13 August 2013

Short trip to Porto

Recently I was lucky enough to have a mini break up in Porto with one of my best friends from the UK, who nipped over for a few days in the sun.  We got a great deal at the Sheraton Hotel and Spa in the Boavista area of the city and I got e.tickets from www.cp.pt for 55 euros each return – not bad for a journey of 2 hours and 44 minutes considering the extortionate rates people have to pay in the UK.  The train we chose was the Alpha Pendular, which is about 20 minutes faster than the Intercity version. 

Santa Apolonia Station in Lisbon

The e.ticket states your carriage number and seat allocation so finding your place was very easy.  The interior of the train was clean and more like a plane with comfortable seats and folding tables.  We were next to the buffet car but there was also a trolley service with various snacks and drinks and a steward also came round asking people if they wanted lunch and then it was delivered (hot) to your seat.  Very impressive.  Obviously, as is the way of all travel, the snacks etc are not cheap but they fill a hole if you want them.

The interior of the Alpha Pendular

We set off bang on time and above the doorways you can see the usual next station information but alongside that, was the speed of the train.  The Alpha Pendular is a fast train – I mean fast.  At one point we hit 230kph (142mph).  Although there was a bit of a roll, it was nothing like First Great Western in the UK at a much lower (practically stationary) speed.  We passed through some beautifully blue tiled rural stations as well as more rustic ones which looked quite sad in comparison.

The countryside was interesting as it changed from urban to rural constantly. Railway type cottages next to the line, vast areas of agriculture with cows, sheep, goats, horses etc.  There were wonderful olive trees with massive trunks, fruit trees laden with fruit, fabulous villas, sprawling farms, curious ruins with colourful climbing vines over them, church towers, abandoned factories - something different every kilometre.  In no time we arrived at Porto Campanha station.  A quick, and rather hair raising (even with my experience) trip by taxi to the hotel and we were in Porto.

Porto Campanha Station

We checked in and were given an upgrade giving us use of the Club facilities. Issued with our ‘key’ – our luggage having been mysteriously whipped away – we headed for the all glass lifts.  Now it has been quite some time since I stayed in a Sheraton and technology has moved on dramatically.  The ‘key’ (think credit card) has to be inserted into a slot in the lift and removed quickly and then you hit the button for the floor you want.  Well, we played with this for a bit and then got the wrist movement right and successful hit the 10th floor.  The same wrist action was required to use the ‘key’ to get into the room where our luggage was already in place.

I was a bit taken aback at the glass wall between the bedroom and bathroom and it took some investigating to work out how to drop and close the blind on it as neither of us fancied seeing each other’s lumps and bumps in the bathroom. We had the usual robes, slippers, toiletries etc but no tea and coffee making facilities in the room. The room service menu and prices of the stuff in the mini fridge were extortionate but we were happy with the inclusive breakfast and free Club facilities instead.

The double bed version of our twin-bedded room - note the view into the bathroom!

The map of Porto issued by the hotel and the tourist office is unwieldy and pinpoints a vulnerable tourist so I put it away and resorted to asking a local for the nearest metro which involved a bit of a walk. We got off at Trinidade and wandered down to Avenida dos Aliados and looked around the square at the wonderful buildings. Then headed up towards the Torre dos Clerigos – a fantastic tower that is a particular landmark for Porto. We were fortunate enough to be next to the tower at 6.00pm and were treated to a wonderful carillion of bells – apparently this happens at 12.00 and 6.00pm every day so we struck lucky.  We walked and walked and eventually took a taxi to the waterfront as we had been given the name of a little restaurant not far from the Farol de Sao Miguel.  Sadly, being a Monday, it was closed so the taxi driver took us back up to Rua do Carmo and we found an absolute jewel of a restaurant. 

The metro

Avenida dos Aliados

Torre dos Clerigos

A Tasquinha (www.atasquinha.com) serves traditional Portuguese food and considering we found it by pure accident, it made such an impression we returned for dinner the next night. The head waiter (whose name I stupidly did not get) was amused at our choice of dishes – I don’t think many tourists go for Favas (a delicious broad bean stew).  I have to say that both meals were some of the best I have ever eaten in Portugal. 

The exterior of the restaurant.  You can enter from the side or from below where the tables and chairs are

The interior of the restaurant

The rather splendid selection of wines

The next day was our only full day so we took advantage of the Yellow Bus Tour (www.yellowbus.com) and as we had bought our tickets at the hotel (22 euros each including river trip), it entitled us to travel on the  local bus into Avenida dos Aliados to pick up the tour.  I have never done one of these tourist bus trips before but cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a ‘hop on, hop off’ tour which allows you to stop and visit anything that takes your fancy and then rejoin. You are issued with free headphones which you plug in and listen to a commentary about the city and its monuments, places of interest etc. The tour took nearly two hours and was fascinating as it was Historical Porto.  You get a really good feel for the city and because you are high up, you get a wonderful view of streets, parks, monuments, the river and the beautiful bridges.  You also get to see the residential areas and there are some beautiful villas – old and new – parks and gardens to see.

The Yellow Bus

A view of Porto from the Vila Nova da Gaia side - Torre dos Clerigos on the skyline

The pretty boats and bridges

When we got back we had a late lunch at a super little tasca – Garota da Baixa in Rua das Flores and made friends with Estela Pereira – a lovely lady who was working there since she had been made redundant from a hotel that had closed down.  A real loss to the hotel industry because she was bright and sparky with excellent English and would be a real addition to tourism.  I really hope she finds a full time job soon.

We then got on the Yellow Bus again and this time we were on the Porto Castles tour.  Again another two hours of interest, this time we went across the river over to Vila Nova da Gaia, where the port wine buildings (and tastings) are and then back along through Foz and Matosinhos where we spotted this beautiful piece of work – the locals call it the Anemone – dedicated to the fishing industry. I would love to see it billowing in a winter wind as although it was fairly windy on the bus, it must be incredible in a real gale. Sadly we ran out of time for the river trip but the four hours touring Porto was so worth the 22 euros.  Things you definitely would not have seen by ourselves in such a short time frame.

The Anemone sculpture

Vila Nova da Gaia frontage

In the evening, after refreshing ourselves back at the hotel in the Club, we went back down to the Ribeiro area to look at the local food fair.  Lots of interesting stalls selling cheeses, wines, handicrafts along with food stalls.  We then had a wander along the front before dinner.

The next day, as we were on the 11.40 Alpha Pendular back to Lisbon, we just lazed around the hotel discussing our impressions of Porto and how much we had enjoyed the whole short trip.  I certainly thought there had been a big improvement since I last visited (2002).  The riverfront is full of interesting buildings, cafes, restaurants, the original tram also still runs down here and up into the centre, a helipad for flights over the city, boat trips up the river to see the sights and the bridges. On the Vila Nova da Gaia side there was also a Teleferico de Gaia (looked like good fun but we did not have time) On the other hand, similar to Lisbon, there is a lot of retail outlets that are empty and rundown and I felt the streets could have been a bit cleaner but all in all, it is well worth a trip and I hope it won’t be too long before I return.

The Teleferico de Gaia

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