cold; the others at room temperature.

The elegant Sao Bento train station was just a few blocks from our hotel.
 It's no longer the main station in Porto, but it has the more convenient location.
 Trains using this station also stop at the newer and larger Campanha station,
 which has many more trains.

A slice of beach at Foz do Doura.

A cafe near the Lopke port lodge on the Vila Nova de Gaia
side of the river, which means that that's Porto on the other side.

Stairs lead down from streets at the top level of the
Dom Luis I Bridge to the streets at the lower level.
On the other side of the river are the port lodges
of Vila Nova de Gaia.

The Funicular dos Guindais in Porto runs between the street at the lower level of the
Dom Luis I Bridge to streets near the end of the upper level. The stone face at right
gives some idea of the rocky terrain that Porto is built on.

Apartment buildings often have shallow balconies. These are along
the river in Porto.

A gondola connects the streets at the upper end of the Dom Luis I Bridge in Vila Nova de Gaia
with wine lodges along the riverbank. Porto is across the river.

A streetcar driver waits for a passenger to board. We took
this car from the Foz do Douro beaches back
to the riverfront near the Dom Luis I Bridge.

The old parts of Porto are a warren of narrow streets
and steep passageways with stairs. 

Rem Koolhaas's Casa da Musica in Porto.

The inside is just as angular as the exterior.

The Casa da Musica auditorium can be customized for different types of performances.
 Note the tiered seats behind the stage. The glass is actually a window to the outside;
 another window wall is at the rear of the auditorium. Before a performance starts, a special curtain is lowered
 to cover the glass for the sake of acoustics. The audience sits in individual seats with armrests
 that share a back that runs the width of the auditorium. If you're in the middle,
you better not have to leave during a performance.

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