If you followed our epic four and a half month trip last year – our first trip abroad as newbie motorhomers – you might remember we’ve been to Porto before. Last year’s day trip was an amazing day but it was so hot that we really couldn’t do much; just walking down the street was too exhausting. We promised ourselves a further visit as soon as we could, and therein lies the problem with Porto.
We’d learned from experience so this time we had a taxi waiting to take us to the metro station at Mindelo. Our fingers flew across the screen like veteran travellers ordering our tickets, and we had the exact change too. No help was needed from the kindly stationmaster this time. The Porto Metro system is clean, fast, regular and, well… everything a metro should be really, depositing us right in the centre at Trindade giving us easy access to all the attractions.
We had a long list of all the places we missed last time so off we went in search of the Torre dos Clérigos which is a 76m tall tower attached to a church. It offers fantastic views over the city if you’re man (or woman) enough to climb the 240 narrow winding steps. Well I say we went in search, but not until we’d stopped off for a coffee and more of those lovely Portuguese custard tarts – the Pasteis da Nata – and this is another part of the problem with Porto.
The Ingreja dos Clérigos, the church adjoining the tower was gorgeous; ornate and full of twisting passages behind the scenes which allowed views down into the body of the church which we’ve never seen anywhere else. We were fortunate as the organist was having a practice as we arrived so we were able to sit in the pews and enjoy some deep, spine-tingling chords from the huge pipe-organ. Luckily it wasn’t the work experience lad playing this time – unlike our experience in Dinant, Belgium last summer! The climb up the tower was a bit tricky as the stairway was very narrow – lucky I’m so slim (stop laughing up the back there!) or it would have been difficult to pass folks going in the opposite direction. The views over the city were amazing. 76m doesn’t sound too high but the tower is also at the top of a hill; Porto is very hilly, so below us we could see the winding River Douro with its river cruisers plying their trade, and the astonishing double-decker Luis I Bridge with trains on top and cars & pedestrians on the deck below. Across the river we could see all the famous port warehouses in the district of Vila Nova de Gaia where we planned to stroll later.
From the tower we could see Porto’s Cathedral so that’s where we headed next. Porto is such a city of contrasts – I think last time I said ‘the contrasts were striking; the beautiful ornate facade of a thirteenth century church would be joined on one side to an old 5-storey warehouse with rusty corrugated iron patches to keep the rain out, and on the other by a modern boutique selling designer shoes. It made us dizzy.’ On the walk to the Cathedral we followed our noses and found ourselves stepping from the buzz of the busy shopping streets into virtual silence between tall tenements with flaking paint and washing hanging out of the windows. Some of the characters we passed looked like they had fallen on hard times and others… well you wouldn’t want to bump into them after dark, let’s say. I should stress that we didn’t feel threatened in any way but it all added to the local colour, which is what makes this city so fascinating.
The Cathedral was a bit of a flying visit. It’s a solid, rather than soaring building which we found was like so many churches here in Portugal; the cash seems to have been saved for the altar rather than the fabric of the building. Gold-painted intricate carvings look all the more ornate with a backdrop of (to my uneducated gaze) plain architecture. Built, like the Torre dos Clérigos (you can tell I like saying that can’t you…) on a hill, the views from the steps of the Cathedral gave us yet another dramatic perspective on the city.
And this is where the problem with Porto took hold again. We really meant to go and see some more sights, honestly. But it was lunchtime, and the stroll down to the river from the Cathedral made us so thirsty… We had lunch overlooking the river and to be honest that was the only sour note of the day. Right in the heart of the tourist area the restaurants didn’t have to try too hard. Indifferent service, bland food and a mistake with our order which was just shrugged away, left us a little disappointed. So much so that we decided to have dessert a little further along the river’s busy promenade. Actually we didn’t plan to have dessert at all, just a glass of vinho tinto but the nice lady brought us both an irresistable slice of a sticky, nutty tart so it was only polite to order a bottle rather than a glass.
So our afternoon was spent people-watching (when did beards become a thing? And don’t get me started on man-buns…) All life was there; young families with parents shepherding their children away from the water’s edge, elderly couples strolling arm-in-arm enjoying the late-afternoon sun, groups of chattering teenagers, business-people striding determinedly around the bloomin’ tourists – don’t you know there’s work to be done, promotions to be won? Our afternoon was further enhanced by a couple of fellas with an electric violin and an acoustic bass in the café next door. Their harmonising gravelly voices provided the perfect backdrop to our lazy afternoon.
And THAT my friends is the problem with Porto. We’re just going to have to go back there again, and again. And maybe, hopefully, one day we’ll see you there too.