Friday, October 10, 2008

Port, Porto, Portugal. Nice.

So our Southern European experience started with staying up till 1am, catching a bus across London to catch another bus across London and eventually getting to the airport by 4:30 for our 6:30am flight to Porto... where we arrived in the middle of a serious storm, heavy rains, strong winds, bit of turbulence on the flight, and a very hairy landing [so much so that the entire plane applauded the pilot when he managed to nail it]... but by lunchtime the rain had stopped, the winds died down, and the sun was certainly out shining. And it hasn't left since.
Porto is a fantastic city. Very hilly, so it was a bit of a sharp re-introduction to our walk-everywhere style of tourism after being settled in London for so long, but also made for a much more interesting landscape than the flat-as-a-pannekoeken cities we have been used to. Our hostel was half way up one of the many tiny, narrow, steep streets, and was also one of the best we have stayed in so far.
The feature which dominates the Porto skyline is the Igreja dos Clérigos, with it's 75m tall tower. We scaled the 225 narrow windy steps [how many of those have we climbed up now??] and got an amazing view of the city. The church itself was very cool as well, though probably the most surprising thing about it was the fact that there was absolutely no one else around, probably the first church we have been in where there was no 'security' watching over us, making sure we didn't touch anything we shouldn't. Also felt a bit odd that there were no other tourists around, we're well out of the main tourism season now, but as we sweated our way up and down the streets in 26º weather I had to wonder why other people didn't have the same idea... still, not to complain!
The other prime feature of Porto is, of course, the port! The entire south bank of the river Douro [which cuts the city in half] is covered with the homes of all the major port houses, some of which have been operating for well over 300 years on the same land. So it just would have been rude if we didn't go take a look [and while you're there, you might as well have a taste too!] Almost all the houses offer at least a small sampler for free, though some of them require that you walk half way up a small mountain to get to their entrance first. The most impressive location by far was Taylors, who have a beautiful garden and terrace with spectacular views of the city over the river. They also gave us a free tour, where we got quite educated on the ways of port production... and the taste! Most interesting: white port, almost unobtainable outside Portugal, available in sweet or dry, served before a meal as an aperatif [not afterwards, as a digestive, as red port is], and always ice cold.
One thing that really struck us about Porto was the internal contradictions. From a distance, the city is quintessential Southern European style, with aforementioned narrow streets, cobbled roads, terracotta roofing, pretty yellow and pink stucco walls, and stereotypically Portuguese mosaic tiling. And for a large number of buildings, this impression is accurate. But we were just amazed at how many dilapidated, collapsed, wobbly, disintegrating buildings there were, all over the city, from the heart of the city centre to the suburbs, and even nestling between the elaborate port houses on the river bank. It was as if the concepts of building standards and civic pride didn't exist, because absolutely nothing was being done in terms of repair or, in the alternative, completing demolition. It gave the city a really strange feel, though certainly added to the overall character.
As a random aside: I also think Porto must have the highest number of shoe shops per capita in the world...
Other sights: Cathedral: oldest surviving structure in Porto, and very impressive from the outside, though, like the rest of Europe, it was under reconstruction, and we couldn't look inside.
Igreja Santa Clara: a completely random find, it's exterior is hidden behind some town walls, but we wandered down anyway, and were completely blown away. The church itself dates from the 15th century, but the interior was replaced with what is now one of the finest examples of Portuguese gilding and woodwork - even after all the churches we've seen so far, this one would have to be the most elaborate, intricate carving yet, and unbelievably dark and imposing.
City walls: we couldn't figure out how to actually get to them, but there are some very cool remains of original city fortifications still standing...
Dom Luis I bridge: built in 1886, when it had the record for longest iron arch in the world... It has two levels, cars and buses use the lower level, pedestrians and the 'metro' [otherwise known as overgrown trams] cross the upper. Very cool views up and down the river, and made us not the smallest bit nostalgic for a bit of bungy jumping!
Mangy cats: ok, so not really a sight, but this city had the largest number of homeless/mangy/ feral looking cats of any we have seen. Maybe they're not homeless at all, but each have an abandoned dilapidated house to live in?

Anyway, we really enjoyed the city, the sights, the hills and the port :) .... next stop: big smoke Lisbon.

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